A Novel


By Leila Meacham

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A recently orphaned girl moves to the Texas panhandle and struggles to forge new friendships in a town of football glory in this unforgettable novel of surprising plot twists and unexpected beginnings.

Recently orphaned, eleven-year-old Cathy Benson feels she has been dropped into a cultural and intellectual wasteland when she is forced to move from her academically privileged life in California to the small town of Kersey in the Texas Panhandle where the sport of football reigns supreme. She is quickly taken under the unlikely wings of up-and-coming gridiron stars and classmates John Caldwell and Trey Don Hall, orphans like herself, with whom she forms a friendship and eventual love triangle that will determine the course of the rest of their lives.

Taking the three friends through their growing up years until their high school graduations when several tragic events uproot and break them apart, the novel expands to follow their careers and futures until they reunite in Kersey at forty years of age. Told with all of Meacham’s signature drama, unforgettable characters, and plot twists, readers will be turning the pages, desperate to learn how it all plays out.


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Chapter One

On the night of January first, 1979, two hours into the New Year, Emma Benson saw a cross on the moon. Wrapped in her old flannel robe, awakened by a strange disquiet, she stepped outside her clapboard house in the town where she'd lived all her life, deep in the Texas Panhandle, and stared up at the unearthly sight, disturbed by a sense the cross was an omen meant personally for her.

The next day, she was informed that her last surviving child and his wife had been killed in a car accident coming home from a New Year's Eve party. The caller identified himself as Dr. Rhinelander, a neighbor and close friend of Sonny and her daughter-in-law. He and his wife would keep the couple's eleven-year-old daughter, Cathy, with them, he said, until the courts or whoever was in charge decided what to do with her.

"What do you mean—the courts?" Emma asked.

She heard a painful sigh. "I'm speaking of foster care, Mrs. Benson."

Foster care. Her granddaughter, blood of her blood, growing up under the roof of strangers?

But who else was there to take her? Where else could she go? There were no family members left. Emma's daughter-in-law had been an only child, adopted by a couple long past childbearing years and now deceased. Her other son, Buddy, had been killed in Vietnam. She was the only surviving blood connection to the child, but she was someone the little girl had met only once and had probably forgotten, since Emma suspected her name and family place were rarely, if ever, mentioned in her son's household.

But she heard herself say, "If you'll allow Catherine Ann to stay with you until I arrive, Dr. Rhinelander, I will bring her home with me."

Emma, who had never flown in an airplane and had ridden the train only twice in her youth, booked a flight from Amarillo to Santa Cruz, California, and in the confining six hours in the middle seat of her row—cotton inserted into her ears to block the petulant whining and fractious misbehavior of the four-year-old boy behind her—worried to what extent her second son's genes had infected his daughter. Her observation had been that, nine times out of ten, first daughters took after their fathers, not only in physiological structure and temperament but also in character, whereas firstborn sons echoed their mothers'. Her first son, Buddy, had proved no exception.

But Sonny, coming along later, hadn't a drip of sap from the family tree running in him. Vain, materialistic, self-entitled, with a capacity for empathy no bigger than the eye of a needle, he had felt designed for a more exalted plane than the one on which he'd been born. "I was cut out for something better than this," Emma could remember him stating, wounding her profoundly, and at the first opportunity he had taken off to correct the mistake that nature had made. He had rarely come home again, and after his marriage to a woman who shared his temporal values, only once. He said he'd come to introduce Emma to his wife and daughter, but he had come to borrow his brother's life insurance money paid to her when he was killed. She'd refused. Sonny's disaffection for her continued, abetted by his stylish wife who had barely been able to conceal a sniff at the surroundings in which her husband had grown up. Emma had read her disdain to mean that hell would freeze before she exposed her daughter to the place of her father's birth and the stern, no-nonsense woman who had raised him. And as Emma had correctly interpreted, they'd never come again, nor invited her to their home in California. But she remembered well the delicate, feminine, startlingly pretty little four-year-old who almost from Emma's hello had crawled into the safety of her daddy's lap and refused to have anything to do with her.

Emma had thought her lamentably spoiled. You had only to look at the expensive clothes and toys, to hear the cooing and baby talk, to observe how her parents stood at the ready to grant her every wish and desire, to know that when she grew up she'd have the substance of a cube of sugar. Still, she was an enchanting little thing with her father's curly blond hair and big blue eyes, gazing—shyly or coyly, Emma couldn't tell—from beneath long lashes that in sleep lay like downy feathers on the sweet, creamy curve of her cheeks. Emma had a picture of her from that time displayed on her bedside table.

Catherine Ann was now eleven years old, perhaps a legatee of the chemical unit that carried hereditary characteristics from parent to child, her attitudes already formed by her upbringing and the ways and lifestyle of her native state. How did you transplant such a child from palm trees and ocean and permissive parenting to prairie and scrub brush and the care of a grandmother who still maintained that children should be raised to understand they were precious but not the center of the universe? That little boy in the seat behind her was a good example of the new child rearing. Heaven forbid that, despite his confinement, he should be expected to respect the eardrums of those around him.

There were bound to be fundamental conflicts, perhaps never overcome, but Emma understood her duty and, at sixty-two, was prepared to put her heart at risk for the loss of yet another child.

Chapter Two

Here we are, Catherine Ann," Emma Benson said, striking a light tone as she drew into the garage of her house in Kersey, Texas. "It won't take long to get the house warm, but we'll hurry it along with a cup of hot chocolate. Would you like that?"

As had been the case since their meeting in Santa Cruz, her granddaughter's answer was an inscrutable stare, but Emma could guess what was going on behind those blue eyes now that Catherine Ann had gotten her first glimpse of her new home. "I'll take that as a yes," Emma said, and hurried to unlock the kitchen door before the child was too long exposed to the freezing temperature in a coat too thin for Panhandle winters. "Oh blast!" Emma said. The key would not turn—another blow to first impressions—and now she'd have to go out into the wind and sleet to the front door to let them in.

Her granddaughter stood shivering beside her, silent, stoic, expressionless as she'd been all week. Selective mutism, Dr. Rhinelander had termed her condition, claiming to be only a pediatrician and no child psychiatrist, but Catherine Ann demonstrated every one of its symptoms. "It's usually a temporary disorder associated with anxiety or trauma and is characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings," he'd explained. "Right now Cathy is mute to all but those she knows and trusts." He'd given Emma's six-foot, unadorned, rawboned figure a quick, clinical glance. "I mean no offense, Mrs. Benson, but you look a formidable woman, and Cathy has gone mute in your presence because she doesn't feel safe with you. You are a stranger to her. She chooses to remain silent because, considering everything that's happened, she finds safety in silence. She'll speak when she trusts you."

Emma gave the key another try. "The darn key won't work. I don't know when I last locked this door. Not in years, I reckon. In this town, we don't lock doors." She gave up the effort and turned to Cathy. "Tell you what. You get back in the car to stay warm until I go through the front of the house to open the door from inside. Okay?"

Resolutely the little girl stepped to a shelf in front of the garage and stood on tiptoe to take down a can of motor oil. She brought it to Emma. Try that, she said with her eyes, her tool of communication in the last seven days. Emma took the can, heartened at even this small exchange. "Aren't you the clever one!" she said. "Why didn't I think of this?"

A little dab on the key and they were inside the kitchen within seconds. Emma bustled about to turn on the stove and a wall panel heater while the little girl stood motionless, rigid from the cold, the knot of her balled hands visible in her coat pockets. She probably thinks she's been dropped into a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland, Emma thought, feeling the child's bewildered gaze inspect her outdated kitchen. The Santa Cruz kitchen, like the rest of the house, had been large and sunny and as state-of-the-art as the latest layout in Better Homes and Gardens.

"Would you like to go into the den and sit while I make us that cocoa?" she asked. "You'll be more comfortable in there once the room warms up."

The child replied with a brief nod and Emma led her into a comfortably shabby room where she watched television, read, and did her needlework. The child flinched at the sudden whoosh and flash of fire behind the grill when Emma turned on the wall heater. Cathy's home in California boasted central heating, of course.

"Would you like to watch TV?" Emma asked.

A head shake, also barely perceptible. The child, still in her coat, sat in a chair close to the heater and turned around to inspect Emma's book collection that occupied an entire wall. A librarian by profession, she had organized the books according to interest rather than by author. Catherine Ann removed The Little Prince from the shelf of young people's books. Her gaze returned to Emma. May I?

"Of course. You've never read that book before?"

Her granddaughter held up two fingers. Twice.

"Oh, you've read the book two times? The Little Prince is certainly worth reading more than once. It's always good to return to familiar things. They can remind us of happy times."

It was the wrong thing to say. Emma saw a flicker deep in the blue eyes as if a memory had surfaced, and a veil of sadness fell over the child's delicate face. She returned the book to the shelf. "Well, then," Emma said, swallowing quickly, "I'll just get that cocoa."

In the kitchen, she slumped against the counter, giving in to a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. She'd thought she was adequate for the task at hand, but how was it possible, considering all that her granddaughter had lost and what little Emma had to give, to fill the gap left in that little girl's life? How could she ever be a substitute for her parents? How could the schools in Kersey, with their emphasis on football and other sports, provide her the quality of education and cultural advantages she'd known? How would this little girl with her air of refinement fit in with the countrified ways of her classmates? And how in the world could she be happy here in Emma's modest house when she'd been growing up in a luxuriously furnished home with her own TV set and stereo record player—and, shining in one corner of the living room, a baby grand piano!—and a backyard outfitted with swimming pool and playhouse and every conceivable object on which to slide and jump and climb?

How could Emma rescue what was left of her childhood?

"Give her time," Dr. Rhinelander had told Emma. "Children are so resilient, Cathy more than most. She'll come around."

Was the man insane? In the course of a week, Catherine Ann's parents had been killed and her home gone on sale. She'd been parted from her best friend, her piano, the progressive private school she'd attended since kindergarten, the pretty town she'd lived in all her life—from everyone and everything dear and familiar to her—to go live in the Texas Panhandle with a grandmother she did not know.

And today the region had never looked bleaker. When Emma had turned onto Highway 40 out of Amarillo toward Kersey, the child's eyes had dilated, speaking louder than words her panic that she'd been carted to the end of the earth. Emma could hardly disagree with her impression. The prairie in winter offered nothing to crow about. It stretched dead and brown into a vast, endless nothingness, broken now and then only by a distant farmhouse or a knot of cows huddled miserably against the wind-driven sleet. The little towns they passed through off the interstate looked especially dismal this gray Sunday afternoon with their main streets deserted and store windows dark and forlorn Christmas decorations still strung from lampposts, beaten about by the wind.

To coax the child from her despondency, Emma had described the prairie in spring, how it looked like a never-ending carpet of wildflowers—"the most beautiful, transformed sight you'd ever want to see," she declared, when her enthusiasm was interrupted by the awestruck pointing of the child's finger.

"Oh, my God," Emma said.

A mass of gray tumbleweeds barreled toward them off the prairie, dozens of dried uprooted Russian thistles propelled by the wind and looking like a band of malevolent ghosts set on attacking the car. Emma could not pull to a stop before the horde was upon them, clawing at Catherine Ann's side of the Ford. Her granddaughter squealed, tucked her elbows close to her sides, and covered her head with her hands.

"It's okay, Catherine Ann," Emma said, stopping the car to enfold her granddaughter's tightly compressed body into her arms. The tumbleweeds had scattered and scuttled off, those that had not broken apart from the assault on the Ford. "They're only dried plants, a weed," she explained gently. "You'll find them throughout the Southwest. In winter when they've matured, the parts aboveground break off from the root and tumble away in the wind. That's why they're called tumbleweeds. Sometimes a whole colony takes off together and forms the phenomenon we just saw. They're scary as all get out, but they're not harmful."

She could feel the terrified pounding of the child's heart through the fabric of her coat. Most children, seeing such a spectacle, would have flown to safety in the arms of the nearest adult, but Catherine Ann had not. She'd looked to herself for protection. The observation had left Emma with a well-remembered feeling of rejection.

"Cathy is very self-sufficient, despite the doting of her parents," Beth, the wife of Dr. Rhinelander, had told Emma.

Self-sufficient. Emma pried the lid off a box of Nestlé's Quik. Was that another word for indifference to parental love and instruction she'd endured from the child's father?

At their reintroduction, Catherine Ann's cool, blue-eyed gaze had reminded Emma so much of Sonny's that a chill had gripped her, and she'd instantly felt the conflict of love and revulsion that had plagued her feelings for him. In the hectic week of arranging for the funeral, getting the house ready for sale, packing boxes to be shipped to Kersey and luggage for the plane—all without hearing a word leave the child's lips—Emma had looked for genetic indicators that pegged Catherine Ann as Sonny's daughter. Other than the fine features and coloring of her handsome father, Emma had found none, but they were hard to spot behind a wall of silence.

Most of the information she'd learned of Catherine Ann had come from Beth. "She's very bright, curious, often treated younger than she is because she's small for her age. But you learn fast enough who you're dealing with. She's been so good for our shy daughter, Laura. She's given her confidence she wouldn't have otherwise."

When Emma had gone to collect Catherine Ann's school records from Winchester Academy, an institution founded exclusively for gifted children, the principal had confirmed Beth's impression of her granddaughter's intelligence. "You do know what Cathy aspires to be when she grows up?" he'd asked.

Emma had to say she'd no idea.

"A doctor. Most children toss that notion about with no more strength behind it than crepe paper in the rain, but I wouldn't put the goal past Cathy."

Emma peeked into the TV room to find her granddaughter sitting where she'd left her, hands folded on her lap, feet crossed, body still, the look of an abandoned child on her face but the self-containment of her father evident in every line of her posture. A wave of despair washed over Emma. She'd shouldered a lot of sadness in her life—her husband's railroad accident early in their marriage that had left her a widow and her sons fatherless, her firstborn's death in Vietnam, his brother's years-long alienation from her, and now his eternal loss without hope of their reconciliation—but how could she bear Catherine Ann's refusal to accept the love she was heartsick to offer? How could she withstand the extension of her son's indifference in his little automaton of a daughter?

Emma brought in the cups of cocoa. "Here we go—," she started to say, but her voice broke, and she could not go on. Grief blocked her throat, grief for her boys she would never see again, for the son lost to her in war and the other from his birth, the one she'd loved the best. Tears began to slide down her cheeks, and then, to her astonishment, the little automaton rose and stood stiffly in front of her, her smooth brow puckered—what's wrong?—and an empathetic cast in her eyes. Don't be sad.

Inside her, the little seed of hope sprouted that now Emma realized Beth Rhinelander had meant to implant as they'd said their good-byes. "Cathy is her own person," she'd whispered into her ear. Emma was still holding the hot cups, and as her granddaughter came between them she bent down to receive the child's arms around her neck and the tender pat of a small hand on her back.

Chapter Three

Through the kitchen window overlooking her backyard, Mabel Church watched her eleven-year-old nephew, Trey Don Hall, and John Caldwell, his best friend, toss a football to each other in the last light of the winter afternoon. Trey's face still held a trace of petulance in contrast to John's good-humored expression, and Mabel heard him say, "Oh, come on, TD. We just have to look after her for a week or so, and then our indenture will be over!"

Indenture. One of the words on the boy's sixth-grade vocabulary list. Trey insisted on using double negatives as a way of sounding macho, but both of them enjoyed flinging about new words in their conversations with each other, a practice Mabel hoped would impress Catherine Ann Benson. Regrettably, Emma's granddaughter sounded too smart for her own good—certainly for Kersey Elementary School, one of the reasons Emma had requested Mabel to ask the boys to look after her for a couple of weeks after she enrolled. The other was even more off-putting in a primary school setting. Emma's granddaughter suffered from "selective mutism," but only temporarily, Mabel's old friend had explained, "until Catherine Ann can adjust to her new surroundings."

Emma had the idea that Catherine Ann's transition into Kersey Elementary School would be made easier if Trey and John, the undisputed leaders of the sixth grade, were to set the example of how she should be treated—with courtesy and respect. "Appeal to their male vanity," she'd suggested. "Tell them that since they're the kingpins of their class, the others will take their cue from them, follow their lead." Emma was convinced that no one would dare make fun of Catherine Ann if the boys took her under their protective wing.

Mabel had broached the subject that afternoon as the boys were doing their homework around her kitchen table. As she'd expected, her nephew's face had screwed up as if he were eating turnips when she explained what looking after Catherine Ann entailed.

"Forget it, Aunt Mabel. We're not babysitting a mute, sitting with her in the cafeteria, sticking with her on the playground. How would that make John and me look? We sit at the jock table at lunch and play football during recess."

"She's not a mute," Mabel had attempted to explain. "She's simply lost the will to speak for a while. It's a condition brought on from the shock of her parents' sudden deaths and her whole world being turned upside down in a matter of days. She's been hauled away from everything and everyone she knows to an unfamiliar place of strangers. She's been totally orphaned. No wonder she's lost her voice. You can understand that, can't you, Trey Don?"

John had spoken up. "Of course he understands it. We both do." He looked at Trey. "Think about it, TD. The girl's parents just died. She's an orphan. We know what that's like. Miss Emma's right. The other kids will make fun of her if we don't protect her. You know how mean Cissie Jane and her group can be."

Mabel's heart had warmed toward him. She loved that he called her aunt. John Caldwell was not her nephew, but she felt as much akin to him as she did to her sister's child. It was times like these that Mabel saw the clear results of family heredity, a subject she and Emma often discussed and on which they agreed. The generous blood of John's mother, God rest her soul, flowed in John, while Trey Don's veins ran with her selfish baby sister's. But John's reference to orphan had grazed a nerve in her nephew. His parents were alive. They just didn't know where. Trey's father had disappeared before he was born, and his mother had taken off with who knew what sort of trash after she'd deposited her four-year-old son with Mabel and her husband "for only a few days."

They never saw her again.

Trey had asked reluctantly, "What does she look like?" his dark eyes hopeful that Catherine Ann did not favor Miss Emma.

"Well, I'm glad you asked that," Mabel said, brightening. "Emma says she's very pretty. A blue-eyed blonde. She's small in size, but independent and gutsy, not clingy at all."

"It doesn't matter what she looks like," John said. "We'll do it, Aunt Mabel. Count us in. When do we meet her?"

"Not until next Monday. I suggested that you children meet beforehand, but Emma doesn't think that's a good idea because of the speech problem."

Trey had fumed and argued, but John's reference to orphan had taken the wind out of his objections. He'd gotten in the last word by saying, "Don't expect us to carry her books!"

It was too cold for them to be outside, but Mabel observed them for a few more minutes before attempting to call them in. It was easy to see why they were the princes of the sixth grade. Already, at eleven, burgeoning athletes, they were tall and well formed and handsome—heartbreakers in the making. They were intelligent, too, and interested in their studies and making good grades. No slouches, either one, but what would Emma's cultured granddaughter think of them—and they of her? The child could read and speak French, had studied art, had taken ballet since she was six, and excelled at the piano—"and here I am with no piano to offer her," Emma had called to lament.

Mabel recalled Sonny Benson well. He had broken Emma's heart. God help her oldest and dearest friend if daughter was like father, and God help Catherine Ann if she took his snobbish ways into Kersey Elementary School.

SIX DAYS LATER, on a late Sunday afternoon, Trey left John's house and made a detour. Usually when leaving John's, he went straight on down the block to Aunt Mabel's home on the corner, but on this particular afternoon Trey decided to walk over to the next street where Miss Emma lived, despite his hatred of the cold and wind and snow.

He'd never dreaded anything more than the adjustment in his life coming tomorrow morning when he and John had to act as Catherine Ann Benson's bodyguards. He'd made John promise they'd be enslaved for only a week. There had been daily bulletins of the new girl's progress in adjusting to her "culture shock" (his aunt's term), telephoned in by Miss Emma, but he still had no idea what he and John were in for.

The girl was finally starting to speak a little, and Miss Emma had taken her to Penney's in Amarillo to buy her a warmer coat and shoes and jeans and flannel shirts, the type of clothes the sixth-grade girls wore in Kersey Elementary School. He'd been relieved to hear that. How embarrassing if she'd shown up in the kinds of things they wore in her private school back in California—uniforms and knee socks, so Miss Emma had told Aunt Mabel. Imagine, knee socks!

Miss Emma had tried to keep Catherine Ann occupied with things like baking cookies to take to the nursing home, looking at photo albums of her father as a boy, and searching for soil breaks in the flower beds that meant the daffodils would soon be up. How those activities could fill anybody's time Trey didn't know, but he guessed they were the kinds of things girls liked. He and John had wondered how Miss Emma's granddaughter would react to Sampson, the old turtle that lived in her backyard and looked like a prehistoric monster. Trey had bet she'd faint right on the spot when Sampson crawled out of his hole on his powerful, reptilian legs and made a beeline for the treat in Miss Emma's pocket like a military tank on the attack. To Trey's surprise, the two had cottoned to each other right away, and the new girl took over the job of feeding him. The day before, after the night's big snowfall, Miss Emma had helped her to build a snowman or, rather, a snow queen. Miss Emma had gone on and on telling his aunt how creative Catherine Ann was in choosing a fluted fruit bowl for a crown, a barbeque fork for a scepter, and a portion of red oilcloth for a sash. It was the first time the new girl had ever seen snow.

A big panel truck with Ace Plumbing written on the door was parked on his side of the street across from Miss Emma's house. He stopped beside it, his feet beginning to tingle inside his boots from the cold. The snow queen was in the front yard. It had black bottle caps for eyes, a funnel for a nose, and red buttons arched into a smiling mouth. The look was actually pretty neat.

The front door opened and Catherine Ann Benson ran out. Hatless, mittenless, her coat unbuttoned, she rushed to the snow queen, her cheeks flushing red almost immediately, her hair dancing in the wind, her small white hands like butterflies fluttering with the sash, the funnel, an awry button. Then she flew back up the steps and closed the door behind her.

Trey stood stock-still on the sidewalk. As he was hidden by the truck, she had not seen him. A feeling he'd never known before took command of him. He felt unable to move, as if he'd been captured in the beam of a spaceship. He could not feel the cold and wind. His hands and feet did not exist. He felt only the shock of having glimpsed an angel drop to earth, then disappear, the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen. Slowly, when he could get his feet to obey, he turned homeward, the snow like magic dust beneath his boots. He would keep his brief glance of Catherine Ann Benson to himself, a secret he would not share even with John, until tomorrow morning when he would introduce himself to her and become her protector for the rest of her life.


  • "Roses heralded as new Gone with the Wind."—USA Today
  • "As large, romantic, and American a tale as Texas itself."—Booklist
  • "An enthralling stunner....A compelling saga with echoes of Gone with the
    Wind."—Publishers Weekly
  • "It's been almost 30 years since the heyday of giant epics...but Meacham's
    debut might bring them back. Readers who like an old-fashioned saga will
    devour this sprawling novel of passion and revenge."—Library Journal

On Sale
Jun 19, 2012
Page Count
480 pages

Leila Meacham - Author

Leila Meacham

About the Author

Leila Meacham was a writer and former teacher who lived in San Antonio, Texas. She was the author of the bestselling novels Roses, Tumbleweeds, Somerset, and Titans. For more information, please visit LeilaMeacham.com.

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