For those of you who don't know me that well, this is a big step for me. But now I have had my fantastic 5 alphas give me feedback and I have edited this first chapter to the best of my ability. So I feel like it's time to reward you for hanging around and listening to me blab about my story for so long :)
I would love to hear any feedback you have, negative or positive, as I was not very happy with the first drafts of this chapter. Firsts are so important for hooking your readers and making them stay for the entire book. I don't want to lose a single one of you, so please critique away! I promise you will not hurt my feelings. However, I can't promise that I will integrate all suggestions, so I don't want you to be offended if your wording change doesn't make it to publishing :)
If you'd like to know a little more about this story, I have some details on My Writings page. Thanks for your time. I hope you enjoy!!
Chapter 1The tip of a young woman's shoe caught on a protruding nail. Gemma battled gravity until her hands and knees slapped the concrete. Her stomach lurched. A whimper escaped her lips and she straightened, cursing the flight of rickety stairs. She shuffled into the adjoining room and took a seat in its dilapidated chair. Relieved to find it held her, she glanced around the greasy room. The stained and peeling floral wallpaper, dim lighting, and bare furnishings did not provide a welcoming ambiance.I don’t care if I go. No one deserves a place like this.A sigh broke free as she ventured a look at her watch. He was never on time.Huffing and puffing and then an outcry of surprise met her ears as someone else took a tumble. No doubt it was the same nail. Gemma fought back a smile; already he was proving her point.There was a moment’s pause and then the small man entered the room, chasing his glasses back up his nose in an agitated manner.“Ah, Miss Ebworthy.”Gemma offered an expectant smile as Mr. Winkle struggle with various facial contractions. He appeared to be digesting her knowledge of his mishap.“I have reviewed your file. You are a s-sloppy and insensitive tenant. I ask that you leave.”The young woman blinked. His decision did not surprise her, only the brief and formal means of communication. An all-too-familiar weight settled in the pit of her stomach.“You work s-strange hours, are frequently s-sick, thus disturbing other residents, and are irregular on your payments.”Why do you think I work strange hours? She bit her tongue to keep her thoughts to herself, something she had gotten very good at around her landlord.“How long do I have, sir?” Her voice sounded helpless, even to her, and she hated herself for it.“Don’t you s-start none of that s-sir business with me!” He shook a finger and backed away as if she were a rabid animal about to lunge. Politeness always struck this mousy pessimist as a conspiracy.“How long?” she repeated, growing testy.“Um . . .” He glanced over his piece of paper with fluttering hands. “An hour.”Her heart sank further. There was no possible way she could find new lodgings with notice that short. Oh well, so be it. She stood to go, a great weariness settling upon her. Her hand went to her midriff out of instinct.“I’m very sorry,” Winkle mumbled. His pity must have overcome him. Even his nervous stutter had the grace to disappear for a moment.Gemma swallowed the replies that came to mind and nodded. “Goodbye.”She shut the door with haste so he could not delay her further.Gemma trudged back up the stairs and hastily gathered her few belongings. Within minutes, she lugged a moth-eaten backpack out of the building for the last time. She took one last glance at its grim exterior before marching down the sidewalk. The shoddy apartment, under perpetual construction, held little sentimental value, but several hours ago where she would sleep tonight had not been an issue.Now she only had a backpack that tugged at her shoulders.Coming to the first intersection on the country road, she looked about her. What are you gonna do now, Miss Ebworthy? A squat building with a blue sign caught her attention: a postal office. She begged a piece of paper and jotted a quick note that she postmarked to Austin, Texas.Gemma never could recall with clarity what she did after that. How long did she walk? The first time she looked up, she was no longer on the excuse for a sidewalk in the dingy part of town, but had reached a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. She smiled at her luck; her swollen ankles had begun throbbing. Perched on the small green bench, she retrieved her jar of savings from the backpack and counted it out. Eighty-seven dollars and three cents. She could not afford to waste a penny.How much did a bus ticket even cost? Where did she even want to go? Wichita was nearby, but the cost of living would be out of her present means.The intense summer heat caused her to fidget as she tried to make a decision. Why couldn’t this bus stop be covered?Gemma tucked the jar back into her bag and plunged into the tall cornfield behind her. It would be at least another half hour before a bus would arrive. The least she could do was find some shade and rest a while.After keeping a straight path for several minutes, worry began to plague her since she hadn’t encountered any trees. Her eyelids were heavy and her head throbbed. If only she had thought to bring water; her tongue was sticking to the roof of her mouth.Bravely she tromped for what seemed like the normal length of a cornfield in one direction and then another. She began to doubt her decision—many of the stalks towered over her, obscuring her sense of direction.Finally, she sat right where she stood and tucked herself against the row of tall, green stalks. They provided some shade, at least. Gemma tried tasting the under-ripe kernels, but found them tart, firm, and dry. She threw the ear into the field with a grumble and rested her head on the palms of her hands.When Gemma awoke, the differences in her surroundings startled her. The sun had almost set and crickets had begun to chirp. She had undoubtedly missed the bus. She shrugged her backpack onto her shoulders and pushed herself to her feet. Fear gripped her heart; she had no inkling which direction she came from. Her heart raced and her stomach twisted. She had watched too many horror movies to want to stay out in the dark alone. Nothing carnivorous will be in a field of vegetables. Just pick a path and stick to it. There was a good chance she could find the road again since the cornfield bordered an intersection.She gripped her backpack and steeled her nerves. The corn rustled, growing in noise as she increased her speed. Holding her breath helped keep her imagination from going places she forbade.Minutes passed and she grew more and more afraid. It was pitch black now. She couldn’t hear cars; she couldn’t see lights. No hope was in sight. She swatted mosquitoes with mounting frustration and wiped the humidity from her brow. Someone help me!As the first tears began to slide down her cheeks, suddenly stalks no longer clawed her arms and face. Gemma stumbled to a stop in the openness that enveloped her. The cornfield began again a few feet in front of her, but a sliver of open dirt stretched to her right and left.“A road!” She hung her head and exhaled a shaky laugh. At long last, a shred of hope. She slipped her backpack off her shoulders and rested it at her feet. Her shoulders pulsed in relief.An owl hooted, making her start. Without further delay, she hefted her backpack and followed the road to her right at a brisk pace. She clutched her bulky backpack closer. Her stomach was beginning to cramp. The uneven road made her feet cry louder and she felt lightheaded from exhaustion and hunger.“Please, please, please.” She heard the owl again, this time beside her. “Please be almost there. Please!” Something soft brushed her arm and she stumbled to the side. It’s just a bird. Keep going! Her stomach turned to lead at the thought. Going where?The owl was determined to deter her, however, for it dived again, its talons sticking in her tangled hair.She screamed and freed her hands to swat at it. The fluttering of large wings and raucous cries said the nocturnal creature was just as surprised. Long seconds passed before it liberated itself and swooped back to its hollow.Gemma shook and fought to regain even breathing as she watched its large eyes blink in the distance. It had only been trying to frighten her away from its home. If she kept going, it would leave her alone.Terrified and disoriented, she turned back to her path in the heavy moonlight. A childish laugh of glee escaped her as she spied a structure mere yards away. Lifting her backpack off the ground once more, she forced her feet forward a few more paces. She tugged on the wooden door, relieved she possessed the ability to heave it open. Several horses pricked their ears and peered back at her with sleep in their eyes.Gemma cringed as she splashed handfuls of water into her mouth from the nearby trough. It was lukewarm but wet, and her body thanked her. She pushed passed the stalls that lined the walls until she came to one piled with straw. She breathed out a sigh and collapsed into the loose pile of prickly hay, her backpack sufficing as a pillow. Sleep could not claim her fast enough.~~~~~A young man buried his head in his feather pillow with a groan. Any minute his mother would remind him he had chores before breakfast. He could already hear pots clanging in the kitchen and smell bacon frying.Several more minutes of sacred silence and then, “Josiah, get to your chores, please.”Josiah dragged himself out from under the covers and peered out the window. The sun was just beginning to tint the morning air pink. He dressed with haste and stumbled down the stairs, trying to shake his grogginess. Tugging on his boots, he stepped out into the dim light. The morning almost felt cool, but still the air was thick with moisture. He could almost swat it away like he did mosquitoes.He jaunted to the barn just a short way off to the left and wondered why the door sat slightly ajar. He shrugged it off, stepping inside and inhaling the dank smell of hay, oats, and horses. His scoop plunged into the bag that held their breakfast and he stroked each velvety nose in turn before offering them the oats. They were too hungry to want attention this time of day.He passed the stall that held loose hay and what his peripheral relayed caused oats to patter onto the floor in his surprise. How on earth had she gotten there? He quickly surveyed the barn for any signs of vandalism or theft—nothing. Josiah stooped to look at the strange girl and consider what to do.The girl’s long blonde hair was strewn in front of her face, much as his fair-haired sisters appeared when they slept. But what caught his attention was how thin and frail she looked in contrast to her defined stomach. A large cut on her face made his brow crease. She was doubtless in need of assistance and could use a good breakfast. His brain reasoned through the best way to wake her up without frightening her.One of his younger sister popped her head into the barn. “Josiah, Momma says to–”Perfect! He held up a finger and motioned for her to be silent.Little girls, this one in particular, found it hard to leave a sentence dangling, but Josiah smiled as her curiosity overcame her. Her brown eyes grew wide as she tiptoed to her brother’s side and saw the pale face amidst the hay.“Mariah, go get Momma,” Josiah whispered, shooing her out.She scampered to obey with a large grin, always delighted to be the bearer of unusual news.He studied the sleeping stranger again, trying to discern her circumstance. Due to the size of her bag, she didn’t own much, but was headed somewhere. How in the world had she ended up here, an easy mile from anything?Mariah’s shouts could be heard across the farm and only a few moments passed before a woman, the very picture of maternal kindness, hurried into the barn.“Josiah, what in the world?” Mrs. Martin sank to her knees to peer at the girl’s face. “The poor dear,” she whispered. “And expecting a baby, too. I wonder what kind of trouble she’s in?”“Mom, you won’t have her stay, will you?” He could see where this was headed. It was even more vital they not make a hasty decision like this without Dad back.“Don’t be ridiculous,” she muttered. She passed a gentle and experienced hand over the stowaway’s knotted hair.The girl’s eyelids fluttered and then her hollow eyes stared bewildered into the faces around her. She scuttled back into the pile of hay and clutched her backpack close. “W-where am I? Please don’t call the police!” she said when she had found her voice.“We won’t, dear. You’ve managed to find your way to our farm.”Her brown eyes whipped to Mrs. Martin’s face, distrustful.“Look, we’re not going to hurt you. You just surprised us, that’s all.” Josiah did his best to sound reassuring.“I’m sorry I intruded. I’ll be going now.” She took the offered hand and started for the door.“Are you sure there’s nothing we can do for you?” Mrs. Martin asked.Josiah watched her stop brushing herself off and study the sympathetic eyes. “Like what?”“A hot meal and shower, maybe? Just tell us your name and we’ll help you.”Resolve replaced the indecision on the wan face. “I can’t. Please just don’t . . . do anything. I need to go.”Mrs. Martin opened her mouth to protest as the girl scurried outside, but Josiah placed his hand on her arm. “Mom, you can’t force charity on someone. This is probably for the best, don’t you think?”“No, I do not think.” She displaced his hand and followed the waif out of the barn. “Please come in—just for a few minutes. We’ve got pancakes on. Aren’t you hungry?” The soft, brown eyes pleaded with her.Josiah tried not to smile at his mother’s well-played manipulation as the last of the girl’s resolve melted away.“All right. Just for a few minutes.”Josiah strengthened his convictions on the matter. Wonderful. Let’s see how long this one stays. He considered the girl as she followed them into the house, glancing around her. How could such an innocent and youthful face have gotten into so much trouble? She was probably younger than him, which would put her right out of highschool.“Do you have a name?” he asked.Her doe eyes met his without wavering. “Gemma.”“Well, Gemma, just for today, everything’s going to be all right.”One glance at her and he knew they led vastly different lives. And yet, as he looked into her face, there was a glimmer of trust. He grinned as a small smile alighted her lips. Maybe this one won’t be so bad after all.