I’m so excited to be today’s stop on the Reliquary tour! I have an awesome excerpt to share with you guys, along with a chance for you to win 1 of 3 copies up for grabs! You can also buy it now: Amazon | Barnes & Noble!
RELIQUARY, Chapter one, part one excerpt:
The night before everything fell apart was the best of my life—the last purely happy, uncomplicated hours I would ever have. Looking back, I’m amazed by how lies can soothe the soul, quell every fear, blind you to reality in the most pleasant of ways. Not forever, of course. And only if you really want to buy into the illusion. But back then, I did. Even as the truth sharpened its knives and hunted me down, I refused to see it.
I was too worried about whether I’d made enough deviled eggs.
“We really could have had this catered,” Mom said, stopping to rub my back as I balanced each egg half on the platter and then sprinkled them all with paprika.
I blew a lock of curly hair off my forehead. Outside I could hear laughter and the faint caress of Lake Michigan against the shore. “How many people are out there?” I asked, ignoring her comment. “Should I do another dozen?” It’s my engagement party and I want to feed people, I had said. Just appetizers and beer. I’ll be done with plenty of time to spare.
Ugh. My mother was right. Again.
Her soft hands closed over my wrists. “We’ll have plenty. But Mattie, you need to be on the deck with Ben, not stuck in the kitchen. Your guests want to congratulate you—that’s the whole point of the party! Let me finish this up.” She held up my hands and glanced at my fingernails, short but coated with a bright-orange polish that set off my mustard-yellow dress and strawberry blond hair. “You’ll ruin these if you keep this up.” Smiling, she grabbed a dishrag and wiped a smear of mayonnaise off my ring finger, and the diamond that now lived there sparkled in the light. “Look—you’ve already done all the prep on the perperoncini wraps and the bruschetta. I’ve got this covered. Go.”
I glanced out to where my fiancé (fiancé!) was standing, a bottle of beer in one hand, flashing that smile that could melt glaciers. His hair ruffled in the breeze off the lake, the sun glinting off golden strands. I bit my lip and stared. Seriously—how had I gotten so lucky? “You sure, Mom? I feel terrible leaving you with all this work.”
She chuckled and shook her head. “Honey, that’s my job.”
My mind skipped through memories of all the times she’d rescued me from my own ambitious schemes. Like when I’d taken on decorations for the senior prom (DIY string chandeliers are harder than they look, damn you, Internet!), or the time I’d decided that I totally had time to make three hundred cupcakes for my sorority’s homecoming party despite the fact that I had to cheer in the actual homecoming game. “I guess I’m the queen of biting off more than I can chew.” I sighed. “Sorry.”
She pulled me into a hug, brushing my unruly hair off my face. “It’s just one of your many charming qualities.” She inclined her head toward Ben, and when I turned, he was watching the two of us, his honey-brown eyes full of affection and invitation. “And clearly Ben thinks so, too.”
“Remind him of that after he takes a look at the supply closet at the clinic, okay?” I nodded as he beckoned me to come outside. “I might have tried to install a new shelving system while he was fishing with Dad yesterday.” Ben had told me that it was my practice, too, even though he was the vet and I was just the lab tech and assistant. I’d wanted to show him I could pull me weight. And I could…but unfortunately, the new shelving system could not.
I explained the catastrophe that had once been Ben’s tidy closet. Mom just said, “We can get Dad over there to take a look at it tomorrow morning. He gets a kick out of fixing other people’s messes.” One of the reasons my dad was the most popular real estate agent in Sheboygan was that he actually seemed to enjoy patching holes and installing crown molding, and it certainly helped with sales.
“You guys are the best parents. I don’t deserve you.”
Mom handed me the egg platter. “Pay me back by making sure Grandpa’s having a decent time, okay?”
“You got it.” I grinned. “I’m a ray of sunshine. I even dressed the part.” I kissed her cheek and scooted through the open sliding door to the deck, where I set the platter on a table already crowded with food.
A warm hand closed over my arm. “Finally,” Ben said, his voice full of gentle teasing.
I leaned my head back and let him kiss me, savoring the taste of taste of beer on his lips. “Mm. I think I read somewhere that anticipation is a fine aphrodisiac.”
He laughed, and it accentuated the adorable dimple in his right cheek. “Is that what this is? I thought maybe you were avoiding me because of the supply closet.”
“You weren’t scheduled to go in until tomorrow!”
His arm slid around my waist, and he pulled me against his muscular body. “I had to go pick up some eyedrops for Barley.” His aging golden retriever was falling apart at the seams, but Ben was determined to give him a good life for as long as possible. “And it’s okay, really. It’ll be easy to fix.”
I buried my face against his shoulder. “You are amazing.”
He tipped my chin up. “And I’m marrying an amazing woman. Come on. Your friend Chelsea’s just gotten here, and I know you haven’t see her in a while. Also, a couple of your aunts and uncles have already asked me when you’ll appear. We need to greet your guests.”
I laced my fingers with Ben’s and looked out over my parents’ sprawling backyard, crowded with my extended family and everyone from my mother’s book club to my preschool gymnastics coach. Chelsea, my best friend from college, lifted her glass and grinned from her spot at the makeshift bar next to the pool.
“They’re not all mine,” I said quietly. Feeling lame, I waved toward Franz, one of a handful of Ben’s patients (or, rather, the family members of Ben’s patients) I had invited to beef up his part of the guest list.
Ben laughed as Franz waved back enthusiastically, looking a little lost and desperate as he stood among a group of my parents’ church friends. “I’m really flattered he decided to come,” Ben said. “He’s much more comfortable surrounded by books and wine.” A professor of anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, Franz had invited us over to his home a time or two, where I spent the evening playing with his dachshund, Lemmie, and Ben and Franz huddled in his library discussing lofty topics they claimed were too boring for me to sit through.
“I’m glad he came, too.” I bit my lip. “But he’s not your family. We could have invited Asa, you know.”
Ben’s grip turned to iron. “You can’t be serious.”
“Come on, Ben. He’s your brother.”
“Listen, even if we could find him, and even if he were sober enough to show up, trust me—you don’t want my brother here.” His jaw clenched over the tremble in his voice. “And I don’t, either. He’s a criminal. A lowlife. He’s—”
“Ben, he’s the only family you’ve got left.” My heart ached for him. His mother had taken off when Ben was only a toddler, and he and Asa had been raised by their father, who died a few years back. “Weddings bring people together!”
“But with some people, that’s more of a curse than a blessing.”
“You don’t think he’d be happy for you?”
“Mattie, the last time we saw each other, he threatened to kill me.”
“What?” My eyes went wide. “You never mentioned that before!”
He bowed his head and shrugged. “It was a long time ago, and I don’t like to talk about it. But Asa’s just…he’s messed up. He’s got rage inside of him. And he’s always been jealous of me. Do you think it would help if he got a good look at all of this?”
I leaned my head on his shoulder. “I just wish you two could find your way back to each other. Family is important.”
“I’m building a new family, Mattie. And there’s no one I’d rather do it with.” He shoved his left hand in his pocket, and I knew his fingers were running over his lucky agate. Just one of the odd, endearing habits that had made me fall deeper in love with him. I watched his face as he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. And when he opened them, he smiled down at me. His hand rose from his pocket to stroke my cheek. “You are so beautiful,” he murmured.
I shivered with sudden pleasure. His touch was like a drug to me, and I was the happiest of addicts. As his fingertips trailed down my throat, my entire body tingled, and my hands balled in the fabric of his shirt, barely keeping me from sliding my palms up under it to feel his bare skin. “Do you think anyone would notice if we disappeared for a few minutes?”
My old bedroom was a few steps away, and I was already envisioning myself on the bed. His grip on my hips would be bruising and delicious. My body was already slick and soft and hot. I felt like I was one deft touch away from having an orgasm, right there on the deck. Ben’s hand spread across my back, steadying me, and he glanced down at my flushed cheeks with an appreciative grin. “What were you saying about anticipation?”
“Screw it. Or, wait, screw me. That would be even better.”
“If someone doesn’t bring me a damn plate of food, I’m going to starve!” said a gravelly voice to my left.
Ben released me instantly and clasped his hands behind his back, like a little boy caught stealing. My reaction wasn’t much better—I slapped my hands over my warm cheeks and turned toward the source of the complaint. “Grandpa! I-I was just coming to find you.”
Grandpa looked up at me from his wheelchair. Dad had parked him in the corner of the deck so that he could look out over the lawn. His wide-brimmed straw hat shaded his watery, red-rimmed eyes, and his gnarled hands were clawed over the armrests. “Yes, that much was obvious.”
Great. Grandpa had probably heard every word of my scheme to sneak in a quickie with my boyfriend (fiancé!). I blushed from my forehead to my toes. Could I just control myself for once in my life? “What would you like, Grandpa? Summer roll? Deviled eggs?”
Grabbing a plate and a napkin, I listened to Ben doing his best to make nice—and to Grandpa having none of it. I scooped up a few appetizers from each platter and turned just in time to see Ben reaching out to shake Grandpa’s hand. When my grandfather didn’t let go of the armrests, Ben saved face by giving Grandpa’s hand a friendly pat.
Grandpa jerked away like he’d been burned, first glaring at the back of his liver-spotted hand and then up at Ben. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he snapped.
Ben blinked down at his fingers, the shock on his face similar to my own. “I’m…sorry?”
“You should be,” Grandpa growled. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to, boy.”
“Try the eggs!” I said, rushing forward with the plate and nearly tripping in my strappy sandals. Stepping between my gaping fiancé and the tight-lipped old man who for some inexplicable reason had chosen the occasion of my engagement party to lose his mind, I put the plate in Grandpa’s lap because hey, snacks can fix nearly anything. (Despite everything that’s happened, I still believe that.)
“Mattie, I think I’m going to…um…I’m going to go make sure Franz is having a good time,” Ben said.
I threw him and apologetic look over my shoulder. “I’ll be there in a few.”
Grandpa didn’t touch the food. His hands were shaking as I knelt next to him, my sunny skirt fanning around me. “Grandpa,” I said gently. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” he said, though his voice had lost its edge. “My hospice nurse uses the same damn voice when I dare to express an opinion about anything other than whether I would or would not care for raisins in my oatmeal.” His tremulous fingers clutched at mine, and he sighed. “Never get old, Mattie.”
“I won’t.” My chest squeezed with regret. Just a few weeks ago, the doctors had announced he only had months to live. He looked okay—apart from the rattling couch that kept him up nights and fatigue and pain meds that made him groggy during too many of his waking hours—but lung cancer was taking him down. After the doctors’ verdict, my parents had shipped him all the way to Wisconsin from his home in Arizona so they could take care of him until the end. They’d said it was the best thing for him, and to my surprise he hadn’t objected. But he didn’t seem happy about it—especially because everyone was tiptoeing around him like he was going to keel over any second. I tried to take a different approach. “Hey. In exchange for not using the you’re-a-crazy-old-man voice, I want to know what just happened with Ben.”
He grunted. “It was nothing.”
“Nothing? You refused to shake my fiancé’s hand! I mean, if you overheard us just now, that was as much my fault as—”
“Mattie, how much do you know about him, really?”
“We’ve been together for three years!”
“That doesn’t mean you know his secrets.”
I frowned. “How about you tell me what you’re getting at?”
Grandpa rubbed at his chest as he looked over at the lawn, where Ben was mingling like a pro. “Ask him.”
Frustration began to creep in. Seriously, he had to pick this night to get all protective of my virtue? They’d spoken for two minutes. What could have gone that wrong that fast? “Grandpa, what did he say to you that has you this upset?”
“Find out everything you can about him. You owe it to yourself.” He turned back to me, his chin trembling. “You and I haven’t spoken much since your grandma died.”
I looked away, ashamed. “I’m sorry. I should have written more.” Or called. Or visited.
“Come have lunch with me tomorrow?”
“I have to work.”
“Okay.” I’d have to arrange with Jan, our practice manager, to cover the waiting room during what was usually her lunch break, but that wasn’t anything a box of Girl Scout cookies couldn’t fix.
“Mattie?” Ben called from the lawn. “The girl cousins are here.” His tone said, Help.
My aunt Rena’s four teenage daughters were a handful. I stood up and smoothed my skirt. “I’d better get down there before they stick one of their iPhones in Dad’s speaker dock and turn this into a rave.”
Grandpa squinted at me. “Are you speaking English?”
“Never mind.” I rubbed his shoulder. “Enjoy those eggs.”
I floated over to Ben, the incident already behind me. This was my engagement party, and I was marrying the love of my life. Nothing—and especially not my cranky old grandpa—was going to ruin it.
Re-printed with permission from 47North, copyright © 2016 by Sarah Fine