Chapter Twelve

Ellie and her father arrived before her uncle, so they waited inside the truck. Ellie sipped at her Coke and tried to imagine Mr. Spencer as a younger man. Was he the young man in the picture with a young, pregnant Miss Ruby? It was possible. If so, what had happened to them? They’d looked so happy in the photo.

A black Volkswagen Passat pulled up and they watched Jim Thompson, Esquire, get out and walk into his office. Ellie chugged the rest of her Coke, knowing it would be warm when she returned.

“You ready, honey?” Her dad still looked nervous. She was feeling pretty anxious herself so she just nodded.

Uncle Jim was talking with his assistant when they entered. “You can take a seat in my office and I’ll be in shortly,” he said, winking at Ellie. She smiled in response.

Ellie and her father settled into chairs arranged in front of a huge, antique desk. Ellie’s hand brushed the aged wood, tracing the grain with her fingers. She’d found the desk for her uncle at an estate sale a few years back and immediately called him. He’d bought it on the spot, sight unseen, based solely on her recommendation. She had no idea what he’d done with the desk he’d had before, a practical piece without the beauty, charm, and character of the one in front of her now. Sold it? Given it away since he’d found something better? Her father drummed his fingers on the edge of his chair, fidgeting again, and suddenly she thought she understood why.

“Dad, Mom told you that I know about Miss Ruby being my biological grandmother, right?” He nodded and looked away. “Are you worried that I’ll love you and Mom less if I know more about her and Mr. Spencer?”

Her father sighed, but the way his shoulders relaxed told her enough. “It’s new territory and I’m a worrywart, I’ll admit, but I think I’m more concerned that you’ve been through so much lately and I don’t want you feeling overwhelmed.” He paused. “And I guess I’m also concerned that whatever we learn today could change everything we have.” He trailed off and she could tell by the way he kept swallowing that he was struggling for control.

She reached over to take his strong, calloused hand in her own. “Dad, no matter what, I love you and Mom more than anyone or anything else in the world. Nothing can ever take your places in my heart and in my life. Love isn’t genetic, Dad. It’s relational. You two are my parents. End of story.” She squeezed his hand and felt him return the gesture. When Uncle Jim entered the room a few seconds later, she didn’t let go.

Just as his hands had lent her strength and security as a little girl, they did the same now. She held on just as tightly.

Jim Thompson dropped a thick manila folder on his desk and settled into his chair with a sigh. He folded his hands on top of the folder and looked at each of them. “Dave, Ellie, thanks for agreeing to come here. I wanted to do this formally, as Murphy and Ruby would have wanted, I think. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what most people want to know the most. Yes, there’s money coming to you, Ellie. A lot of money. When Ruby Jefferson died, you became a millionaire.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open and she turned to her father with wide eyes. He smiled and lifted his free hand to gently tap her chin. “We are not a fish, as your mother likes to say.” His reaction brought a touch of normality back to her and she responded to it by sticking her tongue out at him. His lips twitched up.

Clasping her father’s hand between both of her own, Ellie turned back to her uncle. “Okay, so I’m a millionaire. That’ll have to process for a while. Is—was—Mr. Spencer my biological grandfather?”

Her uncle nodded. “He was, yes.” Ruby and Murphy were married for twenty years, but Madison’s death drove a wedge between the two of them that evidently could not be overcome. I was friends with both of them at the time and it was difficult to watch. Her grief was overwhelming and she couldn’t understand when Murphy went back to work as if nothing had happened. There were a lot of arguments. He confided in me. He said that he could feel the distance between them increase each day when he left to go to the bookstore. She filed for divorce the day after the first anniversary of Maddie’s death.”

“Did you know my mother, too?”

“A little. As well as any middle-aged man can relate to a teenager who is unrelated to him, I suppose. She wasn’t around much whenever I was in their home.”

“How did you meet them?”

“My former business partner was their lawyer. When he retired, they decided to give me their business. Most of my library came from Spencer’s Antiquities so we already had a good rapport.” He shrugged. “They invited me to their annual Christmas Eve party that same year and the rest is history.”

“Did you have anything to do with them choosing your brother and his wife as adoptive parents?” Ellie inwardly cringed that she’d asked such an obviously stupid question, but she wanted to know for sure.

Uncle Jim’s eyes softened. “I did, Ellie, and I’ll go to my grave feeling as if the entire purpose of my being on this earth was so that I could do that one beautiful thing—find you a new home with very loving parents who’d wanted children for years.”

She fought back tears as she looked from her uncle into the loving eyes of her father and back again. “Thank you for that, Uncle Jim. I couldn’t have asked for a better life.” She squeezed her father’s hand again and finally let it go. “Mr. Spencer stayed in town, obviously. Did Miss Ruby, too?”

“They owned a huge estate about twenty miles from the city. It’s yours now, by the way. We can drive out and take a look any time you want. Miss Ruby stayed in the house and Murphy moved into an apartment over the bookstore. A few years later he married a widow with a young son. He adopted the boy and from what I could tell they had a good family life. His adopted son grew up to become a paramedic and lives in Springfield. He visits often, though, on his days off. I’m sure he’ll take good care of his mom now that Murphy’s gone.”

“They’re okay financially? When you finish liquidating the store, they’ll be okay?”

“Oh yes. Murphy did quite well and they were careful with their money. He wouldn’t take a cent from your grandmother in the divorce. It was her inheritance from her parents and he wouldn’t budge even though she offered to share it with him.”

“He was always very kind to me,” Ellie said. “Always wanting to know if there was a book I was particularly interested in finding. I suspect that he only charged me a fraction of the cost for the ones he sold to me.” She turned to her father again. “Thanks, Dad, for taking me on those monthly excursions to town. It was your way of sharing me with my grandfather, wasn’t it?”

Her father nodded. “Your mom made sure Miss Ruby stayed up-to-date with you and I made sure Murphy did. It was a small way to say thanks for the best gift we’d ever been given.”

Ellie laid her hand on her father’s arm and squeezed gently. “To me, too, Dad.”

Uncle Jim opened the file in front of him and then slid it over to her. “That’s a listing of assets and unpaid bills. Only the utilities and such. She always paid off her credit cards each month. The woman loved to shop online.”

Ellie tugged on her father’s arm to draw him closer so he could read along with her. She had a feeling she’d need his grounding council as she made decisions in the future. They read down the list of properties Miss Ruby owned and the income, in the case of a few apartment buildings, and expenses from each. Then there were the stocks, bonds, and other investments. Finally, a brief listing of bills left to pay. “Why aren’t you listed on here, Uncle Jim? You’re working and you should also be paid.”

“Ruby already paid me. She was always very generous, too.”

“Maybe so, but you’re still working so I want to see your billing listed on here in the next update. I don’t want to take advantage of your services. Please bill me?”

He studied her for a few moments and then nodded his head once. “It’ll still be a few more weeks before everything’s settled. Ads have to be run in papers for any creditors to file if there are any outstanding debts we didn’t know about. Stuff like that. But as soon as we can, we’ll finalize things and get the money transferred to you.” He glanced at his watch. “Do you have any more questions for me?”

Ellie looked at her father who shook his head. She couldn’t think of any more either. “I think we’re good. For now. And I know how to reach you if I think of something.”

Her uncle rose from his chair and they followed suit. “You certainly do.” He smiled as he walked around the desk to give each of them a hug. “Now don’t go spending any money just yet. Wait until you have it before you start buying jets and motor boats.” He winked at her again.

“HA! No worries. I have no plans to buy anything right now. Mom and Dad are spoiling me at home. I have everything I need.” She turned to kiss her uncle’s cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Jim. For everything.”

“You’re welcome, Ellie girl. Drive safe, you two.” He ushered them out of the office and walked them to the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

Ellie clicked the seat belt around her and checked her phone. Nothing from Stella. “Shall we go see the new dog now?”

Her father glanced at his watch. “We’re a few minutes late, so I suppose we should get moving.” He reached out to touch her shoulder. “Are you okay? That was a lot to deal with, wasn’t it?”

“I’m fine, Dad. Yeah, it’s kind of overwhelming, but thankfully I have some time before I have to learn to handle all of it. And I’m planning on asking you and Mom a lot of questions as I make decisions. You’ll probably get sick of it.”

He chuckled. “I guess we’ll get used to it eventually, right? It’ll be a new kind of normal.”

She nodded. “Now about the new dog. What’s his name?”

“Jackson. Randy says he was born on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died. They named him in tribute to one of their favorite artists.”

“Oh, well that’s nice. I love some of his songs.”

“I liked the Jackson Five.”

“Me too, Dad. You sure listened to them enough when I was growing up. Do you think Randy would mind if we shortened it to Jack occasionally?”

“Nope. Don’t think he’d mind at all since he also told me that’s what they call him.”

A few moments later, they pulled into the parking lot of Ace Hardware and saw Murphy’s great-grandson sitting quietly beside his owner. Randy waved and approached the truck. Jackson stayed where he was, but his eyes and ears were trained on Randy and he came immediately when he was called.

Ellie bent down to scratch the soft, black ears. Brown, intelligent eyes lifted to her own and she smiled. “I hope you like Cocker Spaniels, Jackson. Misty is a little wound-up at times, but I imagine she’ll have to work hard to keep up with you.” He licked her hand, wagging his tail. “You sure look like Murphy.”

“Yeah, and he’s dependable, just like his great-grandfather. I’m glad you guys are taking him. We’re retiring from the dog breeding and training business. I figure forty years is long enough.”

“Oh, are you staying on the farm?”

“For now. We’re still young enough to work it just fine. Eventually our son will take over.”

“Well, happy retirement, Randy!” Ellie’s father said. “Maybe now you’ll have time to come out for dinner sometime.”

“We’d love to. Now, do you think Jack will work for you?”

“He’s ready to work with my cattle?”

“Yep. He’s had a refresher course, but he didn’t need it. Remembered it all like it was yesterday.”

“Then we’ll take him.” Ellie’s father pulled out his wallet but Randy put his hand on his arm to stop him.

“He’s a gift, Dave. To you and your family. You guys have been wonderful customers from the beginning. I’m glad he’ll have a great home. We had him neutered last year, but knew it would have to be a special family for us to be willing to part with him. Don’t let him roam for a few weeks, until he gets used to being a part of your family. Then he should be good to go.”

“Well now. That’s quite a gift, Randy. Thank you!” Ellie’s father shook Randy’s hand. “You know we’ll take good care of him.”

Randy nodded and then bent down and tousled the fur on top of Jackson’s head. “You be a good dog and I’ll see you soon.” He clipped the lead onto his collar and handed the leash to Ellie’s father. “This is another reason we’re retiring. It’s getting harder and harder to part with them. They take a little bit of me with them when they go.”

“Are you sure you want to part with him? We can look elsewhere.”

“I’m sure. We’re keeping the last one. And as you know, one Border Collie has more energy than any two people combined. She’ll keep us busy well enough. Thanks for asking.” He shook her father’s hand and then turned to Ellie. “I heard the story of how Murphy led your rescuers to you when you had the wreck. I’m glad he helped to save your life. Dogs understand love. Much better than we do, I sometimes think. It’s good to see you on your feet. You take care of yourself.” He stepped back, nodded goodbye to each of them, and then turned and left.

Jackson whined once, but didn’t pull at the lead. They watched Randy drive away. When Ellie’s father turned toward the back of the truck, and the cage for Jackson, Ellie stopped him. “Dad, do you think we could just let him ride in the cab with us? Like Murphy used to?”

Her father paused, and the two of them locked eyes.

She missed Murphy, more than she ever thought she would. They’d bought him as a pup when she was thirteen and she’d talked her parents into allowing him to sleep inside the house at night instead of in the barn with the animals. He had free roam of the house, after he was house-trained, and was always curled up next to her in her bed whenever she woke up. He’d been her protector and her friend when everyone else was untrustworthy. He’d known all her secrets.

When she’d left for college it had been hard on him. He’d kept circling the house, looking for her, and whining. She’d had to come home for a few weekends so that he knew she was okay. When she graduated, she would’ve taken him with her in an instant. But Murphy belonged on the farm.

Until he’d managed to somehow find her at the time of the accident. She wished she could remember how.

Maybe her father read what was on her face and in her eyes. Maybe he was thinking about Murphy too. But for whatever reason, he turned and led the dog to the cab of the truck. “Up,” he said, holding the door open. Jackson leapt into the truck and was waiting for her—tail wagging, tongue lolling out, smile on his face—when Ellie climbed inside.

 

Chapter One

Chapter One

 

Rounding a curve in the road, Ellie’s headlights flashed across a doe and her fawn as they leapt out in front of her car. She slammed on her brakes and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, trying to steer her little brown Mustang to the shoulder of the road. She missed the deer, but as they disappeared into the night she was too busy to feel relief.

In the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri, many of the winding, country roads don’t have paved shoulders. The asphalt just ends in a little lip with grass, weeds, wildflowers or just plain dirt on the side. So when her tires dropped off the edge of the road there was little traction for them to find.

The car spun out, headlights strafing the trees on the other side of a ravine.

“Down, Murph!” she yelled. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him jump to the floorboard of the car.

* * *

Elanor Rose Thompson, the adopted daughter—and only child—of a dairy farmer and his wife, grew up on a farm near Nixa, Missouri. Her childhood was a busy one since she was expected to help out around the house and the farm, but she was a happy.

At home there was no such thing as discrimination.

Ellie’s adoption was a closed one. Neither Ellie nor her adoptive parents had any information about her birth mother and father. No names, no medical histories, and no ethnic backgrounds. With so little to go on, people did what they do best: they guessed.

It was easy for everyone to assume, looking at Ellie, that her parents were African-American. Until she looked back at them. Then they couldn’t help but notice she had blue eyes. No wonder her birth mother gave her up, they said.

She was in first grade when one of the girls in her class pointed at her candy bar and compared the color of Ellie’s skin to Hershey’s chocolate. That evening she stood in front of her dresser mirror and noticed other differences. Her hair wasn’t straight, shiny, blond, or brown. It was wiry, black, and unmanageable even though her mother braided it every morning. Each afternoon she would step off the bus looking like she’d been riding in the back of her uncle’s truck all day. It would be years before they learned that her hair shouldn’t be washed every day.

Ellie’s parents lived very frugally, but didn’t mind splurging on the important things: out-of-print books, her education, and a new car every two years.

“You’re only as dependable as your transportation,” her father said.

Once a month her dad hired two of the neighbor boys to take care of the cattle for an evening while he and Ellie drove to Springfield or Branson or wherever he wanted to go for a day of shopping—for old books. And no matter where they went, he always found at least one to add to his collection.

When she was in the tenth grade she’d asked him if she could buy a few to list on that new internet site called eBay and her new business “It’s All About the Past” was born. Someday she planned to open a used and rare bookstore of her own. After she saved up some money.

She graduated from high school and was offered a scholarship to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She hadn’t decided on a major, but figured she had a couple of years to decide.

The first day of class she met him.

* * *

 Ellie slowly regained consciousness. It was dark. For the first few moments she couldn’t remember where she was until, through the weak light of a dying headlight, she saw the dense trees and patchy vegetation of a forest.

She was still strapped in her seatbelt behind the steering wheel of the little car. She tried to lift her head to find her purse with her cell phone inside, but pain ricocheted through her body when she moved, starting in her neck and radiating down both arms, through her chest and abdomen. Her left leg throbbed all the way down to her toes. She moaned and heard a whine in response.

“Murphy?”

She didn’t remember the accident, but the car now rested on the driver’s side. Evidently her window was broken because she could feel leaves and twigs under her face. She couldn’t breathe through her nose; maybe it was broken. Dirt crunched in her teeth. She tried to spit it out. Her left arm was pinned beneath her, so she reached up with her right hand to wipe her mouth. Her face felt swollen, moist, and sticky and it burned in several places.

She reached for the seatbelt release and heard the click as it unlatched. She felt the vibration of the buckle when it hit the earth near her face and instinctively closed her eyes. She hadn’t thought to close her mouth, however, and coughed on the dirt. A sharp pain stabbed through her side. Her hand flew to her ribcage. She could feel a sharp lump under her skin so she clamped her teeth together and held her breath to stifle the involuntary coughing reflex.

The pain in her ribs faded to a dull ache and she took several slow, shallow breaths. “Murphy, are you all right?” She felt around her, trying to find him. His answering whine came from a space behind her. She tried again to locate her purse, but her hand came up empty. Fear welled up inside her chest. The old farm dog must be badly injured if he couldn’t get to her. She wondered how long it would take before anyone started to look for them. They probably wouldn’t even notice she was missing until she didn’t show up for work in the morning.

Misty would be hungry by now. Her Cocker Spaniel was confined to the kitchen by a doggy gate, so the mess would be contained at least. She knew the pup had plenty of water, but Miss Ruby, the neighbor who was caring for her while Ellie was gone, wouldn’t know that she hadn’t returned home last night as planned. She probably wouldn’t come over to return the key until after six in the evening.

She had to find her purse. She took as deep a breath as her aching ribs would allow and tried to push up from the ground but she couldn’t find the strength and the intense pain caused her to sag back against the cool earth. She felt a sharp prick as a piece of glass impaled her cheek. She reached around to pull it out, cutting her fingers in the process. She needed to do something . . .

* * *

She walked into the first class of her freshman year, sociology, and sat in the front row. Other students began filing into the classroom in groups or alone. They picked out seats, laughing and talking. Soon the only empty spots were the ones on either side of her.

The first day of any new class was the most difficult for her. It brought back painful memories of being singled out. Like her first day in third grade when that little blond girl Aubrey had walked up to her.

“Why do you have blue eyes?” The girl had asked Ellie.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I didn’t know black people could have blue eyes. You look weird.”

“I’m not black.” She hid her hands behind her back because she felt like slapping the blond girl.

Aubrey put a hand on one hip. “Don’t you have mirrors in that old house of yours?”

“Yes, we have mirrors,” Ellie retorted in a mocking voice.

“Well, maybe you should look in one sometime, because you’re black all over except your eyes and that’s just weird.” She turned on one heel and stomped away.

The memory fled as an older man walked through the door. He had just started his introduction when a couple walked in, holding hands.

“Sorry,” the guy muttered as they split up to sit on either side of her.

The professor didn’t comment. Instead, he picked up a packet of papers and proceeded to pass around his syllabus, commenting on the important sections. Part of the requirements for the course, he told them, was to give a group presentation about one of the subjects listed in the hand-out. Each group had to have at least three people in it and the topics would be filled on a first-come, first-served basis so they should choose sooner rather than later if there was a topic they really wanted.

The young man on her left read quickly through the topics and then his head popped up. He leaned forward to see around Ellie and whispered to his companion that they should choose the sexual mores topic. The girl smiled and said that was fine with her. Then she reminded him that they still had to find another person for their group. He took a quick look around, but his girlfriend looked straight at Ellie.

“Would you like to be a part of our group?” she asked.

“Sure, I guess.” Ellie felt heat flood her face as she thought of their topic.

“Good. I’m Stella Spencer,” the woman said.

Ellie introduced herself.

“And this is my boyfriend, Reid Evans.” Stella gestured to the man on the other side of Ellie.

Reid was just returning to his seat after informing the professor of their topic.

“Reid, this is Ellie Thompson, and she’s going to be the third member of our group.”

His eyes flickered over her and then he looked away. “Nice to meet you,” he said, but she could tell by the smirk on his face and the distant tone in his voice that he didn’t mean it.

The next time they met Reid asked her—while looking away—if she would please exchange places with Stella or him so that they could sit together. She traded with Stella so she could sit as far away as possible from the rude jerk.

She liked Stella, though. She was kind, didn’t appear to be looking down on her, and actually listened to Ellie when they talked. She was beautiful, of course. Her hair was a deep, gorgeous shade of red. Her blue eyes were rimmed with thick, long lashes. She looked like a red-haired version of Grace Kelly, her favorite actress out of her parents’ classic movie collection.

Reid, on the other hand, only seemed to notice Stella. He ignored Ellie, for the most part, and she wished she could do the same to him. It might be easier, she admitted to herself, if she wasn’t attracted to tall men with sandy brown hair, dark brown eyes and athletic bodies. And who smelled really, really good.

The three of them worked on the group presentation together. Reid did his part, planning his section of the lecture and PowerPoint presentation and even shocking her with some helpful suggestions when she had trouble locating a source. It was the first time he’d actually looked at her when he spoke and she was so shocked she couldn’t utter a word in response.

Two days before the presentation, Reid rushed into the classroom and plopped down beside her. He looked frazzled—his hair disheveled and his clothing rumpled—as he leaned over to talk to her. She recoiled in surprise.

“Stella’s in the hospital,” he whispered, gesturing with his hand for her to move closer. “She hasn’t been able to keep food down. They’re removing her gall bladder in the morning which means she won’t be here for the presentation. Do you think we can handle her part on our own or should I ask the prof for an extension?”

She thought about it for a second. “No, we have her outline and we’ve listened to her part so we could probably cover if you want to. We might want to run through it though.”

He nodded. “That’s probably a good idea. Stella feels terrible about this, but I think she’ll also be relieved not to have to worry about it anymore.”

He smiled, looking her in the eyes. Her heart raced. She smiled back.

“I’ll call you,” he whispered as the professor walked in.

* * *

The next time Ellie opened her eyes, dappled sunlight filtered through the deep green leaves of the forest and she got her first glimpse of their situation.  She looked herself over, trying to determine the extent of her injuries. Her left arm was misshapen under her skin. Definitely broken, but it didn’t look like the bone had broken through the skin. Of course she couldn’t look at it too closely without feeling queasy. She tried to wiggle a finger but almost passed out from the pain. Her left leg still throbbed, but wasn’t as painful as her arm. She couldn’t see very well from her left eye, which was almost swollen shut.

Her car was a smashed and twisted pile of metal and vinyl and glass. The back seat and the roof of the car almost met from where something—a tree probably—had stopped her plunge. If she’d been sitting in the passenger seat, she’d have lost her legs.

“Murphy!” He’d been lying on the passenger floorboard before the wreck. “You still with me old boy?” A rustling sound from behind reassured her and then a black and white head appeared over the side of her seat. He whined as he laid his head on her arm. She scratched his ear as tears welled up. “I’m sorry, boy. I was trying to keep you safe. Hang in there, okay?” He licked her face and turned away. The way he lurched as he did, told her he was injured too.

Fear and agony took turns overwhelming her. She fought against the sobs that tried to break free, knowing her ribs would protest. Her arm and leg throbbed with each beat of her heart.

She tried to lie still—the pain was less excruciating—but every once in a while her body would stiffen, muscles cramping up in prolonged spasms, and she’d lose consciousness from the intense pain.

Ellie lost track of the hours, unable to tell by the light outside what time of day it was. Surely someone was out looking for her by now. Had they called her parents? They were probably panicking. They’re going to kill me if I die . . .