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Authors: Rochelle Alers

Homecoming

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THE HIDEAWAY LEGACY FAMILY TREE

Hideaway

Martin Cole—Parris Simmons

Regina

Tyler

Ariana

Hidden Agenda

Alejandro Delgado—Eve Blackwell—Matthew Sterling

Christopher Delgado

Sara Sterling

Vows

Joshua Kirkland—Vanessa Blanchard

Emily

Michael

Heaven Sent

David Cole—Serena Morris

Gabriel

Alexandra

Ana and Jason

Harvest Moon

Oscar Spencer—Regina Cole—Aaron Spencer

Clayborne

Eden

Just Before Dawn

Salem Lassiter—Sara Sterling

Isaiah

Eve and Nona

Private Passions

Christopher Delgado—Emily Kirkland

Alejandro II

Esperanza

Mateo

No Compromise

Michael Kirkland—Jolene Walker

Reresa

Joshua

Homecoming

Tyler Cote—Dana Nichols

Martin II

Homecoming

Rochelle Alers

 

 

© 2012 by Rochelle Alers

All rights reserved. The reproduction, transmission or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission. For permission please contact Kimani Press, Editorial Office, 233 Broadway, New York, NY 10279 U.S.A.

Do not forget to do good and be generous, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

Hebrews 13:16

Prologue

The sound of voices raised in anger forced Dana Nichols to pull the handmade quilt over her head. However, it still did not muffle the hateful, virulent words her mother and father hurled at each other.

Before turning out the lamp on the bedside table, Dana did what she’d done for the past three months: she prayed—prayed for the shouting and accusations to stop and that her parents would soon settle their differences.

She loved her mother and father, wanting the three of them to live like a normal family. However, despite her tender years, she knew they would never be a normal family again. Not as long as Mommy continued to do the things Daddy said she did with other men.

“Stop lying to me, Alicia!” Harry Nichols’s accusation bounced off the walls in the room across from his daughter’s. “How can you still do it now that I have proof? Don’t you have any shame?”

“Do what, Harry?” Alicia countered, her voice lowering seductively.

“Tramp around.”

“Are you calling me a tramp? Are you calling the mother of your child a tramp?” Her tone indicated her husband had wounded her deeply.

“You should be ashamed to call yourself a mother.”

“How … how dare you!”

“I dare, Alicia. I dare because I love Dana. I’m the one who’s concerned about her well-being, not you.”

“I’m concerned about her, too.”

“Stop lying to me and yourself. I can’t believe you’ve come home with another man’s scent between your legs. At least you could’ve taken a bath before coming to my bed. But that doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve had enough of the lies and your sordid behavior.”

Ten-year-old Dana hadn’t known what sordid meant until she’d looked it up in the dictionary. What was it her mother was doing that was so dirty and filthy? What had her father meant about another man’s scent on her mother’s legs?

Alicia Sutton-Nichols’s seductive voice punctuated the swollen silence that ensued. “Are you threatening me, Dr. Nichols?”

“No, I’m not.” Harry’s voice was soft, calmer. “I’m going to divorce you, Alicia, and give you everything you’ve ever wanted since the first time you set out to seduce me. You can have this house and every stick of furniture in it. I’m also going to give you enough money to take you into old age. But what I will not give you is my daughter.”

Alicia laughed, the sound maniacal. “No, I know you’ve gone and lost your mind, Harry Nichols. Do you actually think I’m going to hand my child over to you like a sack of groceries you’ve paid for?”

“You don’t have a choice,” he countered. “You have the morals of an alley cat in heat and the reputation of a fifty-cent whore, so no judge within fifty miles of Hillsboro will ever award you custody of Dana. You’re unfit—as a wife
and
a mother.”

The sound of flesh hitting flesh resounded in the room like the crack of a rifle. “You sneaky, conniving bastard. I’ll never let you take my child from me.”

“You’ve never been more wrong in your life, Alicia.” Harry’s voice was dangerously soft and ominous. “And if you fight me for Dana, I swear I will destroy you.”

Dana burrowed deeper under the quilt, crying softly as her favorite psalm spilled from her trembling lips. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makest me to lie down in green pastures. He leadest me beside still waters …” The remaining verses whispered inside her head.

She finished the prayer, then repeated it over and over, unaware of the moisture soaking the pillow beneath her head.

Heavy footsteps were muffled in the thick pile of carpeting running the length of the hallway outside the bedrooms, the footsteps fading as Harry descended the staircase. The next sound was the slam of a solid door, followed by a car’s engine merging with the cacophony of nocturnal life serenading the Mississippi countryside.

Uncovering her head, she lay motionless, listening to the sound of her own heart pumping wildly in her chest. The fighting had stopped; it had ended—at least for now.

Wiping the back of her hand over her moist cheeks, she closed her eyes in the protective darkness of her bedroom. It took a while, but she was finally able to fall asleep.

Dana stirred once before the sun rose to herald the beginning of a new day. Another sound had disturbed her restless slumber. It was the rhythmic slamming of a shutter against the side of the house. A rising breeze meant cooler weather and hopefully a break in the heat wave that had held Mississippi and the Deep South in its brutal grip for more than six weeks. Daddy
had promised her he was going to get a carpenter in to repair the broken shutter, but so far he hadn’t.

Rolling over, she pressed her nose into her pillow, waiting for sleep to claim her again. She did not have to wait long. Within minutes she had forgotten the sound of her parents’ angry voices as soft snores escaped her parted lips.

What Dana Nichols did not know was that it would be the last night she would ever sleep under a roof with Harry
and
Alicia Nichols.

One

The day dawned as it had for the past ten weeks—early morning temperatures in the low eighties, a brilliant cloudless sky, and a continuing drought.

The earth that had been rich Mississippi Delta top-soil was bone-dry; water in small brooks and streams had evaporated, revealing their cracked beds, and the once-green shoots from spring plantings lay on the parched ground in seared repose.

The populace of the region looked to the heavens and prayed. The citizenry of Hillsboro, Mississippi, was no exception. They, too, prayed for rain, but for the first time in more than two months they had something else to talk about other than the weather.

The gossip had begun with Johnnie Mack, the undertaker, who told Reverend Wingate, the pastor of Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, who in turn informed Deacon Enright that Dr. Harry and Alicia Nichols’s daughter Dana had returned to Hillsboro to bury her maternal grandmother.

Two decades ago Georgia Sutton had taken her granddaughter north to live with her sister following the tragic deaths of Dana’s parents. Even now, twenty-two years later, longtime residents still whispered about how Harry Nichols had murdered his young beautiful wife, and hours after he’d claimed he’d discovered her
lifeless body, had set fire to his home to cover up the evidence of his heinous transgression. He’d been found guilty of the crime and sentenced to a term of life in prison. Harry’s scandalous criminal act was compounded when he subsequently took his own life. His suicide had coincided with his daughter’s eleventh birthday.

A stooped-shouldered figure stood off to the side in Hillsboro’s colored-only cemetery, waiting. Eugene Payton watched Dana Nichols as she stood at a freshly covered grave, head bowed, hands clasping a single red rose, and her lips moving silently.

He and Dana were not alone in the cemetery. A few of Hillsboro’s curious, non-believers, and gossipmongers had come with the pretense of placing flowers or saying prayers at the graves of their deceased family members.

Eugene was certain many were as shocked he was when he saw Dana Alicia Nichols for the first time in more than twenty years. Her resemblance to her late mother was uncanny. Only those who had viewed Alicia up close would’ve noticed the minute difference in the two women: Dana had a tiny mole high on her right cheekbone.

Not only did Dana look exactly like her murdered mother, but she had also inherited the woman’s sultry voice. The only difference was their speech patterns. Alicia had spoken with the slow cadence that had come from spending all of her life in the Deep South, while Dana had the flatter, more nasal inflection of upstate New York.

Despite his age and declining eyesight, he’d recognized her immediately when she came through the arrival gate at the Greenville Municipal Airport. She
hadn’t flown to Mississippi with a carry-on and garments bag, but with a large Pullman case and two other smaller pieces of luggage. As soon as he spied her coming toward him, Eugene knew Dana hadn’t come back to Hillsboro, Mississippi, to stay a week. She had come stay a while. She subsequently told him that she planned to remain in Hillsboro as long as it took for her to discover the truth behind her parents’ long-ago murder/suicide and at last clear her family’s name.

Dana finished all of the prayers she’d been taught as a child. She opened her eyes behind the lenses of her sunglasses. Her grandmother would’ve been proud that she hadn’t forgotten the prayers she had taught her. It wasn’t that Georgia Sutton was an overtly religious woman, because she wasn’t. She’d informed her granddaughter, however, that she was a spiritual person.

Georgia had stopped attending services at Hillsboro’s Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, because the church elders had debated for two days whether they would grant Georgia permission to have Alicia’s funeral at the church, which had prompted the older woman to have a graveside-only observance. Generations of Hillsboro Suttons had attended the historic church, but the tradition had ended with Georgia. She preferred staying home Sunday mornings, listening to church services on her radio, or viewing them on television. No one ever heard her speak a disparaging word about Mt. Nebo or its pastor. It was as if she’d forgotten their existence.

Bending at the knees, Dana placed the single rose on Georgia Rose Sutton’s grave. Georgia’s name had been carved into a headstone years before, but now a recent date had been added. Arrangements were made
before Dana was born that Georgia would be buried in the same plot as her husband.

“Take care, Grandma,” she whispered. “Tell Mama, Daddy, and Grandpa I said hello.”

Three red roses lay on an adjacent plot with the names of Alicia and Harry Nichols carved into a pale pink limestone headstone. Dana had placed one rose for her mother and one for her father on the grave. The third flower had come from a stranger. Every day of every year since the week following Alicia’s burial, the cemetery’s caretaker had placed a single flower on the grave. Sworn to secrecy, the man had never divulged who had paid him to place the flower on the controversial woman’s tombstone. The ritual was halted once—when Harry was buried in the same plot as his murdered wife—but resumed a month later.

Dana turned and smiled at Eugene Payton. The retired attorney had been more than gracious to her since her return. He’d offered the hospitality of his spacious home, but she’d declined, preferring instead to stay at the small house that had belonged to her grandparents.

Closing the distance between them, she curved her arm through his, as much for comfort as to support the older man, accompanying him out of the cemetery to where he’d parked his car.

“I want to thank you for everything, Mr. Payton.”

He patted her hand in a comforting gesture. “There’s no need to thank me, child. Your grandmother was my friend, and I promised her I would take care of you if anything happened to her.”

Dana covered his hand with hers. “And you’ve kept your promise.”

She stole a look at his profile. His once fair skin now resembled yellowed parchment. A profusion of age spots added more color to his angular face. The
epitome of an aging Southern black gentleman, Eugene still wore a collar, tie, and hat regardless of the temperature. Today it was a light blue seersucker suit, tie, white shirt, and a soft Panama straw hat. He had affected the style of turning down the brim on his hat, which afforded him a rakish look that hadn’t faded despite his age.

He gave Dana a comforting smile. “I’ll give you a few days for yourself, then I’ll call and come over to meet with you. There is the matter of your grandmother’s last will and testament and a few other legal documents that will require your signature.”

Nodding, she smiled. “Thank you.”

Lately, it was as if they were the only two words in her vocabulary. She was glad to have a few days to herself. Since the fateful telephone call, she hadn’t had more than four hours of uninterrupted sleep. Within hours, she’d informed the owner of the two-family house where she rented an apartment that she had to leave for Mississippi. She’d paid her rent four months in advance, while forwarding her mail and telephone calls to her grandmother’s address and number. She’d requested and was granted an emergency leave from her employer at the
Carrollton Chronicle
, a weekly with a total circulation of less than twelve hundred. The
Chronicle
had earned a place in publishing annals when it won a Pulitzer for its exposé of abuses at a foster home for adolescent girls in nearby Utica.

The abuses were as shocking as those involved—several employees at the state-funded facility were related to elected officials in the New York State Senate and Assembly. Dana had gone undercover as a counselor with a detective from the Utica Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit, and for seven months gathered enough evidence to send several involved to jail for lengthy sentences. The ripple effect was felt in Albany
after three elected officials had resigned under a cloud of suspicion.

Dana was promoted to associate editor and given a generous salary increase. But she had left the
Chronicle
and everything familiar behind to return to Mississippi.

She had left Hillsboro at the age of eleven, returning for the first time at thirty-three, and now with the death of her grandmother, there was nothing left connecting her to her place of birth except rumors of scandal, adultery, murder, arson, and suicide.

The set of her delicate jaw and the look of determination in her amber-colored eyes were something many in Hillsboro would have been familiar with. It was the same look Alicia Sutton had employed once she had set out to seduce the man she wanted to marry and father her children.

Dr. Tyler Cole had caught snippets of gossip about a family named Nichols from his patients at the Hillsboro Women’s Health Clinic. He had relocated to Mississippi as a Johns Hopkins University Medical-College-trained obstetrician-gynecologist to participate in a government-sponsored research study targeting infant-mortality rates.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services had documented and identified Hillsboro, Mississippi, as having one of the highest rates in the country. He’d accepted the assignment to offer quality prenatal care to below-poverty-level women with the proviso that he live in Hillsboro for five years. It would be the first time since he’d become a doctor that he would spend more than three consecutive years in one city. At forty-one years of age, he was ready to put down roots and call a place home.

Home
.

A slow smile deepened matching dimples in his suntanned cheeks. He hadn’t called a city or state home in twenty-three years—not since he’d left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at eighteen for premed studies. He’d become a nomad, moving from city to city whenever he was recruited for a new study. His name and celebrated reputation had become synonymous with medical research.

However, it wasn’t smal- town gossip that garnered his attention, but pregnant women receiving adequate prenatal care as a requisite to delivering a health baby.

The hot morning sun beat down on Tyler’s exposed arms, as he berated himself for taking the early morning walk. A layer of moisture coated his exposed flesh. He was Southern-born and bred, having grown up in central Florida, but never in his life had he ever experienced the intense heat holding the inhabitants of the Delta hostage in a savage grip from which there appeared no immediate escape.

What he’d seen of Hillsboro, he liked. It was small, its inhabitants were friendly, and the pace was slow enough to lend it a laid-back ambiance. What he liked most was that it was wholly Southern in character, because his Southern roots ran deep: he had relatives whose families had been native Floridians for four generations.

The house he’d commissioned an architectural firm to design was now complete. It was reminiscent of an historic Mississippi mansion. A pillared front, low-pitched roof, recessed entry, and intricate railings identified the structure as true Southern-style Greek Revival.

He’d moved to Hillsboro last August, and it was now the first week in June and he’d lived in his house for two weeks. The contracting crew had put the final touches on painting the exterior a week before, while
the landscaper had completed the gardens his older sister, Regina Spencer, had designed for him.

Tyler had been anxious to move in because he’d been living in a tiny one-bedroom cottage behind a bed-and-breakfast for nine months. Several times a week he took his breakfast at the B&B, but had made it a practice to prepare his own dinner in the cottage’s tiny utility kitchen. After working an average of ten hours a day, six days a week, he coveted his privacy.

Coming over a slight rise now, he spied the two-story plantation house gleaming whitely in the brilliant sun. Slowing his pace, he made his way across a path of rose-pink bricks laid out in a herringbone pattern. Taking long strides, he mounted three steps to a solid oak door painted a distinctive sapphire blue that matched the shutters framing the windows. Wiping his feet on a mat, he unlocked the front door at the same time the cell phone clipped to the waistband of his jeans chimed softly.

A slight frown lined his smooth forehead. The only time his phone rang that early was when his service called him. And that usually meant a summons to the county hospital for the delivery of a baby.

Slipping the phone off his waist, he stared at the numbers showing on the display, his frown fading. The area code and number were familiar. Pressing the TALK button, he said softly, “Yes?”

A husky feminine voice came through the earpiece. “Have you deleted hello from your vocabulary?”

“Of course not, Mom. What do I owe the honor of hearing your mellifluous voice so early in the morning?” It was five
A.M.
Central Time. He could always identify his mother’s sultry voice.

“I just hung up with Arianna. She and Silah have decided to move to the States.”

Tyler smiled. His youngest sister had finally married
her live-in Moroccan-born dress-designer boyfriend earlier in the year.

“When?”

“She says she wants her baby born on American soil.”

His smile was dazzling. “She’s pregnant?”

“Yes. She found out last week. At thirty-seven, she’s a little anxious about the baby.”

“Even though she’s now in the high-risk category, she shouldn’t worry too much.”

“That’s what I told her,” Parris Cole said. “But I didn’t try to dissuade her from coming back home. Just for once I’d like one of my grandchildren to be born in the United States.” Her eldest daughter, Regina Cole Spencer, lived in Bahia, Brazil, and although Regina’s son and daughter had elected to come to the States for their higher education, Parris still had not gotten to see them grow up.

“Have they decided where they’re going to live?”

“I’ve offered them the house in Fort Lauderdale. Your father couldn’t understand why I refused to let him sell that house until now. Arianna was ecstatic when I told her she could have the property.”

Martin and Parris Cole had relocated to West Palm Beach, where they’d taken up permanent residence at the Cole family ancestral estate to care for Martin’s 101-year-old mother.

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