Identity, p.1

Identity, page 1



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  Nat Burns

  Bella Books (2012)

  * * *

  Shay Raynor doesn’t need to learn anything twice. After a three-year disastrous relationship she now knows what happens when you let someone inside your heart, body and mind—they take everything. Her career as a prominent D.C. dog trainer is in tatters, but that pales next to the wounds she carries inside and out.

  Liza Hughes has left her business in Montgomery for the even smaller Maypearl, Alabama, to care for her ailing father. Distance from her clinging ex is also welcome. She’s not expecting to meet someone like Shay, but the attractive newcomer in the small town is clearly keeping her distance from life.

  Shay might eventually open up to Liza’s friendship and more, but the arrival of a woman named Pepper changes everything. Clearly, she wants Shay back. Finally, facing Shay’s terror, Liza understands what it will take for the two of them to have a future—they must deal with Shay’s past.

  Identity is a story of survival, tenacity and the strength of true love.

  About the Author

  After decades as an award-winning journalist, poet and playwright, it was natural for Nat Burns to turn to fiction, and to explore the lives and loves of lesbians. With a long history of reporting on the music scene in her monthly Lesbian News column, she’s an editor and proofreader who also spends considerable time as a systems analyst. She lives in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas with her partner.

  Table of Contents

  Other Bella Books by Nat Burns

  About the Author



















































  Copyright © 2012 by Nat Burns

  Bella Books, Inc.

  P.O. Box 10543

  Tallahassee, FL 32302

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

  First published 2012

  Editor: Medora MacDougall

  Cover Designer: Judith Fellows

  ISBN 13: 978-1-59493-281-6


  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  Other Bella Books by Nat Burns

  House of Cards

  The Quality of Blue

  Two Weeks in August


  Many thanks to editor Medora MacDougall for keeping my facts and words in line. And thanks to Carol, who listened to endless plot ideas and to Chris, who read numerous versions of the manuscript. I also want to thank my Aunt Jean and my sister Valinda—they’ve always been in my corner.

  I’d like to dedicate this book to dog lovers everywhere. You are unique and fascinating individuals.

  About the Author

  Nat Burns’ past work experience has included:

  -Ten years as a staff reporter (with three Virginia Press Association Awards)

  -Three years in tourism promotion as a media coordinator in Virginia

  -Five years in technical support for a software development company

  -Five years as the editorial systems coordinator for a Washington DC publishing firm.

  -Teaching and supporting in local school systems

  -Serving on the boards of Literacy Volunteers of America, Nelson County Education Foundation, Golden Crown Literary Society and SPWAO.

  Nat lives in New Mexico, writing and editing full time. Bella Books has released five of her novels and has three more under contract. Nat is a book reviewer and is the music editor for Lesbian News, writing a monthly column called “Notes from Nat”.


  Sunlight was playing peek-a-boo along the top of Kerry Ridge when Eliza Hughes decided she’d had just about enough peace and quiet for one day. She peered into the white fiberglass cooler resting next to her and studied the mass of wildly thrashing small-mouthed bass. They eyed her accusingly.

  “I know, I know,” she sighed. “I’ll let you loose in a minute.”

  She stood slowly, arching her back and stretching. She’d been sitting in this one place for hours, woolgathering as much as fishing, and her muscles had stiffened. It had been a beautiful afternoon though. She loved to sit, still as a statue, and watch as nature moved busily around her. The splendor of a black-speckled, red-eyed loon had captivated her for more than an hour as he complacently munched on baitfish.

  She turned her attention back to the cooler of bass. “You guys will never learn, no matter how many times I tell you. It’s a hook in there. Nothing that comes that easy is without a price. Get it?”

  She reeled in and wrapped the fishing filament around her pole with an expertise born from years of practice. After wiping wet hands on her bib overalls, she hummed idly to herself as she moved to cross the narrow dirt lane to stow the pole in the white pickup she’d parked on the other side of Dooley Drive.

  Without warning a moving mass of woman slammed into her. The pole went flying away and she tumbled backward. She didn’t see where her pole landed, but she ended up sprawled in cold water with fish spewing from the tipped-over cooler.

  “Holy crap!” a husky voice cried out, and suddenly Liza was looking into the largest, richest blue eyes she’d ever seen. “Oh my gosh, are you all right?”

  Liza hated to pull her gaze away but glanced around at the wildly flopping fish and pondered her physical condition. There was a dull ache where she’d slammed into the cooler, but besides being wet through her midsection and legs and smelling a little like a pond, she was okay.

  “Yeah, I think so,” she answered. “The fish, though, we gotta get them back into the water.”

  Liza carefully extricated herself from the spill and reached to grab a handful of bass. The fish thrashed from her grasp and she lost her balance anew, falling onto the now muddy earth and soiling
her entire right side. She glanced up, embarrassed, and saw that the woman was laughing at her. Liza rested there longer than intended as the woman’s appearance washed over her.

  Too thin, and fragile as dandelion fluff, the woman captured an onlooker’s attention by the huge number of pastel freckles that dotted her unusual paleness. Her skin had the smooth texture of white alabaster, and the sun slanting against it made her glow with blue radiance. The glow was framed by a thick shock of auburn hair, pulled back into a ponytail but with strands escaping to frolic around her lean face. She smelled like coconuts. The scent filled Liza’s senses, bringing them acutely awake. The woman’s uncontrolled laughter finally penetrated and stirred Liza back to the matter at hand.

  “The fish!” she muttered, scrambling to her feet. “Can you help me get them into the pond?”

  Some of the fish had already flopped themselves to the bank and into the water with soft splashes. The others were totally beached, gulping air that provided them no oxygen, and they needed human intervention. The redhead set her MP3 player and phone aside and moved to help Liza. She promptly slipped and landed on her bottom in the middle of the growing mud bath of fish and water. Blushing, but laughing easily, the woman leaned to rescue the fish with her hands and toss them into the pond. Liza, on her knees, followed suit, scooping fish into both hands and ladling them toward the water.

  The redhead’s laugh was infectious. Soon Liza joined in, laughing even harder when she slipped again and fell backward, the two fish she was holding falling onto her chest and beating at her face with frantic paintbrush tails. The smaller woman plucked the fish from Liza’s chest and struggled to her feet. She staggered to the bank, the fish jumping in her arms like popcorn in a popcorn maker. Knocked off balance by the effort of catching the uncooperative fish, she stepped too close to the edge and within moments had disappeared from Liza’s sight.

  “Oh no,” Liza said, scrambling to her feet and carefully making her way to the edge.

  The redhead sat in shallow water that reached to her shoulders and to the top of her bent knees. Dark rust-red hair, littered with pondweed, swept across and obscured most of her features. As Liza watched, she spat muddy vegetation from her mouth and uttered a groan of disgust.

  The scene was too much for Liza. She laughed so hard her sides ached, the laughter issuing from her in huge guffaws. This lasted for almost a full minute before she could compose herself. With gasping breaths, she knelt and leaned forward, offering her hand.

  “Here, let me…help you out,” she gurgled, trying to catch her breath.

  She glanced at the smaller woman and was surprised to see that the smiling blue eyes had changed into dark, swirling thunderclouds. The sweetly curved lips had pressed into a thin, stressed line. The woman ignored Liza’s hand, cold blue eyes glaring at Liza amid the miasma of anger that surrounded her.

  “Whoa, now,” Liza began. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t...”

  The woman stood, sweeping the thick mane of hair from her face. Water raced from her sagging shorts and sweatshirt in small rivers. She wriggled her arms, trying to shake off the heavy water.

  “Just move,” she said, stumbling toward the bank.

  Liza stood back and felt coldness rush across her. This woman was fierce.

  “Look, hon,” she began, spreading her hands helplessly.

  “I am not your ‘hon,’” the woman snapped. “My name is Shay. Now move.”

  Liza stepped back, daunted by the woman’s meanness. “What I’m trying to tell you is, you can’t get up that bank there without some help. It’s steep and the roots twist all the wrong way. Hymie Clark stayed in there the better part of two days and a night until someone came along to help him out.”

  Shay seemed to finally understand Liza’s words. She turned slowly and studied the banks of the large pond. Liza followed her gaze with her own. The pond, called Dooley’s Folly, was steeply concave all the way around the shallows, the water level several feet below an overhanging ledge. The water Shay stood in wasn’t but a few feet deep, but Liza knew that several hundred feet out toward the middle the depth was considerably more. Trying the other side would be fruitless, as the banks there were just as concave.

  “Well, that’s just crazy,” Shay muttered as if to herself.

  Liza nodded sympathetically. “I know. It’s southern Alabama, though. There’s lots of crazy here.”

  Shay was getting attitude again. “Just get me out of here,” she said angrily, her voice harsh.

  Liza felt devilment fly and took a good step back. She studied the frowning face, noting again how tan freckles peppered the long pale planes of her cheeks. She smiled mischievously.

  As she watched Liza, Shay’s face lit with alarm. Liza felt satisfaction stir.

  “Say ‘please,’” she said, studying her victim.

  The words had a far different effect than Liza had imagined. Shay’s body stiffened and if fire could have emanated from her eyes and ears, it would have. Liza didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone as angry.

  “Why, you ungrateful country bumpkin! How dare you!” Her voice was just one octave shy of a shriek.

  Liza bristled. “Who’re you calling a bumpkin? At least I have more sense than to fall in Dooley’s Folly!”

  “Fall in? I was trying to help you with those damned fish. What the hell were they doing there anyway?”

  “I just...” Liza didn’t know what to say and certainly didn’t want to say it to this prickly pear. “I just fish, okay? It’s a hobby.”

  “Hobby?!” Shay spat. “Whoever heard…most people catch fish for sustenance, not play.”

  Liza opened her mouth to object but did not want to go there with Shay. Instead, she moved to the bank and held out her hand. “Let’s get you out of my pond. You’re polluting the fish.”

  Shay’s mouth fell open in indignation, but she grasped Liza’s hand and allowed her to pull her up the bank. As soon as she attained terra firma, however, she stomped off, her running garb clinging to her small form like a new wrinkled skin. Remembering her electronics, she turned with a scowl and retrieved them.

  “You could thank me, you know,” Liza called after her. Shay’s only response was to swing one arm wide, sending a glistening arc of water into the late afternoon sunlight as she disappeared along the wide drive leading to the old Carson home.

  “Crazy Yankee,” Liza muttered as she surveyed the mess she had to make right. The cooler was muddy, but she knew she could hose that down at home. All the fish had made it into the pond, thankfully.

  She pressed her booted foot into a puddle, folding soft loamy soil into the wetness, trying to even it out. She straightened a patch of sawgrass and spied her fishing pole. It was okay, a good thing as it was her favorite, a custom-made one crafted to be shorter than most standard poles. Liza frowned and looked along the path that Shay had taken. There was no sign of the woman.

  “Good thing, too. She better not come back here with that bad temper,” she told herself aloud.

  Looking around, Liza pieced together the event that had triggered the muddy disaster of her afternoon. Shay had no doubt been jogging along the dirt shoulder surrounding the pond when Liza mindlessly stepped into her path.

  After settling the pole and the cooler into the bed of her truck, Liza sighed and rubbed her sore shoulders. Who would have thought such a skinny gal could make that much of an impact?


  Shay pulled the key from the back door lock and stepped into the mudroom of her home. She turned and patiently engaged the two slide locks and two deadbolts on the heavy steel door. She let a low shriek escape as she stomped through the dining room of her house, trailing water behind on the shiny wooden floor, and angrily flicked on every light switch she encountered.

  Imagine the nerve of that woman.

  “‘Say please,’” she mimicked, screwing her fine features into a heavy scowl. Another light blossomed ahead of her. She should have known better than to move to this b
ackwater hick town anyway. She should have stayed in DC where she belonged.

  At the bedroom door, she switched on the overhead light, then paused and let her clothing fall from her body to pile into a sopping pyramid around her feet. Kicking loose from them, she stomped naked across the carpeted floor of the bedroom and into the bathroom. She turned the shower knobs harder than necessary and felt her anger ease somewhat as the heated stream flowed across her body.

  Later, hair in a towel and face subdued, she scooped the wet clothing from the floor and made her way to the laundry room at the northern end of the house. She paused before entering the small, twilight-darkened room, sudden fear snatching at her heart.

  “‘Say please,’” she whispered as she reached around the doorframe to snap on the blessedly bright light.

  The phone rang just after she switched on the washing machine. Rushing into the kitchen, she snatched her cell off the table and checked the caller ID. She answered it eagerly.

  Shay sighed with pleasure. “Dee, how are you? You didn’t call this afternoon.”

  Donald Sloan had been her best friend since he’d rescued her that sorry morning in October four years ago. They talked several times a day, and Shay had been worried because he hadn’t called all afternoon. Her irrational fear that he had forgotten about her had spurred the run that resulted in her encounter with that horrible woman.

  “I am so good. You’ve just got to meet him.” His self-satisfied voice resounded in her ears.

  “Him? Him who? Have you met someone?” Shay leaned into the refrigerator searching for iced tea. Finding the mostly empty pitcher she poured what remained into a glass.

  “His name is Gregory, and we met at the law library. He asked for my phone number and I got his too.”

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