Earthly Vows


By Patricia Hickman

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The award-winning author of Fallen Angels, Nazareth’s Song, and Whisper Town delivers the final novel in the acclaimed Millwood Hollow Series of role reversals, strange bedfellows, and ultimate redemption. Jeb Nubey and Fern Coulter are finally setting a wedding date, but their plans are derailed when a trip to Oklahoma to visit Fern’s family catapults them into Fern’s past ‘the past she would prefer remained buried. Additionally, the challenges and perks that come with the wealthy community church Jeb is called to lead give him food for growth; however, this new found enlightenment appears arrogant in light of Fern’s insecurities. In the midst of their struggles, Jeb and Fern must also deal with the disappearance of Angele ‘Jeb’ s adopted daughter. He must retrieve her from the dangerous young man who has played on her vulnerabilities and lured her away promising to fill the emptiness she feels. Earthly Vows takes a look at how easily those we think we know so well can fall into behaviors and make decisions we would never expect. Through this, Hickman shows how broken circles can be redeemed and how we can find beauty in life’s flaws.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2006 Patricia Hickman

All rights reserved.


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First eBook Edition: April 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56149-5


A special thank-you to Jim Gabbert of the State Historical Society, for providing me with the facts about Oklahoma City, Ardmore, and Norman during the 1930s.

Thanks to the Warner team for your faith and confidence in the Millwood Hollow series.

Thanks to my peers and the fantastic faculty at Queens University for your input and comments.


THE AIR WAS STIFLING HOT, INSULATED BY the hard blue Oklahoma sky. The meeting in the campus president's office convened beneath the shade of the oldest oak tree on the Bible school campus. Jeb loosened his tie. The summer of 1936 was breaking all heat records. A student strummed a hymn on an oversized guitar, not far from where Jeb stood with Jonathan Flauvert, the school's president. It was agitating, but he didn't let on. It was hard to keep his composure, what with the heat. But Flauvert was long in description, and what he had to say left Jeb stunned.

Abigail Coulter, his fiancée's mother, arranged for all of them to meet two of Fern's brothers and their wives for lunch, to tell them of their engagement. That was all that had been made of the trip to Ardmore. Jeb did not tell Fern of the small detail in Gracie's letter from Cincinnati. There was no need. It was probably nothing.

His introduction to Jonathan Flauvert was through a mutual friend, his former mentor Reverend Philemon Gracie, the preacher who penned the letter tucked in his coat pocket. Jonathan walked him into the shade of the oak that centered the Bible school campus. "I won't beat around the bush. Our church committee has read your letter of recommendation from Philemon Gracie. We want to offer you a church here in Oklahoma."

Jeb had not misread Gracie's hint about a new pulpit opportunity. Maybe he should have mentioned it to Fern after all. But if it amounted to nothing, then why trouble her?

Philemon retired a few years ago from the Church in the Dell in Nazareth. He was nursing an ulcer but kept close contact with Jeb, whom he had trained to assume his post. When Jeb wrote and told him of their upcoming trip to Ardmore, Gracie must have sent a letter of introduction at once to the dean of the school. "Gracie told me he was finagling a deal," said Jeb. He was astonished. "This is what he meant. My only scholastic background was gotten under his tutelage, Dr. Flauvert. Did he tell you that?" he asked.

"Gracie is highly respected here on our campus. Your credentials are respectable."

There was no harm in asking, so Jeb said, "I'd like to know more about the church, Reverend. The work in Nazareth has come through a lot of fires, so to speak. But I'll admit that the thought of a change has crossed my mind lately." He and Fern had known the best and worst of times at Church in the Dell. "My fiancée has settled in Nazareth. I don't know what she'll say."

"Your engagement is recent?"

"A few months," said Jeb.

"I hear your fiancée is a connoisseur of antiquities," said Reverend Flauvert. He was a short man with hair so blond that the rest of him looked as pink as a salmon. He walked with toes out, black shoes worn at the heels, but polished.

Gracie evidently said more about Fern and him than he admitted. "She not only collects them, but reads every book in her library and the town's library," said Jeb. "You've not seen a library like Fern's. Fern buys books before she buys food."

"Maybe a gift will help to soften her up." The president smiled. "Fern sounds the intelligent type." He opened a small box that held a book, an old copy of Jane Eyre.

"You know her mother lives in Ardmore. Dad's buried right on the family estate." That didn't mean she'd jump at the chance to move back here. Her trips to Ardmore were slow in coming.

"Give her the book first, just in case." Flauvert was sober, much like Gracie. "Allow me to walk you out to your automobile," he said. He opened up the book and showed him the title page and the scrawled ink beneath the title. He kept pushing his eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose. "There's another matter, a matter of a dinner party Friday night. My wife, Rachel, has no use for parties. One of the parishioners is a businessman in Oklahoma City and he and his wife throw lavish dinner parties. When the Oakleys heard of you, they wanted you in their pulpit on Sunday. They insisted that you come into the city Friday evening and bring your Fern."

Jeb was reluctant. Fern would wonder why they were attending a party with strangers. "Can you tell me more about the Oakleys?"

"Somehow my name made it onto the dinner lists when I became the school president. I always believed that if Henry and Marion Oakley saw the smallness of the school, they'd drop me. But they have, and they didn't," said Flauvert. "When this Depression hit, the school would have floundered had it not been for people like the Oakleys. So when their invitation arrived, Rachel felt some culture in Oklahoma City might soften you and your fiancée to the idea of moving." He held out the invitation.

She'd raise objections. Fern could not be rushed. "Fern's always saying that I need a better suit for special occasions."

"My suit is fifteen years old. But we're clergymen. It's expected, it's expected." He kept talking as he walked Jeb out to Fern's car. "Gracie mentioned that you have three children. Are you a widower?"

"I take care of three kids not my own. The Welbys were abandoned and took up with me in Nazareth. Angel is the oldest and she has a younger brother and sister, Willie and Ida May. They're back at the house with Fern's mother. She's quite taken with them, especially Ida May."

"So you and Fern will come with a ready-made family. That's a challenge for a newlywed couple."

"To tell you the truth, I tried to find the Welby kids' family, but it never worked out. I held off proposing to Fern, thinking someday we'd be free to marry." He tucked the party invitation into a pocket. "She said yes anyway."

"Fern sounds special."

"There's no woman like Fern. In my old skirt-chasing days, I never met anyone with Fern's character. I'm lucky she'll have me."

"That copy of Jane Eyre belonged to our daughter, Ellie. She died of typhoid."

"It's a twice-blessed gift, Jon. Are you sure your wife wants to part with it?"

"When I told Rachel about you, that you might come and shepherd our city flock, she wanted you to have it." Flauvert handed the box to Jeb, a small, lidded container covered with violet fabric.

"That was one of Rachel's old jewelry boxes. She keeps a lot of Ellie's things tucked in all kinds of places."

"Fern will be grateful, Reverend Flauvert. Would it be a good idea to bring Fern by to meet you?"

"Rachel's hosting a luncheon tomorrow at our place for the faculty. Nothing fancy, but two of our domestics will be preparing a banquet. I'd love it if you dropped in with Fern. Join us for lunch and I'll give her the details of the city church. First Community is the name."

He couldn't let Flauvert be the one to spring things on Fern. Who was he kidding? Hadn't she mentioned more than once how happy she was to leave Oklahoma behind? She was the teacher who'd brought the Stanton School in Nazareth up to her higher standards. She attacked it like a missionary. Several towns benefited from Stanton's ability to thrive in a Depression.

"You'll pass our little house on your way back into Ardmore. Redbud House is in the middle of a pecan grove on your right before you take Moor Road back into town." Flauvert opened the car door for Jeb. "Best pecans in the county, by the way, grow in that grove." Jeb read the school's history in a pamphlet. The president's house was a new work some of the college students started a few years back, before the Depression hit. So when they found that grove on school property, they decided to build the house right smack in the middle of the pecan trees. He wrote down the time and address and handed it to Jeb. "The faculty reception is a modest gathering, good food. I'll introduce you around."

Fern would come to a reception. "I'll bring her by tomorrow."

"Nazareth has taken its toll on you, Jeb. That's why we came to Ardmore, so you could take some time off. No other reason than that." Fern buttoned up the laundered shirts brought in from the clothesline by her mother's housemaid.

"So many churches have floundered under the weight of this Depression. Think what we could do to help," said Jeb.

Fern lifted a half-dozen shirts by the coat hanger crooks.

The maid appeared. "Miss Coulter, I'll take care of the wash." She took the shirts out of Fern's hands.

"I'm making myself useful, Myrna. Heaven knows why my mother continues to knock around in this big old place all alone."

The maid smiled and then left them alone in Fern's bedroom.

"Did you tell him you would take the Oklahoma City church? Or that you might? What exactly did you say?" She was as irritable as he had seen her.

"Only that we would drop by tomorrow to discuss the matter further."

She folded her arms. "Did you want to tell him that you would do it?"

There was the word that she always managed to slip into the conversation, "want." Jeb sat on the edge of her bed, the one she slept in as a girl.

"Tell me what you're thinking, Jeb. You're scaring me."

"I'll admit that I was interested. I don't know why, though, other than the fact that I've been feeling weary lately. You're right, Nazareth is weighing on me."

"Do you think Oklahoma City would be any different?"

"My past followed me into Nazareth, Fern."

"Everybody has a past."

Everyone except Fern, he thought. "Can we visit the church first, and then condemn it?"

"This isn't like you, to try and uproot us without talking to me."

"Isn't that what we're doing now, talking?"

"If I would have known—is that what Gracie's letter was about? Did you know that we were coming here to size up a new parish?"

"I'm as surprised as you. But, yes, Gracie hinted in his letter. Didn't I show you his letter?" The minute he said it, she had him pegged.

"You didn't show it to me."

"I only met with Dr. Flauvert today because Gracie asked me to meet him." He put the lavender box between them on the bed. "Dr. Flauvert asked me to give this to you. It belonged to his daughter, Ellie."

"I have Jane Eyre." She turned the book over, glanced at the cover.

"It's signed by the author, Fern. And his daughter has passed away."

Fern opened the book to the title page. "He gave this to me?"

"Gracie told him what a fan you are of antiquities." Fern wiped her eyes. "This must have meant a lot to the Flauverts. I'm sorry I've been so emotional." Her voice softened and she leaned back into her bed pillow, more relaxed.

"There's more. We're invited to a dinner party this Friday at a hotel in Oklahoma City." He sat next to her on the bed.

"You don't have a good suit, not one you could wear to an evening affair."

He was ready for that objection. "I'll manage. You dress me. With you on my arm, who will notice the suit anyway?" She was moving ahead with him. He could feel the momentum.

"Jeb, when I left Ardmore, I left behind all of those superficial people."

"What people did you leave behind, Fern?" Fern's mother, Abigail, appeared in the doorway.

"Are you ready for lunch, Mother?" asked Fern. "Fern and I have been invited to a dinner party in Oklahoma City, Abigail."

"You'll need a new dress. This is thrilling, Fern. A dinner party is always a good idea. Summer parties are almost as good as autumn, a little warm, but after the sun sets, it's all about the music and the costumes anyway. We'll have to buy it ready-made," said Abigail.

"I didn't say I'd go," said Fern. Her face lost all color.

"Are you sick?" asked Abigail.

"I'm not in a dinner party mood. As a matter of fact, I'd like to head back to Nazareth Friday."

Jeb pursed his lips and then said, "I've got a pastor friend taking my pulpit Sunday, remember, Fern? So I can rest? The ball is perfect. We need a night out and the invitation is a gift from a great friend of Gracie's. It would be an insult to turn them down."

Fern wouldn't look at him.

Jeb's confidence faltered.

"You know that Angel and I can handle Willie and Ida May," said Abigail.

"Mother, don't get involved."

"Well, I only came in to tell you I'm dressed to go out. I'll be waiting in the den. That is, if we're still in the mood for lunch." Abigail left, but pushed the bedroom door back open behind her.

"Jeb, you ought to know I never include my mother in my plans."

"She's not really in your plans, Fern. She happened to walk in, and you can't blame her curiosity. But I agree with her. You saying that a party wouldn't lift your spirits?"

She lay back on the white coverlet and turned her face toward the window.

"Fern, we've been living hand-to-mouth, mending our lives back together only to have them come unraveled again. We need this—I need this."

"You don't know anything about these kind of people. Their decorum, Jeb."

"Is that it? Are you afraid I'll embarrass you?"

"That's not it, and you know it. I don't know how everything got so out of focus. This was supposed to be a simple trip to my family's house to get some rest and tell them we're getting married."

A laugh came from down the hall.

"You just told your mother, Fern."

"Don't tell Buddy and Lewis, Mother! I'll tell them today over lunch," Fern yelled. "Jeb, the people who go to these balls, they don't understand us. We're the proletarians, they're the blue bloods." She never saw herself that way, even though he did.

"Would you let me experience blue bloods for myself, Fern? I like the sound of my water glass being filled by someone else for a change."

"What I've always liked about you is that you don't mind serving the down-and-outer, and during this godawful Depression, there are more of them than there are those who only give to have their name printed in the society pages."

"You asked me to take a leave from the pulpit so that we could finally know one another in a different light. No church around my neck. So here we are without shackles and there you go slapping them back on."

"Do you really want to go, Jeb?"

"Only if you go with me." Jeb looked toward the open door and then kissed her. "You look good lying here in the afternoon sun."

She faked a smile, her eyes looking away from him. He was going to kiss her again until she pursed her lips in a patently obligatory kiss. Her head dropped back onto the pillow. "Are you sure you're ready to meet my family? They're not like what you think. Coulters come from wild stock." She rolled off the bed and the white coverlet, dipped to straighten her stockings, and left Jeb alone on the bed.

"I'm from wild stock too," he said. She knew that. But she had never told him anything of the sort about the Coulters. "Tell me more about this wild stock." But she had already walked out of the room.

Angel ran her fingers across the collar of a tailored dress that hung in the back of Marshella's Dry Goods and Clothiers. She moved her drawstring purse up her arm and over her shoulder.

"So you live with my aunt Fern?" a teenaged girl asked Angel. She was a short fifteen-year-old named Phoebe, slightly younger than Angel.

"I live with Jeb, along with my brother and sister, Willie and Ida May." Angel pulled out the dress, as though she were seriously considering shelling out the five dollars to buy it.

"Jeb's good-looking, but his shoes look worn out. If a man can't keep a good pair of shoes, he can't buy you the things you need," said Phoebe.

Phoebe's mother, Betty, had offered to take them window-shopping before meeting up with Jeb and Fern for a noon meal downtown. Angel stopped short of referring to Jeb as Fern's fiancé. She was sworn to secrecy.

"Are you an orphan?"

"My mother got sick, so my father sent me to live with my sister in Nazareth." She no longer had to explain her story back in Nazareth, so to rehash it made her irritable. "But Claudia had moved away, so we stayed with Jeb. You met him this morning. He's the minister in our town."

"Where does Claudia live?"

"My aunt Kate sent me a letter a few weeks ago about Claudia. She said that she had finally gotten word that Claudia settled in Norman." Angel pulled off her hat. "Miz Abigail says Ardmore's not far from Norman." Abigail was Phoebe's grandma.

"Would you look at this dress? I look good in purple," said Phoebe.

Angel backed away from Phoebe. "Is it stuffy in here?" She put the dress back on the rack and said, "You keep looking and I'll go out for some air." She left Phoebe holding the purple dress in front of her. Phoebe was not Fern's best niece.

The sun bore down. Shimmers of heat danced over the downtown road, but a breeze cooled Angel's skin. She breathed in the fresh air.

"Aren't you the pretty thing?" A youth sat behind the wheel of a deep blue Studebaker parked out in front of Marshella's. His blond hair was cropped short on top, a patch of bangs hanging over his left brow.

Angel glanced back inside Marshella's. Phoebe was marching her momma to the rear of the store. Angel wanted to see inside the Studebaker. "I've never seen one of these before."

"Have a look then," he said.

"No one would drive this back home."

"Where's back home?" he asked.

"Nazareth. It's close to Hot Springs."

"Is that in Oklahoma?"

"Who are you?"

The youth shifted in the driver's seat and glanced down the street. "I'm Nash."

"You don't talk like you're from Oklahoma," said Angel.

"I'm from Boston."

Angel rubbed the chrome on the door.

"Open her up. Have a look." Nash smiled at Angel. He had good teeth, straight and shining out from a tanned face. He had combed in a good deal of male hair ointment, which darkened his hair.

Angel opened the door. She touched the leather and he was smiling, so she said, "I'm going to have a car like this one day. Is it yours?"

"I can't lie. I'm the driver for the owner. He's not around at the present, though. Want a ride around the block?"

Angel stepped away and backed under the shade of the faded store awning. Nash kept smiling out at her through the opened car door.

"How old are you?" he asked.

"Seventeen. You?"

"Older than you. Not much, though. You look older, kind of like a girl I knew back in Boston. Her name was Ethel Fox. Is that your name too?"

She smiled. Inside the store, Phoebe and her mother were looking over the tops of the store racks. "I have to go. I'm shopping with … an aunt." She didn't want to explain her life all over again. If Jeb and Fern married, Betty and Phoebe would be like family soon enough. She came out into the sunlight and closed the car door.

Betty stuck her head out the store door. "Angel, we're trying to decide on this dress. Want to help us?"

"I got faint, need some air. I should stay out here," said Angel.

Betty stepped from the doorway and felt her forehead, so Angel kept saying she was fine. Finally Betty went back inside.

"Your name suits you," said Nash.

"There's a drugstore around the corner. I could use a cold drink, what with the heat and all." Angel pulled out the neck of her dress and fanned.

"How convenient! I can drive you." Nash jumped out of the car and ran around to open the door for her. She sunk into the hot leather seat. "You have a nickel for the soda?" she asked.

"Don't worry about money. Tab's on me," he said.

She would have to meet Jeb and Fern in a half hour at the Blue Moon Diner. "I can't stay long," she told him.

Nash checked his watch. "I got a minute I can spare for a girl like you."

Jeb cranked up the Coulter Packard. Abigail never drove, not since Francis had died. Fern and her mother, Abigail, climbed inside. Abigail complained of the heat, but Fern didn't say a lot, and hadn't since Jeb brought up the church offer.

"Ida May and Willie want to stay here at the house, Jeb," said Abigail. "My niece likes doing for them, you know, making up lunch and all."

Jeb said, "Your brothers are coming to lunch today, as I understand it, right, Fern?"

Fern nodded and then let out a breath.

"My guess is that I could cook chicken out on the brick walk. Fern, roll down your window before I faint." Abigail laughed. "Now that'd be a memory here on the announcement of your engagement. I wish your father were here." She stared out the window. "Fern, you'll have to get Buddy to give you away. Jeb, I don't believe you've met Fern's oldest brother, Lewis, have you? I hope you marry in the winter. Oklahoma's too hot this time of year."

"I've not met any of her brothers, Mrs. Coulter."

"That's right. The last time Fern was here was for her father's funeral. You stayed back home and sent Angel in your place. I wanted so many times to take her aside and talk to her about her family. But what with the funeral and all, it never seemed the right time."

"Angel doesn't open up too well with me," said Jeb.

"You're a man, though, Jeb. No offense," said Abigail.

Jeb drove them off the Coulter estate and toward town. "Looks like some clouds moving in," he said.

"It hasn't rained since I can't remember. Fern, you remember the summer we prayed for rain and you ran out on the lawn and did an Indian dance?"

"Did it work?" asked Jeb.

"I don't think I did that, Mother," said Fern.

"I know that had to be you. Your sisters were all too fussy to do such a thing," said Abigail.

Fern sighed. She hadn't ever described her sisters as fussy.

"There's a drop of rain on the glass. Want me to stop the car and let you out to dance, Fern?" asked Jeb.

"I'd do a dance if I thought it would help." Abigail rolled up the window glass before the road dust seeped inside.

"Angel sure likes your hospitality, Abigail. She says she'd rather be at your house than anyplace else," said Jeb.

"I wonder if those girls have shopped out all the downtown stores," Abigail asked. "You'd think they had a bag of money the way they ran out of here this morning."

"Angel can't resist a new dress," said Fern. "She has a little money from a job she took back home."

"Not anymore. She bought Ida May some new shoes," said Jeb. "I should have given her some spending money." He had never seen Angel hang on to what money she made for long. She acted guilty about Willie and Ida May and thought it her duty to see to them when her mother and father hadn't.

"Maybe Betty can buy her something, just anything. I hate to see her empty-handed," said Abigail.

"Angel finds ways to get the things she needs. She's, how do I put this, resourceful." Jeb slowed for a rabbit.

Abigail guided Jeb all the way into downtown Ardmore. "As you pull into town, you'll drive past the Ardmore Savings and Loan and then drive for four more blocks." Her manicured fingers pointed, directing Jeb as though she were leading a choir. "See, yonder there's the bank. The first street on your right is Ashton. Take that and then park beside the drugstore. The Blue Moon is directly across the street."

"Lively town," said Jeb, only so Fern would give him a look.

Cars lined most of the streets outside the storefronts. A group of men smoked out on a bench near the bank. Some women and children formed a commodities line out the door of the courthouse and down the marble steps.

"I think they're passing out milk today. Such a shame to see so many families hit so hard." Abigail fell quiet for a moment and then said, "I feel helpless when I see the children in rags."

"Is that Gary Hayes?" Fern asked, looking toward the courthouse.

Abigail pushed her glasses up higher on her nose. "It is."


On Sale
May 30, 2009
Page Count
320 pages