They say not to judge a book by its cover but I need you to do just that. If you liked the cover of my book, A Tomorrow Worth Living For: Faith and Fear in Occupied France, please vote for it for the Cover of the Month contest on AllAuthor.com!
I’m getting closer to clinch the “Cover of the Month” contest on AllAuthor! I’d need as much support from you guys. Please take a short moment to vote for my book cover here:
Michael Hudson pulled into the dark stadium parking lot and had his choice of spots near the entrance to team headquarters. Like every other Monday morning after a loss, the only other cars at this hour belonged to the head coach and his executive administrator, Phyllis.
Michael hustled down the gloomy hallway and settled at his desk. Before he turned on the computer, his office phone rang. “Hello?”
“This is Phyllis. Coach wants to see you.”
“Did he say what it was about?”
“No. But he said to bring your laptop.”
Michael gulped. He began his professional football coaching career six years earlier as a low-level quality control assistant and dream crusher. When the team decided to cut a player during training camp, Michael summoned him to the head coach’s office with that fear-inducing phrase: “Coach wants to see you. And bring your playbook.”
A thin glaze of sweat covered his forehead as Michael rushed to the coach’s suite. The knot in his stomach grew two sizes larger when Phyllis jerked her head toward the office without looking up. He knocked and pushed the door open.
Coach Foster swiveled around and pointed to a chair in front of his immaculate desk. A rumpled blanket lay on the sofa beneath the window, and dark circles gathered under his sunken eyes. He reeked of stale coffee and sweat and still wore his customary game outfit—long-sleeve red t-shirt, oversized team hoodie with sleeves cut off above the elbow and wrinkled khakis. “Have a seat.”
Michael sat and stifled a nervous yawn. “Tough game yesterday.”
“We’ve had a lot of those this year. Not exactly what we expected, was it?”
Michael shook his head. The previous day’s loss to Orlando eliminated the team from playoff contention with two games remaining, and players and coaches had trudged off the field amidst a cascade of boos. “Guess not.”
Coach Foster’s future had been the subject of speculation for weeks. Fans clamored for his head on social media and talk radio after every loss. He leaned forward and clasped his meaty hands on the desk. Two gaudy championship rings from his playing days reflected the light from the banker’s lamp.
“Listen, Michael, I’m under a lot of pressure here to make changes. I had a long meeting with the owners last night, and I’ve convinced them we can reset next year. The pieces are in place to make a run for the title, but they demanded changes to mollify the fans. They’re worried about season ticket renewals and losing sponsorships.”
When the Louisville job had opened in the summer, Michael had jumped at the chance to join a team with championship ambitions even though it meant moving across the country for the third time in four years. Since he’d been with the team less than six months, he made an easy target. His defensive backs had played well, but he had no roots in the city, no long-term ties to the team. “I did my best, Coach. I wish I could say something to change your mind.”
“This is strictly a business decision, not football. I appreciate everything you gave to this team, son, and I hate for it to end this way. You have a bright future in this league. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear your name as a potential head coach in a few years. You are a great teacher.”
Michael removed the laptop from his backpack and placed it on the desk. Listening to Coach Foster prattle on about his strengths and his promising future took him back to his days as the designated dream crusher, when he repeated a similar mantra to every crestfallen player: “There are thirty-one other teams in the league. All you need is the right opportunity. Plenty of players who make All-Pro were cut as rookies. Even a few Hall of Famers got cut before they found the right team. Keep working hard and be ready when your phone rings. Your career is not over. It’s just beginning.”
He hoped those words made a difference to players who had chased their goal since high school. Dreams built on countless bruises and enough sweat and blood to fill a bathtub don’t die easily. Listening to the same spiel pour from Coach Foster’s mouth made Michael realize how empty the words truly were. Broken dreams are like broken hearts. Putting the pieces back together takes time.
He stood and extended his hand. “Thank you, sir, for giving me my first job as a position coach. What I learned here will make me a better coach and person.”
“Everybody gets fired in this business, sooner or later,” Foster said when Michael reached the door. “You’ll be all right, kid. Your phone will ring off the hook after the holidays. Go home and visit your mother. This will be your last chance to spend Christmas with your family for a long time.”
* * * * *
The lull between lunch and dinner was Hannah Knight’s favorite time at Bean’s Restaurant. While the chefs readied the kitchen for the evening rush and the wait staff tidied up, she roamed the dining room, speaking with dawdling customers or re-arranging seasonal decorations.
Anise Watson bustled in the front door with her eight-year-old daughter, Maddy, in tow. She and Hannah had sat next to each other in band class for six years, from middle school through high school. They had intended to go to UMass together and study music, but life had altered those plans during their senior year, when Hannah’s father suffered a stroke.
With her older brother away at Boston College, she took over the restaurant, a temporary job that had lasted thirteen years. She waved away a waitress and carried menus and a pitcher of water to the booth.
Anise ignored the menus. “Grilled cheese and fries for Maddy and chicken salad for me.”
Hannah scribbled the order on her note pad and smiled at Maddy, who had inherited her mother’s curly brown hair and hazel eyes. “Are you singing in the pageant this year?”
The girl stuck out her bottom lip and folded her arms across her chest.
“She’s a little nervous about being on stage,” Anise said.
Hannah knelt next to Maddy and patted her arm. “You’ll do fine, sweetie. I was on a lot of stages when I was a kid, and do you know what I did? I looked into the crowd until I found my mom and dad, and then I’d pretend I was in my parlor playing for them. When you’re on stage, find your parents in the crowd and sing to them.”
Maddy wrapped her arms around Hannah’s neck and squeezed. “Thanks, Miss Hannah. When were you on stage? Were you a singer?”
“That’s been a long time ago, honey. Now have fun and break a leg.”
Maddy scrunched her nose. “You want me to fall off and break my leg?”
Anise laughed and embraced her daughter. “No, honey. That’s a show biz saying for good luck.” Before Hannah turned away, Anise grabbed her arm and leaned closer. “What are you doing Friday night?”
Hannah’s heart sank. Another attempt at a set-up. “Nothing planned. Why?”
“Jeff’s cousin is in town, and I thought you two might hit it off. We got a sitter for Maddy and are going into North Adams for dinner and a movie. You should come. You’d like Van. He’s tall.”
Hannah crossed her arms across her chest and glowered. Anise had been trying for years to set her up with relatives, friends and co-workers, each one richer, nicer, better looking—or taller—than the previous match. Hannah appreciated her friend’s diligence but had sworn off blind dates and set-ups after the disaster with Simon, the dashing Northeastern law student with wavy hair who swept her off her feet one summer while he clerked with a district court judge.
A whirlwind romance led to a long-distance relationship that seemed headed for a trip down a church aisle—until he returned the next summer with a woman he had met in law school and introduced her as his fiancée.
“Verticality is important in a man, for sure. But I’m looking for a little more than height.”
“Come on, Hannah. You know what I mean. You never go out any more. When’s the last time you went on a date?”
“A few years,” Hannah said.
Anise squeezed her wrist. “More like five years. Come out with us. You’ll have fun. I promise.”
After Simon, Hannah followed Anise’s advice and enrolled in an online dating service. A series of regrettable first dates ensued. When the last match found out she ran a restaurant, he invited her over for an intimate dinner and led her into the kitchen, where he had laid out all the ingredients for Broccoli Chicken Casserole.
While he watched sports on television, Hannah prepared the dish, cranked the oven too high and slipped out the back door. She deleted her profile that night and spent the next two days scouring the list of emergency phone calls on the town website, worried his oven had caught fire and burned down the house while he sat in front of the television, glued to whatever sports match was on.
“I don’t know. Let me think about it.”
Maddy tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mom, I’m hungry.”
Seeing her chance, Hannah slipped from Anise’s grasp and headed for the kitchen. After passing the order to the assistant chef, she retreated to her office and slumped into the chair at her computer, watching the feed from the security cameras until Anise left.
* * * * *
Coach Foster had promised Michael the team’s publicity department would wait until that evening to issue a press release, but football teams have more leaks than Presidential administrations. Reporters began texting and calling before Michael returned to his cramped, one-bedroom apartment. The around-the-clock sports channels broadcast his humiliation to the nation before lunch. He even trended on Twitter until a video of a dog ski-jumping over a flaming barrel pushed him aside.
His phone beeped and buzzed every minute, mostly from his agent. He ignored them all until the familiar ring tone he had assigned to his mother— the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—snapped him from his malaise. “Dah dah dah duuuuuuuuh.”
“Emily just called with the news. What happened? I thought things were going well?”
Michael settled into the sofa. “Me, too. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. They needed to fire somebody, and all the other assistants had been here at least six years and have families. How would it look if he fired one of them the week before Christmas?”
“So he’s got a heart but no brain. Makes you wonder how he became a head coach.”
Michael laughed. “There’s no IQ test for being a football coach, even in the pros.”
His mother’s soothing voice poured through the connection. They talked for more than an hour, their longest chat since his father died four years ago. The conversation eventually worked around to the upcoming holidays.
“Do you have any plans for Christmas?” she asked.
“Hide out in my apartment, order Chinese and wait for my phone to ring.”
“Come home. You can wait for the phone to ring here, and I’ll feed you real home-cooked food. Emily would love to see you, and the boys want to see Uncle Mike. You haven’t even met your nephew Ellis yet. He’s almost two years old.”
It had been a long time since his mother played a guilt card. A devout practitioner of New England self-sufficiency, she had left career decisions to Michael as he bounced around the country pursuing a dream that took him from home and kept him from his friends.
He hadn’t spent more than a week in Ratledge Falls, a sleepy hamlet tucked in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, since the summer before his junior year in college. He hadn’t visited since his father’s funeral, when he flew in the night before and left the morning after for a game in Portland.
Catching up with old friends and meeting his two-year-old nephew sounded like the perfect respite before jumping back into the coaching grind after the holidays. The words of Coach Foster weighed on him: “This will be your last chance to spend Christmas with your family for a long time.”
“Sure, Mom. Let me get some loose ends tied up down here. I’ll catch a flight Friday and stay through Christmas.”
The smile in his mother’s voice lifted his spirit. “Send me the flight info. Emily and Elliot will meet you at the airport.”
Michael disconnected the call and leaned back on the sofa. He had lived in Louisville for six months and had yet to learn the name of his next-door neighbor. The only friends he had made were other coaches and staff members, and the only women he had met were their wives.
A few had promised to introduce him to unattached friends after the season ended, but the offers would be rescinded now that he had been fired. Setting someone up with an out-of-work football coach was not exactly a ringing endorsement for either party.
He lay back and dialed his agent, Cassandra Levin, before she called for the tenth time.
She answered on the first ring. “Are you okay?”
Michael cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m fine. A little shocked, that’s all.”
“Did he give you a reason?”
“Business decision. Fans have been grumbling about staff changes for weeks, like that ever solves anything.”
“Don’t let this shake your confidence. You won’t be unemployed long, I promise. This is a temporary setback. St. Louis, Utah and Portland will all be looking for head coaches in a couple of weeks, and maybe one or two more teams. Hang tight and stay by your phone. Getting you a better job will be my number one priority.”
Cassandra’s assurances made him feel better. She had been his representative since Memphis drafted him nine years earlier. Most agents would have dumped him after his career-ending knee injury two games into his third season, but she had encouraged him to consider coaching and guided him through the transition. An entry-level coach’s salary was so small, compared to the players she represented, she waived her commission until he became an assistant position coach four years earlier.
“I will. Thanks, Cassandra. I’m going to get out of Louisville and stay with my Mom for a while.”
“They do have cell service in Rutledge Hills, right?”
“Yes. Running water, too. And it’s Ratledge Falls.”
“Why don’t you fly out to Los Angeles the weekend after Christmas? We can look at all the possibilities and map out a plan. Plus you can buy me that steak dinner you owe me. I found a great new steakhouse in Laguna Beach.”
A statuesque red head with a movie star’s smile and swimsuit model’s body, Cassandra had been flirting with him after he and Suzanne parted company. Wary of a long-distance relationship and unsure if the attention was anything more than client relations—she represented dozens of professional athletes and coaches—he had so far kept things professional. “That sounds good. I could be out there on the twenty-sixth.”
“I’ll set it up and email you the details. Can’t wait.”
After hanging up, Michael wandered into his bedroom and sat on the bed. Nondescript landscape paintings hung over the dresser, and a row of cardboard boxes lined the wall, still unpacked from his summer move. Knowing the vagabond life of an assistant coach, Michael always rented furnished apartments near the stadium to make getting to work—and eventually moving—easier. He believed the same interior designer had decorated every one of his sterile places; beige carpet, off-white walls and flowered wallpaper in the bathrooms.
With nothing to keep him in Louisville, he decided not to spend three days wallowing in self-pity before flying to Ratledge Falls. It took less than three hours to pack his clothes and the few knick-knacks he wanted to keep and turn in his apartment key. Deciding not to worry his mother, he didn’t call and made it as far as Rochester, N.Y., that night.
He awoke early the next day for the final four-hour leg, eagerly anticipating the look on his mother’s face when he pulled into the driveway. He grabbed a muffin and bottle of juice in the hotel lobby and cast a wary glance at the rolling gray clouds speckled with red fringes stretching across the horizon before him. If all went to plan, he would be home in time for lunch and a bowl of his mother’s beef stew.
I hope you enjoyed this sample. If you'd like to read more, you can purchase it on Amazon. It's available for free on the Kindle for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
Raoud Le Meir stared at the classroom wall until his eyes glazed over. With rampaging Nazis racing toward Paris and the tattered remnants of the Army, formulas and equations seemed unimportant.
A bee’s gentle buzz pulled him from his malaise. He blinked until his vision cleared and refocused on the teacher, who had stopped writing on the board and stared outside, her mouth hanging open. The noise intensified into a steady hum. Students followed the teacher’s gaze and rushed to the windows, peering into a sky so bright and blue they had to shield their eyes.
Click here to pre-order the e-book from Amazon ($3.99)
Click here to pre-order the hardback from Barnes & Noble ($17.79)
“I see them!” A voice shouted from behind Raoud, who cupped his hands on the window and pressed his nose against the glass. Bodies pushed against him. Fingers pointed at the sky. Two dots the size of raisins appeared, circling like buzzards. More shouts of “I see them!”
The dots parted, and one grew larger. An airplane came into focus, blinding rays of sunlight shooting off its nose, its high-pitched whine rising as it barreled straight for them. Black crosses underneath each wing became visible. Students screamed and tumbled over each other, diving onto the floor or scurrying behind desks.
Raoud remained frozen, his hands and nose glued to the glass, his eyes locked onto the onrushing plane.
The teacher’s shrill voice rose above the clatter of chairs tipping over. “Get away from the window!”
Ira, his best friend, pleaded from behind a desk. “Get down!”
Unable to move, Raoud shut his eyes and braced. A deafening roar rattled the walls and shook the ground. The clamor enveloped him, squeezing the breath from his chest like a giant snake. The plane screamed overhead, and the noise faded. Raoud opened his eyes and once again peered into the cloudless sky.
Children crawled from hiding places, sobbing and shaking. The principal soon appeared, his face so pale it looked like his blood had settled into his shoes. “Go home, now. Do not walk in groups. Stay inside when you get home.” He wiped sweat from his brow and staggered down the hall to the next classroom.
Still dazed, Raoud gathered his books and followed Ira. They ran until they reached the shade of an oak tree so large its branches could snag clouds scudding past.
Ira bent over to catch his breath. “Why didn’t you hide? You were so brave.”
“I froze. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.”
“Everyone was scared. Some older boys wet their pants. Did you see the principal?”
Raoud laughed through his nose. “He looked like a ghost.”
They resumed their trek home, darting from tree to tree until reaching the town square. An eerie quiet settled over the normally bustling area. Birds hopped from table to table at the deserted cafe, scavenging bits of food left on dirty plates and underneath toppled chairs.
“Where is everybody?” Ira asked, his eyes wide.
Raoud glanced at the darkened window above the post office where his father, the mayor, conducted the official business of the town. He shrugged. “Can you come over tomorrow?”
“My parents won’t let me. Maybe you could come to my house?”
Raoud shook his head. Since fighting resumed a month earlier, Maman only let him outside for chores or to attend school or church. “Keep an eye out for Germans.”
Ira’s shoulders drooped, and he trudged away.
Pebbles from the dusty road stabbed at the soles of his shoes as Raoud rushed through the deserted town square. His legs heavy, he rounded the curve before his house and stumbled to a halt. Automobiles and trucks lined the road, and several men stood on the front porch, smoking and pacing. The murmur of excited voices leaked through the open window.
Raoud’s heart pressed against his chest as he sprinted home. He burst through the back door and found his mother hovering over a pot on the stove. “What happened? Why are these people here?”
Maman stopped stirring and wiped her hands on her apron. Her brown eyes remained fixed on the stew. “The Boche have entered Paris.”
A peach-sized pit lodged in Raoud’s stomach. The mighty German Army had reached the capital, seventy kilometers away. He threw his books on the kitchen table and rushed into the cramped parlor. Dozens of people stood shoulder to shoulder, eyes glued to a small box with three black knobs on the bottom and a square window with a dial. Hunched over the radio stood his father, spinning a knob.
Raoud squeezed into a spot between the grandfather clock and his older brother, Pierre, and pulled his knees to his chest. An announcer’s voice crackled through the static. A hush fell over the room.
The French Government yesterday evacuated Paris and declared it an Open City. Leading elements of the German Army entered the city’s outskirts this morning. No resistance has been reported. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud and the cabinet have fled to Bordeaux.
“What does open city mean?” Raoud asked.
Papa snapped off the radio and faced his neighbors, lines of worry etched on his forehead. He folded his left arm across his stomach and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It means we will not defend the city. We are trying to keep the Nazis from destroying Paris with their bombs and tanks.”
Andre Geroux rose. A frequent visitor to Papa’s office, he had fought in the Great War and walked with a limp he blamed on the Germans. “We will fight the Boche in the fields.” He thrust his fist into the air, like he was holding a pitchfork. Shouts of “Vive la France!” filled the parlor.
Papa slammed his hand on the mantle. His face flushed and eyes blazed as he scanned the room. “The battle is over for now, Andre. A veil of darkness will soon descend upon us. Until that veil is lifted—and it will be—we must stay strong. Victory will come. Until it does, our duty is to survive.”
He raised a bottle of Calvados. “Vive la France.” He took a sip and handed it to his best friend, Louis Meilleur, who did the same before passing it to Geroux. As the bottle made its way around the room, each person had a sip and shouted, “Vive la France.” When the bottle reached Raoud, he glanced at Papa, who nodded.
Raoud closed his eyes and winced as the first bitter taste burned his throat. After choking down a taste, he wiped his lips on his shirt and handed the bottle to his smiling father. “Vive… la France,” he sputtered. The room erupted with laughter.
Raoud sat on the sofa the following morning and stared at his hands. The war Papa had fretted about for years had arrived. Thousands of French soldiers had escaped to England at Dunkirk. The government had left Paris to the Nazis. Half the country it seemed had fled south. Those who stayed behind cowered in their houses, trapped like prisoners. “Is it hopeless?”
His father stopped fiddling with the radio and sat next to Raoud. “The outcome has been decided, for now, but we always have hope, son. No weapon is more powerful. France will make it through this. Somehow, someway, we will survive, no matter how long it takes, no matter how difficult the struggle. It is our duty.”
Raoud forced a smile and leaned into his father.
Pierre stumbled down the stairs and stifled a yawn. He ran his hand through a mop of auburn hair and stood next to the sofa. At almost six feet tall, he had inherited Papa’s height, but had yet to fill out. His gangly arms and legs looked like they belonged on a colt, and a thin patch of stubble covered his chin. “Refugees said German airplanes were shooting at civilians, that dead bodies fill the ditches between here and Paris.”
Papa swirled his coffee and stood. “The first casualty of war is truth, son. You mustn’t believe everything you hear.”
After breakfast, Raoud and Pierre squeezed every extra chair into the parlor. The radio stayed on throughout the day as grim-faced neighbors shuttled through, listening to the latest reports and speaking in hushed tones.
Outside, the dusty road once again teemed with cars and motorcycles and worn-out horses hitched to wagons over-flowing with furniture and boxes. A river of weary people shuffled along on foot, pushing prams filled with more than babies. Anxious parents exhorted sobbing children to keep up. Even the horses looked afraid.
The parlor emptied when streaks of red crossed the sky. After the final guest departed, Pierre sat on the sofa and listened to the radio while Papa hovered over maps spread on the dining room table, shaking his head and muttering. He collected the coins he used to mark the locations of the British, French and German armies and handed them to Raoud, folded the maps and returned them to a drawer. “Would you like to come into the office with me on Monday, for your birthday? I could use an assistant.”
Raoud’s twelfth birthday had escaped mention for weeks. Talk of presents and cakes seemed out of order with German soldiers tramping on French soil. “Yes, Papa. I would love to come.”
“I wish I had a better present for you.” Papa kissed his forehead and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Raoud alone in the gathering darkness.
Rumors about the Nazis had been circulating for weeks. Soldiers that ripped babies from mothers’ arms and shot old people for sport, tanks that flattened houses, bombs that left craters so deep entire villages disappeared.
A series of knocks on the front door snapped Raoud from his mental haze. Believing it to be his grandfather with fresh milk and butter, he opened the door without checking through the window.
A middle-aged man wearing a long black coat and holding a round hat stepped inside. Rivulets of sweat leaked from his matted hair, and he scanned the room as if he expected someone to jump out from a corner. “I am sorry to bother you, but my family’s automobile has broken down. Can you help us?”
Papa came into the parlor. The man cleared his throat and repeated the question. He spoke as if words had been rationed and the day’s allotment was nearly exhausted.
“Etienne Gallard lives on the other side of the village, six kilometers to the west,” Papa said. “He works on farm equipment. Perhaps he may be of assistance. My father-in-law could take you, but it will be dark soon. It is not safe to be outside at night with the German Army so close. You must stay with us until tomorrow.”
The man sighed and lowered his head. Flecks of gray dotted his unkempt beard, and dark circles gathered like storm clouds under his sunken eyes. “Your generosity is most kind, but we cannot stop.”
While his father spoke with the gentleman, Raoud wandered outside. The automobile had stopped in front of the house, a thin trail of smoke escaping from underneath the hood. Surrounded by suitcases in the back sat a young boy his age and a girl even younger, watching Raoud through listless brown eyes. The girl clutched a doll to her tan coat, and an open book lay on the boy’s lap. A woman leaned against the front door with her eyes closed.
Raoud traced a finger over the warm, yellow hood. A thin layer of dust and spots of mud muted the color. The car’s protruding headlights and angled grill reminded him of the eyes and beak of a prehistoric bird he had seen in a textbook.
Papa and the gentleman stepped onto the porch as a second car skidded to a stop. The driver flung open his door and jumped out, waving his arms and shouting in an unfamiliar language. The woman jolted awake and hustled the children to the other car. A pink hat blew off her head and tumbled down the dusty road. She left it for the wind.
The first man sprinted to the broken down auto and opened the trunk. “The Germans sealed off Paris yesterday. We were fortunate to escape. My brother will take us. We will not return.”
The man passed two large suitcases to his brother and held out a key for Papa, who pushed it away.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot pay you.”
“We do not need money. Please. Do not leave it for the Germans.”
His father nodded. “We will take care of it.”
While Papa helped fill the trunk, Raoud ran after the woman’s hat. He plucked it from the fence next to his grandfather’s pasture and turned in time to see the auto roar to life and bolt away, tires skidding in the dirt. He stood beside his father, holding the hat and growing more anxious about the German Army’s impending arrival. “Where are they going, Papa?”
“I don’t know, son. Away from here, away from the Germans.”
“A lot of my friends from school have fled. Should we leave, too?”
Papa shook his head. “We’re not moving, not for the Boche, not for anybody. How far could Papi’s truck take us?”
Raoud chortled. His grandfather held a string tied to the passenger side door – damaged when a cow had rammed the truck – to keep it from flying open. None of the tires matched, and the rusty gate on the back flew open every time the truck hit a bump. “You are right, Papa. But why were they so frightened?”
“They were Jews, son. The Germans do not like Jews.”
Thank you for reading. If you would like to be notified when the book is available on Amazon, drop me a line.