My kids call it hillbilly music. I call it poetry set to beautiful music. But whatever name you call it, my love of country and folk music remain steadfast, despite the years that have gone by since I listened to music on my father’s record player or the local country station, equal parts music and static. In the late eighties, I discovered an obscure country/folk singer named Nanci Griffith. Her lyrics were profound and her music beautiful. I subsequently collected all her albums and have probably seen her in concert at least half-dozen times. Her music is what I want my novels to be – authentic yet hopeful, heartbreaking yet redeeming. One of my favorites of her recordings, however, she did not write. It’s a Pat Alger song called “Just Once in a Very Blue Moon” – classic country music at its best. Pat Alger also wrote a bunch of songs for Garth Brooks and some other big stars, if you’re interested. But I digress..
My point in sharing this is that the song influenced both the title and plot of my latest novel, releasing August 8….titled, BLUE MOON, the sequel to BLUE MIDNIGHT. Did you see that coming?
It’s my eighth book, released on the 8th of August, which is my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary – another wonderful sign of good things to come if you believe in that kind of stuff, which I do.
And, in case you didn’t know, a blue moon is a full moon twice in the same month. They’re very rare, yet we’re having one tonight. To celebrate the serendipitous nature of all this, I am leaking the first chapter of BLUE MOON for public consumption.
I’m not going to lie. The book business is harder than when we first released RIVERSONG almost five years ago. When that book went out, family and friends helped us spread the word in a wave of goodwill. I believe strongly that helped make it a bestseller. Friends from high school, college and Seattle told everyone they knew, beginning a ripple that made it “the little book that could”. Today the landscape is more difficult. There are more Indy books than ever, making it almost impossible for readers to weed through the mess and find a book or writer that truly speaks to them. So, I’m asking for a favor…if you’re so inclined today, share my first chapter with your family and friends. Maybe we’ll get them hooked and they’ll want the whole book or some of my other books, which all still sell for under $5. It takes a lot of books to buy the amount of milk consumed at my house by my little girls, so the more help we get, the better.
I will not rest until I get these books on the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists. Unfortunately, so far that goal has been elusive, despite sweat and tears from my entire team. But I know this for sure – after eight books, my writing has improved. I still have a lot of stories to tell and very itchy fingers, and despite some setbacks, I will not give up on this crazy dream.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the years. I know who you are and I’m forever grateful.
Cheers and blessings!
And for heaven’s sake, kiss someone tonight under that giant blue moon. I know I will.
Our back cover that tells you a bit about the story.
And…here’s Chapter 1 from BLUE MOON.
Under a close Oregon sky the color of white marble, I clicked along the sidewalks of downtown Portland in my black high-heeled boots, pulling my ultrafine merino wool jacket tight against my chest. It was cold, instead of our customary mild rain. Not a drop shed for at least twenty-four hours. No umbrellas. No mist to curl my hair up on one side and down on the other. On a typical November morning, umbrellas float in the air above their owners, almost touching but just missing, like bubbles in a champagne glass. They hide and protect us from the rain and also from one another, making us distinguishable only by the pattern, width and color of our bumbershoots.
Temperatures had dropped the day before to below freezing, icing over highways, streets and sidewalks. This might have been an indication that something dramatic was about to shift in the trajectory of my life, but I couldn’t see clearly back then. Like a racehorse with blinders, shiny and groomed, muscles primed for speed, mind focused and ready, I had no view other than what was right in front of me, striding without hesitation the five blocks from my condominium building to my office. With my figurative blinders on I paid little attention to the weather or anything around me except for the need and subsequent retrieval of my leather gloves that normally spooned happily with my business cards in the side pocket of a Kate Spade purse, both waiting for their usefulness.
After tugging the gloves over my manicured hands, I tucked the cards back into the side pocket. I’d need them later for a cocktail networking event where I would meet hundreds of people I didn’t know and didn’t especially want to know, dressed in various-hued business suits, all the while trying not to cringe when I said my name. Bliss Heywood. Bliss does not sound like the name of a CEO, a shark, a mover and shaker. Bliss is the name of an unfortunate soul born in the early seventies to a hippie mother and spineless father. Like Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue, I’ve spent most of my life fighting to prove I am no Bliss.
A gust of cold wind stung my ears and travelled up my skirt, the warmth of the hot yoga class I’d taken before work a distant memory. The streets of downtown Portland were narrow and congested. Buildings made of brick and concrete hinted at a simpler era when this river town was the home of rugged longshoremen working the swift waters of the Willamette. Statues of Portland’s own Beverly Cleary’s characters peppered the sidewalks: Henry and Ramona and Beezuz—all friends from my youth, when I spent a majority of time with my nose in a book. Today, despite the cold, sidewalks bustled with business people in suits and shiny shoes; young adults with piercings, tattoos and unwashed hair waiting for public transit; and mothers pushing strollers while wearing those horribly ugly comfortable leather shoes the women in the Pacific Northwest are so fond of.
I reached my office building and stopped at the foot of the stairs, searching for Sam and Sweetheart. They weren’t in their usual spot. My chest tightened as I scanned the street, suddenly feeling the cold. Had the weather driven them away? Where would they go? Were they hurt? But I needn’t have worried. They were tucked under a blanket just inside the space between the buildings, seeking shelter from the wind, no doubt. I walked toward them, reaching into my purse and pulling out a five-dollar bill from the inner zipper pocket where I kept my “Sam money.” At the beginning of every month I walked into my local bank and asked for enough cash for every business day of the month in five-dollar bills. Not knowing if it would be safe to give it to him all at once, I gave him only five dollars at a time, except for Friday when I gave him enough to carry him through the weekend.
Sam, bearded and dirty, dressed in layers and layers of clothes regardless of the season, lived on the streets with Sweetheart, his three-legged border collie. He carried a tin coffee can with a simple note attached to it: “Sam and Sweetheart.” I wasn’t sure where he went at night, but every morning he was at the steps of my office building with Sweetheart and his can. I wanted to ask him where he slept and how he ate and so many other questions, but it was futile. Sam was mute.
I caught his gaze and smiled before leaning over to pet Sweetheart. And that dog! She never let me down. At the first sight of me, the little black and white furry love machine always ambled onto her three legs and wagged her tail so fiercely it might have knocked over a small child. Today was no different. I scratched behind her ears, taking off one of my gloves so she could lick my fingers, before reaching into my coat pocket for a doggie treat. I had no idea what Sam did with the money I gave him—booze or food. I hoped it was food, of course, for Sweetheart and himself. He certainly never appeared intoxicated or drugged. Sweetheart, when I felt the space near her ribs, seemed perfectly fit.
I know what people would say about this small and perhaps foolish gesture of kindness. I did it to assuage my guilt because I had so much and he had so little. I understand this sentiment, but it wasn’t exactly true. I know some might say, too, that there are better ways to give back, through charity donations and foundations. I understood this to be true, of course, and having come from poverty I gave generously every year to several charities for underprivileged youth and battered women. But this was different. This was personal.
There was Sweetheart, of course. She was special. Anyone could see that. Animals, especially dogs, were much easier for me to be around than people. They seemed to understand what I needed without having to ask. It had been on my list for years to get a dog of my own, but I knew it wouldn’t be fair to them because I traveled frequently. I couldn’t bear thinking of a dog alone for half the month, or worse, stuck in a kennel.
And Sam? Well, the truth is, he reminded me of my late father. Mostly it was his eyes, faded blue and unfocused like he wasn’t sure whether he knew you for a second or two, until several rapid blinks brought recognition.
I leaned over and dropped the money in his can. He put his hand over his heart; the corners of his mouth twitched. This was his way of expressing gratitude. I understood.
I met his eyes, watery today from the cold, and red-rimmed. Sad, defeated. They conjured the father that I knew mostly from photographs, as he’d died when I was nine years old. Blythe says he was kind but overwhelmed, that even his ordinary life proved too much for him. She’d recently told me she wondered if his car accident was really an accident. When she brought it up, I waved away the question and made an excuse to get off the phone. I prefer dogs and mute homeless men to hard questions from the sister I adore.
“Sam, I’m worried about the weather. It’s supposed to get even colder. Do you have a warm place to sleep tonight?”
He nodded and pulled Sweetheart closer, as if to say, “The mutt will keep me warm.”
“Okay, well, stay safe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Again, the hand over his heart.
After I left Sam and Sweetheart, I walked up the stairs to the lobby of my office building, thinking how fast my two years in Portland had passed. Throughout my career I’d lived in ten cities across the country. Because of its aesthetic and historical charms, Portland was one of my favorites, even though I sometimes felt conspicuously different than the general population. I’m a snob when it comes to fashion. I admit it. The number of granola types in Portland is enough to wake Coco Chanel from the dead. I blame the lack of vitamin D rather than a general disregard for beauty. How else do you explain the number of misguided souls who think Birkenstocks are an appropriate footwear for, well, anyone? Is there a more unattractive sandal? No! Followed shortly thereafter by those plastic “hiking” sandals, which have the added bonus of stinking like a boys’ locker room after a football game. And the fleece vests that come in all colors and seemingly for all seasons for both men and women? I shudder just thinking of them.
Although the people of every city are as varied as the religious beliefs in America, it has surprised me that it’s possible to buy a condo in any metropolitan area identical to the one from which you just moved. Despite my vow each time to try something different, I always ended up with the same white-walled, sparse condo with high ceilings and large windows that overlooked the city. During the first few mornings after moving, just for a moment, I didn’t know in which city I was waking. But it didn’t matter, because the closet that looked just like the last closet in the last city I lived in still held my designer shoes and dresses. There is comfort in the familiar.
I always arranged my furniture, which consisted of a couch and bed and a couple of tables, in the same configuration, telling myself that this time I would hire a decorator. But I never quite got around to it. Down the street, a salon and spa gave me the identical haircut and color to the one before: honey with straw-colored highlights, sleek, long bob. Nordstrom, strangely, no matter the city, was always just two, maybe four blocks over from my condo. When I walked into a new job every other year or so and started to categorize those who would remain and those who would be sent away, and that which would become streamlined and that which could be abandoned, I always felt at ease. Work was my spouse, my family, my purpose.
As I stepped into the elevator to go up to my offices on the twelfth floor, I felt good, almost giddy. I’d successfully taken CreateBiz public three days ago, and I anticipated a warm reception from my board, replete with accolades for the high valuation of the company that had subsequently made the stock worth almost twenty dollars a share on our first day out on the public market. While most games for girls are centered on fashion or beauty, our product created virtual businesses. For the most part, I think games are a ridiculous waste of time given how many wonderful books there are in the world, but being the entrepreneur and capitalist that I am, I was enamored with our product. It was fun, thought-provoking, creative and educational all at once. On my first day on the job I told my new staff it was the smart girls’ answer to virtual gaming, a phrase which our marketing executive immediately seized upon and implemented into a full-fledged campaign that yielded huge numbers within its first month on the market. We were a sensation, the most sought-after product of last year’s Christmas season, and similar sales were predicted for the upcoming holiday season.
The founder, Ralph Butters, was a young, male version of a crazy cat lady, designing genius games in the basement of his house with six cats at his feet. He sported a receding hairline and a greasy ponytail—yes, it is possible to have both. A nervous twitch made his right hand jerk about like Mick Jagger holding a microphone on the last night of the last tour of his life. All of which rendered him completely unable to interact in the real world. I secretly wondered if he created games as a way to cope with his loneliness.
Regardless of the reasons for Ralph’s creation, his strangeness made it necessary to hire me. My goal, as it had been many times throughout my career, was to make it profitable and take it public. I did that, in two years, which no one thought we could do, including my board of directors. As was usually the case, we had an impressive board from the high-tech community to whom I was accountable. The board had not only invested substantial amounts of money into CreateBiz, it also advised me on certain aspects of the business. However, Ralph was still in charge, as he owned a majority of the shares, so ultimately I answered to him. So far that hadn’t been an issue. The one and only time I’d met him, he sweated so profusely—I assume from nerves—that he hadn’t ventured into the offices again. He left me alone for the most part, deferring to my experience and business acumen. For my part, I had the utmost respect for his mind and creativity, knowing he was certainly a genius, whilst I was merely good at business. There’s a difference, and I’m humble enough to know it. Having worked with many creative geniuses over the years, I’ve noticed that the smarter they are, the less likely they are to be comfortable with people. On a certain level, I understood this frailty, as I also found human, emotional connection difficult. I presented a persona of well-dressed, polished businesswoman, charmed rooms full of people with ease, made networking connections that led to deals and steered large groups of employees in a common direction. But that was only on the surface. No one was allowed inside weakness. I made a conscious choice to remain uninvolved with anyone in any emotional capacity, with the lone exception of my sister. This quality was a blessing as an executive. I could make decisions from a place of logic rather than emotion. But in my personal life? Perhaps I was more like Ralph than I cared to admit, minus the cats.
After stepping off the elevator, I stood for a moment just inside the glass doors of our office. It was abuzz with productivity, with excitement, with people doing good work. Was there anything better? I’m sure there was, for people lucky enough to have families and lives outside of work. Here, I felt useful and grounded. It smelled of coffee, new carpet, various perfumes and colognes, burned popcorn from one of the absentminded software developers. The sounds of various printers, the buzz from the overhead lights, phones ringing, the receptionist putting calls through were a type of music to me.
I sighed happily as I waved a greeting to our receptionist and headed to my office. I had five minutes before my first meeting and wanted to check with Charlotte about the schedule for the rest of the day. Charlotte, my reliable assistant, had been with me since I started two years ago. A single woman in her thirties with an English degree and a dream of getting her mystery novels published, Charlotte made a living by working a day job for me. As was the case with all good assistants, I couldn’t function without her. She sat at her desk, already typing at her computer, and looked up with a wan smile. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her usually perfect makeup had been either rubbed or cried off. Had she been out all night? It was not like her to be out late partying, but she might have been celebrating the Initial Public Offering. I had made sure she received a handsome stock grant to reward her for all her hard work, hoping that someday she would make enough on the stock that she could devote herself to writing full-time.
“Late night celebrating?” I asked, teasing. “I hope it was with a boy.”
I expected her to laugh and confess all, as she sometimes told me tales of her online dating escapades, but instead her eyes filled with tears. She rose from her chair, murmuring a tearful apology, and ran toward the restroom. What could be wrong? Charlotte was solid, unflappable. Was there trouble with a boyfriend? I didn’t think she had one, but she had mentioned she’d been on a string of first dates she met online. That’s it, I thought, she must have gone out with a jerk from one of those sites. All online dating sites should have the tagline “Guaranteed to Make Grown Girls Cry.”
I glanced at my calendar that Charlotte had up on her screen. All it said was “conference room,” with no mention of whom I would be meeting with. Charlotte hadn’t returned, so I decided to head there anyway. I was surprised to find the head of the board, Eli Winn, and our HR Director, Rachel Fallow, sitting at the end of the long, oval table. I stepped inside. “Hey, guys. Are you expecting me?”
“Yes, come on in. Close the door, please,” said Rachel.
Eli nodded his head in greeting as I shut the door and took a seat.
“What’s going on? Do we have trouble with an employee?”
Rachel wouldn’t look at me. Something wasn’t right. The hair on my arms stood up. Then it occurred to me: I was about to be fired. I’d been on the other side of this table with Rachel enough times to know what was about to happen. My heart started to pound. Scalp tingling. Damp palms.
Before they had the chance to say the words I knew were coming, I asked, “Why?”
Eli shook his head, almost shamefully. “Ralph wants to run things without your influence. He thinks you degrade his authority.”
Rachel put a hand on his arm. He wasn’t supposed to say anything revealing and truthful, and he’d already said too much. She spoke next, her voice devoid of any inflection. “Ralph believes he’s the right leader to take the company forward. He wants to be more of a public presence both here at the office and with our consumers.”
“He’ll have to answer to shareholders and the board now. It’s not just him in his basement. Does he realize that, Eli?”
Eli’s usual olive complexion had a green tinge this morning. An image of the Grinch flashed through my mind. The bags under his eyes indicated he hadn’t slept much. Strangely, I felt compassion for him, despite the fact that he was in the process of firing me. This was business, where at any given moment a decision could be made that obliterated any future success. He knew getting rid of me was a mistake, but there was nothing he could do. As if he knew my thoughts, Eli nodded. “He owns a majority of the stock, Bliss. He can still call the shots. And the board supports the decision.”
That stung. “Right. I understand.” No reason to act emotional. If Ralph wanted me out, there was nothing I could do. Never let them see you sweat, I told myself, borrowing the marketing phrase from the eighties deodorant commercial—my mantra through many stressful situations. I was cool on the outside while inside my stomach felt like I’d just taken a large and unexpected dip on a roller coaster. I’ve always hated roller coasters.
“We have a package for you,” said Rachel. “It’s generous, in exchange for your signature of release.”
“Yeah, right. I know the drill.”
She hadn’t lied. The terms were generous. I kept all my stock, which if things continued to go well, could be worth millions, and a year’s salary plus benefits. But it wasn’t the money. It hadn’t been about the money for at least three companies now. I’d set out to have enough money in savings and stocks by age fifty that I could retire if I wanted to. I’d made that goal by thirty-five, the result of equal parts living frugally and choosing several companies that did well on the public market. I always took stock over salary, and it had paid off several times. I was rich. Rich enough for me, anyway. But this hurt, regardless. Ejected without warning from something I felt I had built with eighty-hour workweeks for the last two years, not to mention the employees I’d had a hand in hiring and mentoring. As was the case with all my positions, this wasn’t just a job for me. This was my life.
“You have seven days to decide,” said Rachel.
I gave her what I hoped was a withering stare. “I’m quite aware of how this works.” I flipped to the last page, where I was to agree they’d done nothing wrong and that I wouldn’t turn around and sue them. I signed and slid it back across the table. “Well, now I know why Charlotte was crying.”
“You’ll be missed by the staff,” said Eli.
“We’ll pack up your things and have them sent to you via messenger,” said Rachel.
The old “you can’t even pack up your own things because you’re a threat to the company” routine. What did they think? That I’d be foolish enough to harm my reputation by sending some kind of angry message out to the employees? Suddenly I was surprised they didn’t have security waiting to walk me to my car. “My laptop is in my office.” I slid my work phone across the table. “You’ll want this too, I suppose.” At least I’d been meticulous about keeping my personal business on my personal phone. Not that I had much personal business. Actually I had no personal business, except for emails from Blythe and my nieces. Blythe and the girls. What was I going to tell them? Aunt Bliss has been canned, given the old sack, fired. I stumbled toward the elevator, a ringing in my ears.