Excerpt – Dream Chaser

Chapter 1

Not again. Suzanna Wallace stared, her heart aching. No more. “You wanted to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary at the beach. To renew our vows, you said. But you’re on the phone—every day, talking to that woman. Twice today.”

Brad frowned. “She’s my paralegal, Suzanna. A business call.”

“Not for billable hours, it wasn’t.” Her voice dead calm, belying her growing anger, she shook her head. “She’s your latest lover, isn’t she? Why, Brad? Why do you deny it? You pay more attention to other women than you do to me.” She glanced nervously at his fists and edged out of range.

“Suzanna…” His voice held that dangerous tone she knew so well.

“I’m so tired of your lies—and your lovers. No, don’t touch me! I want a divorce. As soon as we get home.” She’d dared to say it, what she’d been thinking but been afraid to expose to the light of day. Her nerves frayed, she picked at the edge of her blouse. At least she’d managed to get the words out.

Her husband’s thinning hair stood out in a grotesque sandy halo in the afternoon light. His impatient pacing, a clear sign his fury was building, suddenly ceased. His gray eyes locked on her and he lunged.

Before she could duck, his knuckles caught the side of her face, his law school ring slashed her cheek. She gasped and backed away. He grasped her arms in the vise of his meaty hands and his mouth twisted into an ugly scowl.

“Lovers? You can’t prove it. And, they’d never support your claim. No divorce. We have to keep up appearances.” He panted as if trying to catch his breath. “If you try, I’ll make sure you get nothing. Think about that when you’re watching your soaps.”

Brad had always insisted Suzanna stay home, never work. She shook her head, wishing she could wash away her humiliation that he was right. She had no professional skills. Her shoulders slumped, defeated in the face of his arrogant taunting.

He gasped again, his voice now hoarse. “Doesn’t matter what you—” His eyes widened then stared in blank surprise as his body canted sideways. His hands fell away from her arms and his head grazed the edge of the dining room table. He landed heavily on his left side.
Suzanna watched as beads of sweat popped out on his face. He gulped like a newly-landed fish. “Brad?” She moved closer. What was happening? His lips slowly turned from pink to a pasty white then to a dusky blue.

His only response was a half-hearted groan. She stared at him, her pulse racing, her feet seemingly rooted to the floor. “Oh my God.” Had she killed him? She turned on her heel, ran to the phone and dialed 9-1-1. “My husband. He just collapsed. Hit his head. Please hurry!”
After providing the address, Suzanna raced outside and frantically looked up and down the beach. So many people had been there—during and after yesterday’s wedding festivities. She saw only two small boys, their laughter barely audible above the crashing of the surf. They were flying kites: one, shaped like a fish with oversized red and yellow scales, swooped and soared before dive-bombing the kite with crescent moons in different colors.

Her heart thumped in her chest as Suzanna ran to the beach cottage next door. No one answered her frenzied knocking. No luck at the next two houses, either. She tried to ignore her panicky gasps as she raced toward the fourth house, so much farther down the beach road. Then she saw the cottage door open and a young couple emerges, followed by an older man. He opened the rear door of a stretch limousine and waited as the couple climbed in.

People! Thank God!

Suzanna stumbled once, twice, and forced herself to catch her breath before running again. When she looked up, a younger man stood in the doorway. “Wait.” The man near the driver’s door glanced at her.

“Help me,” she gasped. “Please.”

“What is it?” His deep voice was an ocean of calm in the face of her panic.

A woman’s voice from inside the car said, “Dad, we need to go.”

The other man gestured to the people in the limousine. “You go on. The plane’s waiting.” He trotted toward Suzanna. She nearly collapsed in his arms as the car lumbered off.

“My husband,” she blurted. “He’s hurt. Maybe a heart attack.”

“Where?”

“Guest cottage,” she panted. “Fourth one down.”

“Did you call 9-1-1?”

She nodded.

“We’ll take my car. Climb in.” As soon as she was seated in the sports car, he wheeled it around and sped down the beach road, arriving just before an ambulance pulled up and two paramedics climbed out. Suzanna directed them into the dining room. Brad lay sprawled on the floor where she’d left him, spittle oozing out of the side of his mouth. His unfocused eyes were half open. She put her hands to her mouth to stifle a scream.

“I should have introduced myself. Neil Kingsley.” The young man guided Suzanna into the kitchen and over to a chair.
“I should be in there.” She pointed.

“Let the pros do their job.” Neil glanced in their direction. Suzanna leaned past him enough to see one EMT checking Brad’s pulse. The other one was administering CPR.

Neil scooted his chair in front of her, blocking her view.

“Is he dying?” she asked, afraid of the answer.

“They’re working on him. You are?”

“Suzanna Wallace.” Her hands shook. She listened to the staccato comments of the paramedics. But their words made no sense.
“Let me drive you to the hospital. Where they’ll take him.”

Suzanna’s hands and feet tingled and she imagined herself watching from somewhere near the ceiling as the EMTs worked on her husband. Her heart continued to thunder in her chest and she licked her lips, feeling light-headed.

The sandy-haired young man gazed at her. “Are you okay? You’re really pale.” He reached out as if to touch her arm.
She sat there, her throat dry. The room started to spin.

“Mrs. Wallace?”

A voice sounded from far away. She felt herself start to slide as a strange buzzing filled her ears.

“You’re going into shock. Let’s get you down on the floor. Put your head between your knees.”
Who was that?

Moments later, someone—she wasn’t sure who—moved a wand of something foul-smelling under her nose and she jerked back to greater awareness. “We’ll take her in the ambulance.” Someone helped her up and walked her out to the ambulance, following the gurney on which Brad was strapped.

They reached the hospital after what seemed an eon, but her watch told her barely ten minutes had passed before she was seated in a waiting room.

The young man who had brought her back to the cottage took a seat next to her. She looked at him. “I don’t think I know you.”

“Neil Kingsley.”

“Oh. Right.” Hadn’t he told her that already?

“My dad took my sister and her husband to the airport or he would have stayed.”

She remembered him. Tall.

“How tall is he?”

“Six four. What about your family? Can I call someone for you?”

Her lap was empty. “I must have left my purse at the cottage. I need to call Penny, my daughter, and Kevin.” She gulped. “My son.”
“You can use my cell.”

She looked down at the strange phone, and ran a hand past her cheek and into her windblown short hair. Why couldn’t she remember their numbers? She looked toward the swinging doors through which they had wheeled Brad. They must still be working on him. Wasn’t that a good sign? “I’ll call them later.” She returned his phone.

Neil patted her hand.

~ ~ ~

Hours later, Suzanna waved to him as he drove away from the beach cottage, her friend, Margaret’s place. Suzanna huddled under the blankets and dialed Kevin.

“… No, I’m fine, but Darling, your dad had a heart attack.”

“Is he okay?”

She gulped. “He died, sweetie.”

Kevin was silent for a long minute. “I’ll meet you at the airport. Just tell me when you’re coming back. Want me to call Penny?”
“I’m calling her next.” She choked back the sob that threatened, hung up and speed-dialed her daughter.

“Penny, listen to me.” She waited for her daughter’s near hysterical sobs to lessen. “There’s no point cutting short your business trip. I still don’t know how long before they release… before they let me bring your father home.”

She shivered in the aftermath of her announcements to her grown children as she peered out the windows at the beach. Her previous trips to the beach had always been with the children, rarely with Brad. So many times, she’d sat on the sand, watching the children play, or enjoying the sun on her own when, as teens, they had sought out their own friends. Always before, the sounds of the waves, the cries of the birds, had soothed away her Brad-induced hurts. She’d been alone except for the presence of the children. Lonely, but safe. Not like now.
Brad was dead. Because they’d argued? Maybe she should have accepted his initial denial. He so hated to be challenged.

He’d always bullied her into sullen silence when she questioned his absences, his lateness after work. Now he was gone. Over the years, he’d developed a paunch and rarely exercised. Didn’t his father have heart disease? But Brad’s father had lived into his seventies. She’d tried to get Brad to cut out the extra helpings when his waist had thickened. But, she, too, had added pounds over the years. Maybe she really had killed him.

~ ~ ~

Two days after Brad’s death, Suzanna was still walking through a mental quicksand, the suddenness of his death holding her in a quagmire of guilt mixed with relief he couldn’t hurt her anymore. She sat on the porch of the beach house, staring at the waves, their constancy hypnotic as they receded from the shore and then slid in her direction, edging closer.

Suzanna slipped out of her sandals, rose from the chair and headed toward the wave-dampened sand. She walked into the wind that dried her tear-stained cheeks. Others had traveled the beach before her. Someone with a long stride walking next to what must be a large dog, its footprints leaving deep indentations.

She picked up her pace, feeling the need to move, to fight the wind that held her back, as it sought to push her toward the cottage where so much had happened, a cottage she couldn’t stand to be near. When she slowed to catch her breath, she saw other marks, large elongated triangular indentations and a smaller almost squarish dent behind each of the larger prints. The wind shifted momentarily and blew her hair into her eyes before she again turned into the salt-tinged breeze.

Puzzled by the unusual prints preceding her, she continued her jog up the beach, pounding steadily down the long spit of land, certain the fear demons would devour her if she stopped running. Soon a dull ache in her side combined with the fire in her lungs and forced her to slow. But she didn’t dare move into the softer sand that held her back and mirrored the way she had felt that day at the hospital, unable to catch her breath as she fought to survive her shock in the hours after Brad’s collapse.

She was still panting, her pulse a too-fast throb, when she saw a man stretched out on a log, tooled leather boots on his feet, a Stetson covering his face. Those strange footprints were his? But who wears cowboy boots on the beach?

She stopped several feet away, not wanting to disturb him. He looked to be asleep, his hat hiding his face, his muscular arms crossed over his chest and dusted with golden hairs so much lighter than those on Brad’s thick arms. Why did I notice that? His chest moved slowly, evenly. Those arms looked powerful. Was he like Brad, would he lash out, enjoying intimidating others?

She backed up a step when he stirred then rose off the log, swinging one long leg over as if dismounting. He shoved his hat back on his head, revealing blond hair with shots of silver just above his ears and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. The barest hint of aftershave wafted in her direction. Woodsy. Like what her father had worn.

When he glanced her way, she remembered…the man who’d driven the limousine. The hint of a smile shimmered in the light.

“Hello,” he said, in a deep rumble that made her insides tremble. “I hope I didn’t startle you. Aren’t you Suzanna Wallace?”

She nodded.

“My sympathies. I heard about your husband.” His eyes, laser-like, seemed to pierce her heart.

“I guess everyone around here must know by now.” Could he tell her sorrow was mixed with anger and guilt she couldn’t seem to escape—even when she ran until she couldn’t run anymore?

“Your face—” His hand reached out as if to touch her left cheek, now bruised and swollen, and dropped to his side when she retreated a step.

“I slipped,” she explained, her face heating at the lie. But she couldn’t tell anyone. When the nightmare scene of her fight with Brad returned, she wobbled on her feet.

His hands came up and grasped her arms to steady her then dropped away again when she gasped and her mouth twisted in a grimace from the still-tender bruises.

She blinked at him and rubbed her right arm with her left hand, her rings sparkling in the sun. “My arms are sore.”

“From when you slipped? I’m sorry.” His head cocked to one side and his mouth quirked crookedly. “I’m Jonathan Kingsley. Here for my daughter’s wedding. The kids played here almost every summer. Why Chrissie insisted on a beach wedding.”

Memories flooded her. “Chrissie.” She remembered a mischievous little girl, always making sand castles with little flags stuck in the turrets.

“Their grandmother usually brought them, sometimes with one of my cousins.”

That’s right. Hadn’t Margaret said the Kingsleys were divorced? Margaret knew everyone at home, at the beach. “You have a son, too. Neil.”

“That would be him.” He glanced again at her face. “I had to see my daughter off the other day before returning the limo. Even so, if I’d realized what had happened, I would have stayed to help you.”

“Your son was so kind. He took me to the hospital and…” She had to look away. “Then he brought me back to the cottage.” She tried to smile and felt the tug of stiff muscles on one side of her face. Would she ever smile again? “Congratulations on your daughter’s wedding.”
Jonathan looked toward the sea for a moment before his face turned somber and his eyes darkened. “I suppose every father feels no man is good enough for his precious girl.”

“I’d probably feel the same about my son—but he’s still in college. No special lady in his life. At least not yet.” Her heart fluttered when she thought of her children. Would she feel the same if Penny got married—her career-oriented daughter who scoffed whenever someone asked her about marriage and children? Penny was always saying she needed no man and certainly no children. They would slow her career-building.
The man turned in her direction again. “Are you okay to walk back to your cottage? Mine is closer if you need to rest.”

“Thanks, but I’m okay.” She began to retrace her steps slowly, certain that she could never keep up with his long-legged stride. “I just needed some air—to think.”

“You must have lots on your mind.” His voice took on a sympathetic timbre, as if he knew what lay ahead of her, arranging for Brad’s body to be flown home, planning the funeral, having to tell everyone once she arrived home, unless Kevin had already done that.

She stooped and picked up a shell, tracing its smooth edges with one finger. “If I had my choice, I’d leave it all behind and just go away.” She squinted into the sun in his direction.

“If you’re ever in Montana, stop by. My door’s always open.” His caring smile returned, warming her.
“You hardly know me.”

“We’re beach neighbors. My son remembered your children, from years ago, when you were here. He said your little boy followed him around and waved whenever Neil was kite boarding.” He pulled a business card from a chest pocket and handed it to her. “That number always answers—even when I’m not there. Feel free to call if you’re ever in the area. I’m sorry, again, about your husband, Mrs. Wallace.” He grabbed his hat when the wind threatened to blow it toward the dunes and took off up the beach at a ground-gobbling jog.

She watched as his stride, so free and relaxed, took him quickly down the sand spit. Why had she said she wanted to run away? Except for her trips with the children to Margaret’s cottage, she never travelled. She should have questioned Brad further when he’d suggested this trip. At the time she’d viewed it as his way of making amends after he’d been so nasty at home. But then his bullying had escalated from threats to his fists. Again.

She bit her lower lip, hoping the pain would overcome the ache in her heart, the guilt she felt, the anger, and then—taking her by surprise—the stabs of loneliness, worse now than before.

Hours later, when she walked past the Kingsley cottage, the windows were shuttered against the rising wind and no smoke rose from the chimney. Maybe the handsome Mr. Kingsley had already left. By the time she reached Margaret’s cottage, Suzanna was weeping again.
Who would walk Penny down the aisle? I have to pull myself together. She should call the coroner to learn when Brad’s body would be released. In the space of less than an hour—in the time it took for her to tell him she wanted a divorce and he had so violently rejected the idea—her whole life had changed. She had no idea how she was going to cope. “A shower first,” she muttered to herself. Then I’ll call Margaret, and the coroner.

~ ~ ~

Jonathan looked out at the puffy clouds below the plane. Neil sat next to him, riffling through a magazine.
“How was Mrs. Wallace—that day you helped her?”

His son glanced at him and ran a hand against his military brush cut. “Not good. Terrified, actually. When the paramedics took over, she started to go into shock. I was afraid she was going to pass out.” He shoved the magazine into the seat pocket facing him. “Too bad you were seeing Chrissie and Dan off. We could have used someone else to watch her.”

“What about her face?”

“Her cheeks were red, probably from crying, but she didn’t seem to notice. Why?”

“When I saw her on the beach, she said she’d slipped. I’m guessing against a fist.”

“Could be. The noises I heard the day before the wedding—on my morning run—told me her husband has a temper. Had a temper.” Neil shifted in his seat. “The beach was nice. Glad Chrissie picked it for her wedding. Too bad you never came.”

Jonathan shrugged. “It was your time with your grandmother.”

“Chrissie and I liked flying on our own—meeting her here.” His mouth curved upward. “She pretty much let us do whatever we wanted as long as we didn’t get into trouble.”

Jonathan thought back to his encounter with Suzanna. Those red-rimmed green eyes so full of pain were framed by wisps of dark hair just long enough to lift off her face in the ocean breeze. Beautiful hands with long slender fingers that plucked the shell off the sand seemed to barely touch the edge when she held it. He looked at his son. “Think she plays the piano?”

Neil pushed his seat back and closed his eyes. “Who?”

“Suzanna. Mrs. Wallace.”

“Why do you ask?”

“She’s got the fingers for it. Know where she lives?”

One ice-blue eye opened and peered at Jonathan from under lashes slightly darker than Neil’s hair. “She mentioned something about the Midwest—when she was talking to the doctor.” He sat up to stretch his arms above his head. “I hate these crowded seats.”
“Even after all your travel on those Japanese trains?”

“I stand up then.” Neil’s eyes twinkled. “Gives me an advantage for looking at the scenery.”

“Hmm.”

“She’s not like Maris.”

Jonathan’s mouth turned down. “What’s your point, son?”

Neil chuckled. “You seem interested in Mrs. Wallace, more than other women anyway, or are you holding out on us? You don’t have to worry about me or Christine anymore. No reason why you can’t find someone. Unless Maris is in the picture.”

Jonathan chose to ignore his son’s questions. “Hard to believe I’ve been divorced more than twenty years.” The Midwest? Maybe he’d Google her. He had to go to Minneapolis next month. But what was the likelihood he would see Suzanna Wallace?

He’d given his daughter the wedding she wanted. She hadn’t seemed upset that her mother never showed. Chelsea, a travel consultant, had left a message at the ranch a week before the event. He couldn’t remember the exact words, only that it was obviously an excuse, transparent in its flimsiness.

Chelsea was probably guiding a gaggle of tourists with bad legs in Bermuda shorts somewhere around the Continent. He would have thought her daughter’s wedding was more important than getting tips from strangers. Then again, their kids had never been Chelsea’s first priority.
Jonathan looked out the window. The clouds had dispersed. Far below he saw neat square fields that told him they were somewhere over the Midwest, maybe Iowa. Neil had the right idea—to get some rest before their plane landed in Denver, and each took a different flight. His son to the coast and on to his duty station in Japan, and he a shorter hop to Bozeman. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But Suzanna Wallace’s bruised face and green eyes that shimmered beneath her dark lashes continued to float in his mind’s eye. When he’d reached out to prevent her from falling, he’d felt something. More than simple concern for a person who was hurting?

~ ~ ~

“Margaret, can you come over?” Suzanna stood up and straightened her blouse. After watching her husband’s coffin wheeled into the belly of the plane as they’d prepared to leave North Carolina, numbness had taken over. The flight attendants had left her alone after handing her a blanket and a pillow. She’d huddled throughout the flight under the blanket, trying to imagine how she was going to cope. When the tires of the plane touched down in Minneapolis, she was relieved to see that it wasn’t raining. She simply couldn’t bear it if the skies were dripping, mimicking her eyes.

“I’ll be right over. Kevin told me what happened. Put on the tea and don’t do a thing till I get there.”

Margaret was barely in the door before she hugged Suzanna to her ample bosom. “Have a brownie, Suzanna, fresh from the oven and still warm. What’s that nasty bruise on your face?”

Suzanna caught her breath, aware that tears were beginning again, unable to stop them. “Brad. I thought he was going to kill me. He said—he said—” She hiccupped, “he didn’t care how I felt. He was going to keep on seeing her.”

“Who?”

“His new paralegal. I think her name is Tiffany. Or something. The last one—I know he was screwing her, too—”

Margaret reached for a brownie. “You should have divorced him ages ago.”

Suzanna squinted at her friend. “You’re probably right. Anyway, the last one was blond and big-breasted—not like me—with legs that wouldn’t quit. I think George fired her … Brad’s senior partner said George told him she had to go, that she made too many mistakes, not being on time, that sort of thing. Probably because the law office wasn’t where she did her best work, if you know what I mean.”

Margaret snorted. “Probably not. Tell me what happened at the beach.”

“I finally had it out with him. I don’t know what made me say it. Part of me is glad he’s dead. But I feel so guilty.”

“More tea, Suzanna?”

“Please.”

“It was his bad heart, not you, that killed him. When’s the funeral?”

“Not until Penny is home. When I talked to her on the phone, she cried and cried. Always was her daddy’s girl. I hope she doesn’t blame me.” She shivered and wrapped her arms around her torso. “I have no idea what I’m going to do now.”

Margaret motioned for Suzanna to stand. “Let me give you another hug.” She rubbed Suzanna’s back, and her gaze dropped to Suzanna’s upper arms. “Did Brad give you those bruises, too?” She peered at the discolored skin. “Tell me the truth.”

“He shook me so hard my teeth rattled. I think it was his class ring that cut my cheek. At the time, I wanted to spit in his eye, but after he let me go, that’s when I got scared.” She reached for her teacup, her hands shaking.

“Sit down and drink your tea before you fall down.”

“I don’t know who I am anymore, Margaret. All I know is I don’t like what I’ve become, what he made me. Maybe if I got away, took a trip, I might find myself.”

“New clothes, Suzanna, get a new wardrobe. That’s what I did after William died. It’ll do wonders for your mood.” Margaret nibbled her brownie, seeming to savor every bite. “Now that he’s gone, you can be a merry widow and enjoy yourself. He left you with plenty of money, didn’t he?”

“We’re comfortable. The biggest expense right now is Kevin’s college. Only two more years unless he goes to grad school.”
“Well, it’s time you started doing things you want to do. Stop crying over Brad. He doesn’t deserve it.” Margaret reached for the next to last brownie on the plate. “I didn’t mope around after William’s death, and I loved that man. There just is no point tearing yourself apart. You said yourself Brad’s father had heart trouble. How old are you now?”

“Forty-six.” Suzanna felt like sixty-six, however that must feel. Old. Tired. Afraid. So alone.

“Maybe you should look for someone else.”

“Are you crazy? The last thing I want is another man. I can’t think of anything I want less right now. Maybe I never will.”

“Okay, forget about a man. How about a new do?”

Suzanna brought her hands up to her hair, middling short, with a light wave. Its color was still dark brown, only a few strands of gray. Her hairdresser had suggested occasional rinses to hide them, but she had never bothered. “Maybe I’ll let it grow. And go on a diet. Do you think I’m fat?”

“No way. You’ve got curves, dear girl. If anyone’s fat, it’s me. But I prefer to think of myself as zaftig. And you know why. I can’t resist sweets.”

In spite of herself, Suzanna smiled. But she felt too rounded, too heavy in the hips. Maybe she would lose weight. She’d had no appetite at all since she’d come home. “I need to be more like you, Margaret. Independent. Carefree. Except you don’t have children to worry about.” That was her problem, her children, why she felt she couldn’t change. But she mustn’t blame them. She was the one who had to decide what to do with her life, if only she could.

“Don’t you let Penny or Kevin stop you. They’re almost grown and they’d want you to have a life of your own. Talk to them. After the funeral.” Margaret stood up. “I have to go to my massage. You should get one, Suzanna. Nothing puts a smile on my face faster than someone slathering me with scented oil and pounding away on what’s left of my muscles.”
“Maybe after the funeral.

Suzanna wandered into Brad’s den with its muted colors and dark leather furniture. What was their financial situation? Brad had always taken care of such things. She needed to call their accountant, right after she called George.

She sat down at the piano and let her fingers ramble over the keys, not sure what to play. She opened the book of show tunes on the music stand. At first she selected quiet pieces. But when her guilt and then anger at Brad intruded again, she pounded a piece that forced her fingers to fly over the keys, her foot pedal enhancing the volume, much louder than she normally played. When she finished the piece, she leaned her head against the lip of the music stand.

Too tired to eat dinner, she walked upstairs to her bedroom. But once she was in bed, her mind flitted from one possibility to another. Penny had suggested she take a cruise after the funeral. But Suzanna didn’t want to go on a cruise. She just wanted to sleep so she wouldn’t have to think about anything. Except she couldn’t sleep. Too many questions cycled endlessly through her mind.

I shouldn’t have told him. She should have simply let her attorney—someone Brad didn’t know—serve the papers. But would he have responded any differently? She’d been afraid to ask the doctor if their argument had caused the heart attack. When she’d made vague references to stress, he’d said it could have contributed. She rolled over and pressed her face into her pillow. The bruise on her cheek still throbbed, reminding her of Brad and his hateful words, so dismissive of her, and how he had hurt her for so many years, always seeking to control her.
She couldn’t recall when she’d first thought of leaving Brad. She remembered only that it had become a more recent issue—after Kevin began college. But she had put it off—why? Because she was afraid she couldn’t make it on her own? Was it easier to stay where she was? Did Penny suspect what her father had been doing all those years, what Kevin knew after that one awful night?

What did she want, now that Brad was gone? She knew only that she needed a change. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the tears that reflected her fears, but they seeped onto her cheeks anyway. Before she fell asleep, her pillow was damp.