Award winning romance author, Sharlene MacLaren has released 13 novels since embarking on a writing career in 2007. After a career teaching second grade “Shar” says she asked God for a new mission “that would bring her as great a sense of purpose” as she’d felt teaching and raising her children. She tried her hand at inspirational romance, releasing Through Every Storm to critical and popular acclaim in 2007, and the rest, as they say, is history. She quickly became the top selling fiction author for Whitaker House, has accumulated multiple awards, and endeared herself to readers who can’t get enough of her long, luscious and often quirky tales – both historical and contemporary. Her novels include the contemporary romances Long Journey Home, and Tender Vow; and three historical series including Little Hickman Creek series (Loving Liza Jane; Sarah, My Beloved; and Courting Emma); The Daughters of Jacob Kane (Hannah Grace, Maggie Rose, and Abbie Ann) and River of Hope (Livvie’s Song, Ellie’s Haven, and Sofia’s Secret).
The single word had the power to force a body to drop
his knees and call out to his Maker for leniency. But most took time for
neither, instead racing to the scene of terror with the bucket they kept stored
close to the door, and joining the contingent of citizens determined to battle
the flames of death and destruction. Such was the case tonight when, washing
the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink, Mercy Evans heard the dreaded screams
coming from all directions, even began to smell the sickening fumes of blazing
timber seeping through her open windows. She ran through her house and burst
through the screen door onto the front porch.
“Where’s the fire?” she shouted at the people running
up Wood Street carrying buckets of water.
Without so much as a glance at her, one man hollered
on the run, “Looks to be the Watson place over on Caldwell.”
Her heart thudded to a shattering halt. God, no! “Surely, you don’t mean Herb
and Millie Watson!”
Mercy Evans and Millie Watson, formerly Gifford, had
been fast friends at school and had stuck together like glue in the dimmest of
circumstances, as well as the sweetest. Millie had walked with Mercy through
the loss of both her parents, and Mercy had watched Millie fall wildly in love
with Herb Watson in the twelfth grade. She’d been the maid of honor in their
wedding the following summer.
But her voice was lost to the footsteps thundering
past. Whirling on her heel, she ran back inside, hurried to extinguish all but
one kerosene lamp, snatched her wrap from its hook by the door, and darted back
outside and up the rutted street toward her best friends’ home, dodging horses
and a stampede of citizens. “Lord, please don’t let it be,” she pleaded aloud.
“Oh, God, keep them safe. Jesus, Jesus….” But her cries vanished in the
scramble of bodies crowding her off the street as several made the turn onto
Caldwell in their quest to reach the flaming house, which already looked beyond
Tongues of fire shot like dragons’ breath out windows
and up through a hole in the roof. Like hungry serpents, flames lapped up the
sides of the house, eating walls and shattering panes, while men heaved their
pathetic little buckets of water at the volcanic monster.
“Back off, everybody. Step back!” ordered Sheriff
Phil Marshall. He and a couple of deputies on horseback spread their arms wide
at the crowd, trying to push them to safety.
Ignoring his orders, Mercy pressed through the
gathering mob until the heat so overwhelmed her that she had no choice but to
stop. Besides, a giant arm reached out and stopped her progress. She shook it
off. “Where are they?” she gasped, breathless. “Where’s the family?”
The sheriff moved his bald head from side to side,
his sad, defeated eyes telling the story. “Don’t know, Miss Evans. No one’s
seen ’em yet. We been scourin’ the crowd”—he gave another shake of the
head—“and it don’t appear anybody got out of that inferno.”
“That can’t be.” A sob caught at the back of her
throat and choked her next words. “They were at my place earlier. I made
“Someone’s comin’ out!” A man’s ear-splitting shout
rose above the crowd.
Dense smoke enveloped a large figure
emerging—staggering rather like a drunkard—from the open door and onto the
porch, his arms full with two wriggling bundles wrapped in blankets and
screaming in terror. Mercy sucked in a cavernous breath and held it till
weakness overtook her and she forced herself to let it out. Could it be? Had
little John Roy and Joseph survived the fire thanks to this man?
“Who is it?” someone asked.
All stood in rapt silence as he passed through the
cloud of smoke. “Looks to be Sam Connors, the blacksmith,” said the sheriff,
scratching his head and stepping forward.
“Sure ’nough is,” someone confirmed.
Mercy stared in wonder as the man, looking dazed and
almost ethereal, strode down the steps, then wavered and stumbled before
falling flat on his face in a heap of dust and bringing the howling bundles
Excited chatter erupted as Mercy and several others
ran to their aid. Mercy yanked the blankets off the boys and heaved a sigh of
relief to find them both alert and apparently unharmed, albeit still screeching
louder than a couple of banshees. Through their avalanche of tears, they
recognized her, and they hurled themselves into her arms, knocking her
backward, so that she wound up on her back perpendicular to Mr. Connors, with
both of the boys lying prone across her body. In all the chaos, she felt a hand
grasp her arm and help her up to a sitting position.
“Come on, Miz. You bes’ git yo’self an’ them
chillin’s out of the way o’ them flames fo’ you all gets burned.” She had the
presence of mind to look up at Solomon Turner, a former slave now in the employ
of Mrs. Iris Brockwell, a prominent Paris citizen who’d donated a good deal of
money to the hospital fund.
Mercy took the man’s callused hand and allowed him to
help her to a standing state. By the lines etched in his face from years of
hard work in the sweltering sun, Mercy figured he had to be in his seventies,
yet he lifted her with no apparent effort. “Thank you, Mr. Turner.”
Five-year-old John Roy stretched his arms upward,
pleading with wet eyes to be held, while Joseph, six, took a fistful of her
skirt and clung with all his might. “Come,” she said, hoisting John Roy up into
her arms. “We best do as Mr. Turner says, honey. Follow me.”
“But…Mama and Papa….” Joseph turned and gave his
perishing house a long perusal, tears still spilling down his face. John Roy
buried his wrenching sobs in Mercy’s shoulder, and it was all she could do to
keep from bolting into the house herself to search for Herb and Millie, even
though she knew she’d never come out alive. If the fire and smoke didn’t kill
her, the heat would. Besides, before her eyes, the flames had devoured the very
sides of the house, leaving a skeletal frame with a staircase only somewhat
intact and a freestanding brick fireplace looking like a graveyard monument.
Her heart throbbed in her chest and thundered in her ears, and she wanted to
scream, but the ever-thickening smoke and acrid fumes burned to the bottom of
With her free hand, she hugged Joseph close to her.
“I know, sweetheart, and I’m so, so sorry.” Her words drowned in her own sobs as
the truth slammed against her. Millie and Herb, her most loyal friends. Gone.
Sheriff Marshall and his deputies ordered the crowd
to move away from the blazing house, so she forced herself to obey, dragging a
reluctant Joseph with her. At the same time, she observed three men carrying a
yet unconscious Sam Connors across the street to a grassy patch of ground.
Several others gathered around, trying to decide what sort of care he needed.
Of course, he required medical attention, but Mercy felt too weak and dizzy to
tend to him. Best to let the men put him on a cart and drive him over to Doc
Trumble’s. Besides, she highly doubted he’d welcome her help. He was a Connors,
after all, and she an Evans—two families who had been fighting since as far
back as anyone could remember.
She’d heard only bits and pieces of how the feud had
started, with a dispute between Cornelius Evans, Mercy’s grandfather, and
Eustace Connors over property lines and livestock grazing in the early 1830s.
There had been numerous thefts of horses and cattle, and incidents of barn
burnings, committed by both families, until a judge had stepped in and defined
the property lines—in favor of Eustace Connors. Mercy’s grandfather had gotten
so agitated over the matter that his heart had given out. Mercy’s grandmother,
Margaret, had blamed the Connors family, fueling the feud by passing her hatred
for the entire clan on to her own children, and so the next generation had
carried the grudge, mostly forgetting its origins but not the bad blood. The animosity
had reached a peak six years ago, when Ernest Connors had killed Oscar
“That man’s a angel,” Joseph mumbled into her skirts.
“John Roy was wailin’ real loud, ’cause he saw
somethin’ orange comin’ from upstairs, so he got in bed with me, and after a
while that angel man comed in and took us out of ar’ bed.”
She set John Roy on the ground, then got down on her
knees to meet Joseph’s eyes straight on. His were still red, his cheeks
blotchy. She thought very carefully about her next words. “Where were your
Joseph sniffed. “They tucked us in and went upstairs
to their bedroom. John Roy an’ me talked a long time about scary monsters an’
stuff, but then, after a while, he went to sleep, but I couldn’t, so I got up
t’ get a drink o’ water, and that’s when I heard a noise upstairs. I looked
around the corner, and I seed a big round ball o’ orange up there, and smoke
comin’ out of it, and I thought it was a dragon come to eat us up. I runned
back and jumped in bed with Joseph and tol’ him a mean monster was comin’ t’
get us, and I started cryin’ real loud.”
John Roy picked up the story from there. “And so we
waited and waited for the monster to come after us, but instead the angel saved
us. I think Mama and Papa is prolly still sleepin’. Do you think they waked up
Mercy’s throat burned as powerfully as if she’d
swallowed a tablespoonful of acid. Her own eyes begged to cut loose a river of
tears, but she warded them off with a shake of her head while gathering both
boys tightly to her. “No, darlings, I don’t believe they woke up in bed. I
believe with all my heart they awoke in heaven and are right now asking Jesus
to keep you safe.”
“And so Jesus tol’ that angel to come in the house
and get us?” Joseph pointed a shaky finger at Sam Connors. The big fellow lay
motionless on his back, with several men bent over him, calling his name and
fanning his face.
Mercy smiled. “He’s not an angel, my sweet, but
that’s not to say that God didn’t have something to do with sending him in to
“Is he gonna die, like Mama and Papa?” John Roy asked
between frantic sobs.
“Oh, honey, I don’t know.”
She overheard Lyle Phelps suggest they take him over
to Doc Trumble’s house, but then Harold Crew said he’d spotted the doctor about
an hour ago, driving out to the DeLass farm to deliver baby number seven.
A few sets of eyes glanced around until they landed
on Mercy. She knew what folks were thinking. She worked for Doc Trumble, she
had more medical training and experience than the average person, and her house
was closest to the scene. But their gazes also indicated they understood the
awkwardness of the situation, considering the ongoing feud between the two
families. Although the idea of caring for him didn’t appeal, she’d taken an
oath to always do her best to preserve life. Besides, the Lord commanded her to
love her neighbor as herself, making it a sin to walk away from someone in
need, regardless of his family name.
She dropped her shoulders, even as the boys snuggled
close. “Put him on a cart and take him to my place,” she stated.
As if relieved that his care would fall to someone
other than themselves, several men hurried to pick him up and carried him to
Harold Crew’s nearby buggy.
“What about us?” Joseph asked.
The sheriff stepped forward and made a quick study of
each boy. “You can stay out at my sister’s farm. She won’t mind adding a couple
o’ more young’uns to her brood.”
Joseph burst into loud howls upon the sheriff’s
announcement. Mercy hugged him and John Roy possessively. “Their parents were
my closest friends, Sheriff Marshall. I’d like to assume their care.”
He frowned and scratched the back of his head. “Don’t
know as that’s the best solution, you bein’ unwed an’ all.”
“That should have no bearing whatever on where they
go. Their parents were my closest friends. They’re coming home with me.” She
took both boys by the hands, turned, and led them back down Caldwell Street,
away from the still-smoldering house and the sheriff’s disapproving gaze.
Overhead, black smoke filled the skies, obliterating any hope of the night’s
first stars or the crescent moon making an appearance.
Imagine, you’ve lost your family, you have no hopes of a husband and your family is feuding with another family in town – and then your friends are lost in a fire and their two young sons are given to you – but only if you can marry in 30 days! Most of us would run the other way – 30 days to find, meet and marry a man you’ll be with the for the rest of your life so you can raise your friend’s boys. In an uncanny way Mercy meets her new husband and he lays on her couch receiving her nursing care after rescuing the boys from the fire that kills their parents – little do they know what is going to happen. I don’t want to give spoilers but Mercy has suitors knocking on her door from the toothless men who only want someone who will cook their meals and was their clothes and no real intention of being a dad to the declared bachelor who realizes he is too old to take on two rambunctious boys – until the unlikely candidate comes to her door to give her what she needs, a husband in name only.
Like another book I read recently, the married couple doesn’t know each other and almost barely tolerate one another, but for the good of others sacrifice what they want and bite the bullet. Marriage in name only is how things are supposed to work but what really happens is only a thing of miracles and of God working through their hearts and their lives to bring peace that has long been absent. Set in Tennessee in 1890 the book is filled with a life of time gone era, when it was respectable to marry and raise children and when morality was governed by the church and the Bible and was upheld. The book shows what forgiveness looks like even when we think it should be with held and how reconciliation can bring healing that affects everyone. I look forward to reading the next book and find it hard to wait until it comes out because I want to visit Paris, Tennessee again – if only in a book.