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Excerpt: Over the Rainbow

Prequel

Rainbow Rock Romance Series

Chapter One

Joan stood in the pouring April rain, her shoes sinking into red clay mud, her family gathered close around, her father’s metal casket shedding the storm as it rested beside the open grave. Oh, Daddy, how will we manage without you? She could not fathom a future without Big Jim McAllister. Half the population of Rainbow Rock, Arizona huddled under umbrellas nearby, sniffling and wiping tears. They feel the same way I do. Daddy was a fixture in this town.

 

Reverend Phelps, her family’s minister for most of her life, offered all the appropriate, comforting words, but Joan barely heard them. Her mother stood stoically on her right, presenting a brave face to the world, but when the minister spoke of Big Jim’s devotion to his family, she grabbed Joan’s hand, her white-knuckled grip tight enough to bruise Joan’s fingers. Joan winced but welcomed the pain as a physical outlet for her breaking heart.

At her left, her thirteen-year-old brother, Chris, leaned his head against her side, his arm tucked around her. He was the one who’d called her, four evenings ago. She was running late, hurrying to prepare for her evening humanities lecture, when her cell phone rang, playing “Timber,” the Lumberjack fight song. “Joan? It’s Chris. Dad’s had a heart attack. Mom went with the ambulance to the clinic in Holbrook, but we don’t know much more than that. Can you come?”

In that instant, her B grade in zoology, the Lumberjacks’ baseball game against Arizona State, and her question whether to tell her folks she’d changed her major all faded into nothingness. “Of course, kiddo. I’ll get there as fast as I can.” She’d gone straight to her apartment to throw a few things in a suitcase, called the counseling office to explain her upcoming absences, left a note for her roommate, and hit I-40 headed east, putting Flagstaff and the Northern Arizona University campus behind her.

She sighed. Only four days ago. Now, everything has changed. She held her youngest brother against her, offering what comfort she could. Maybe I shouldn’t go back to school at all. Mama and the boys will need me here as much as I need to be with them. Lightning cracked over the hills to the east and the almost immediate thunder signaled the storm’s increasing intensity and rapid approach. Looking skyward, the minister cut short whatever he had planned to say with the words, “We will all miss Jim terribly. Let us pray.”

The brief prayer ended in a quick Amen, and the mourners crowded toward the family, all of them eager to offer condolences before they ran for cover. Mama can’t handle this now. I need to get everyone inside. “We have coffee and light refreshments at the farm,” she said, stepping forward. “You’re all welcome to drop in. We’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

On the other side of their mother, Jimmy, her eldest brother, said, “Come on, Mama. Let’s get you out of this storm.”

“I don’t want to leave him like this.” The widow looked at the mud around the casket, the water pooling in the grave.

“We’ll see he’s taken care of, Kate.” Reverend Phelps nodded to the family. “You go on with your family. The storm is coming closer and the lightning may be on us soon. We all need to move indoors.”

Thunder rolled again, drawing nearer, almost as if seconding the minister’s point. “Come on, Mama,” Jimmy said again.

Middle brother, Kurt, added, “We’ll come back to check on the grave later after the storm has passed. Promise. We’ll make sure it’s okay.”

“Yes,” Kate said. “Yes.” Then, still in a trance-like state, she let Joan and Jimmy lead her to the family car. Chris and Jimmy held the umbrellas, but the rain sometimes got through, leaving Joan wishing she’d brought her own.

Joan held her mother’s elbow, watching with helpless worry. No way am I leaving her like this. Forget school. I’ll go back when I’m sure Mama’s okay. Maybe next semester.

Chris looked at her as if reading her mind. “Do you have to go back tomorrow?”

“No, kiddo. Not for a while.” Maybe not at all. Who knows if the family can even afford my tuition with Daddy gone? “I’ll be here as long as you need me.” The declaration rang in her ears as she helped her mother through the muddy cemetery with its sparse lawn—grass a rarity in this red, alkaline soil. She murmured “thank goodness” when they reached the family car safely.

****

The family home at Rainbow Rock Farms stood just below the crest of a small hill, welcoming and spacious. Big Jim McAllister had designed it himself and had done much of the manual labor. It had been the scene for many large-group gatherings in the past, but on this day, it could not accommodate the crowd that gathered to grieve his passing. Mourners filled the large open living space, kitchen, and front hallway, spilling out onto the wide, wrap-around porch. Joan left her mother inside with Jimmy while she played hostess outside.

Thank goodness the worst of the storm has passed. She watched the darkest clouds roll away. Rain fell gently now, even as the mourners’ tears calmed.

“There’ll be a rainbow soon.” The voice was unfamiliar, but soothing all the same.

Joan turned to see an attractive man near her own age. “Do I know you?”

He answered with a question. “You’re Joan, aren’t you?”

“Yes. And you?”

“Bob Riley, of Riley Agricultural Enterprises in Winslow.” He extended his hand and she took it. “We’ve done a lot of business with your dad over the years. He was one of the good ones.”

“One of the great ones,” she corrected, breaking the grasp.

The man raised his plastic cup in salute. “One of the great ones. You know, he always had wonderful praise for you.”

Joan’s hand shook and she set her cup on the porch railing. “Daddy talked about me?”

“Constantly. It was always ‘my daughter this’ and ‘my daughter that’. He was thrilled when you declared a business major. He expected you might take over the farm one day.”

“I never realized.” New tears rose. I’m glad I never told Daddy I changed majors. How that would have hurt him!

“Hey, hey.” Her tears seemed to fluster the poor guy, who fished in his pocket for a small pack of tissues and handed her a couple. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It isn’t you.” She sniffed, regaining control, searching for something to say. Get a man talking about his work. That’s usually a safe topic. “I’ve heard Daddy talk about your company, but I don’t know what Riley Enterprises does.”

“We’re agricultural brokers,” he began and went into a lengthy explanation of what that meant—something about putting sellers and buyers together and arranging financing where needed. “Like whenever your dad needed a huge shipment of hog feed or a regular supplier fell through,” he said. That was the only example she really heard.

Joan prided herself on being an astute listener, but today all she heard was the gentle baritone of this man’s voice. He wasn’t handsome, exactly. His look was too boyish for that, but she noticed the way his medium-brown hair shone bronze when a sunbeam broke through, and how his unusual hazel-green eyes, almost golden, crinkled at the corners when he smiled. He had a dimple, too, just one, on the right side of his very appealing mouth.

What is the matter with me? How can I be getting all moony over a man when my dad isn’t even in the ground? What kind of daughter does that make me?

Another sunbeam shone and Bob looked beyond her. “Look,” he said, touching her shoulder and gently turning her toward the east.

“Oh! A rainbow!” The bands of color were just forming, but it was most certainly a rainbow and, predictably, it lifted her spirits, making her feel less guilty about…well, almost everything.

Big Jim had loved rainbows. He loved the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and sang or hummed it whenever he saw the sky burst into color. He sang her to sleep with it once, when, as a little girl, she suffered a terrible bout of flu and panicked because she couldn’t breathe. He had eased her through her panic and taught her to count slowly as she breathed in and out. Then, when she calmed, he sang and rocked her until she finally rested. He told Joan of the rainbow goddess, a local deity still worshipped by some of her Navajo friends and often depicted in their weavings and other art. He liked to say that a rainbow made the connection between heaven and earth, another idea he’d borrowed from native cultures. Well, Daddy, you’re over the rainbow now.

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