A Hero to Come Home To, Book 1 in the Tallgrass series
Released: June 25, 2013
Cait: Today, I have a very special guest. A USA Today best seller with over 80 published books. I’ve been hooked by her wit ever since I read, First Kiss, in the Bethlehem series. Welcome, Marilyn.
Marilyn: Thanks a ton for having me here! They say word of mouth is the best publicity ever, and because this series is so important to me, I have a lot of words in my mouth, LOL.
Cait: *giggles* How’d you come up with your title?
Marilyn: The title credit goes to the editorial staff at Forever Romance. I’m notoriously bad with titles, so much that I’ve practically quit trying. If I’m lucky, I might come up with a single word in a proposed title that sparks ideas in others, but I’d guess fewer than a fourth of my books have wound up with anything vaguely similar to my original title.
Cait: Trying to figure out just the right catch phrase is hard. Would you give a blurb about the book?
Marilyn: Losing her husband to the war in Iraq puts Carly Lowry’s life on hold, every day a struggle until she and another war widow start the Tuesday Night Margarita Club, also known as the Fort Murphy Widows Club. Together the women help each other to live, to cope, and to honor their fallen heroes’ memories by living their lives to the fullest.
Staff Sergeant Dane Clark lost a part of himself on his last tour in Afghanistan—literally. Losing his leg has put his future in question and fills his present with doubts and uncertainties. When he meets Carly, the attraction he feels is fierce. But how can he ask her to accept him when he hasn’t yet learned to accept himself?
Cait: Very heartwarming. The story will touch a lot of people. I also like the name of their group, Margarita Club. So, how’d you come up with the plot?
Marilyn: A former editor had asked if I was interested in writing a military romance set in my home state. At the time, I didn’t have any ideas that really grabbed me, but I kept it in the back of my mind.
Then, on July 3, 2011, I saw a news segment about a support group created by and for military widows. Later the same day, a segment ran about an Army widow and an Air Force widower falling in love. After watching the fireworks and listening to patriotic music for a few hours, the next morning I woke up with an entire cast of characters and the major plot points.
Cait: You worked while you slept. You said that the story takes place in your home state. Would you tell us about it?
Marilyn: It takes place in the fictional town of Tallgrass, Oklahoma, and its fictional Army post, Fort Murphy. I’m an Oklahoma girl, born and bred. I lived away for sixteen years while my husband was in the Navy, but I’m back home to stay. Oklahoma’s a beautiful place, and its people are strong, resilient, and admirable. I love writing about them.
Cait: Okay, we know the setting. How about some background on your hero and heroine?
Marilyn: Dane has always been gung-ho active—a runner, an athlete, a soldier, a paratrooper. Much of his self-image revolved around his fitness, his strength, etc. So when he goes through the trauma of three amputations, leaving him only a stump of his left leg, he has trouble adapting. Logically, he knows that, with the proper prosthetics, time, and rehab, he’ll be able to do anything he wants, but emotionally he fears he’s not as much a man. He’s the first hero I’ve ever written with body image issues, which were really interesting to explore.
Carly has an impressive quiet strength, as most of my girlfriends do, but her background came from one of my favorite TV shows. It wasn’t intentional, but as I wrote more about her and her family – she’s the only average one in a family full of geniuses – I realized that if the guys on The Big Bang Theory were family, she’d be their normal sister. And what I really loved about her was she was okay with that. It didn’t make her insecure or push her into any sort of competition or overachievement. She accepted it and loved them all anyway.
Cait: Both characters are very intriguing. What is the one physical trait that would pull your reader into loving your hero and heroine?
Marilyn: To quote Carly’s thoughts on Dane: He looked capable, a command-and-control kind of guy, except for his eyes. They were tough to read, even when she magnified the photo until the upper half of his face filled the screen, but there was definitely something haunted—or haunting?—about them.
Though Carly will always grieve for her dead husband, she still has a smile that grabs everyone’s attention.
Cait: What is one personality trait that stands out?
Marilyn: I’d probably choose Dane’s perseverance. He’s been through so much, and he has no idea what the future holds for him, yet he keeps pushing on. Carly is equally optimistic. Though she mourns what she lost, she’s grateful for what she still has, and she never loses hope.
Cait: Do Dane and Carly have pet names for each other?
Marilyn: Because they met in a very small cave on one of the margarita club’s outings, Carly and her friends call him Cave Man at first. Other than that, in this book, at least, they stick to first names.
Cait: Was there anyone that you based your characters on?
Marilyn: My son was in the Army, so I borrowed liberally from his career for Dane’s, and all my heroes have a few things in common with him and my husband: strength, courage, the willingness to protect others, the understanding that it takes the sacrifices of good people to defeat bad people.
Carly shares traits with all my friends and me: strength, courage, adaptability, the guts to go on when life has got her down and started kicking her with boots on. She embodies Woman Power.
Cait: You really wrote yourself into this story. Very special. On to some lighter stuff, if you were to look in the hero and heroine’s trashcan in their family room, living room, den, whichever one you want to pick, but not the bathroom, kitchen, or laundry room, what interesting tidbit would we find?
Marilyn: Oh, in Carly’s trashcan, you would find the crinkly little paper cups that wonderful chocolate is nestled in inside its box. She’s dedicated to eating two pieces of chocolate-covered caramel every day. It’s real stuff, too, made by my friend Margaret Golla, but sadly, it’s not for sale.
For Dane, it would probably be fast-food wrappers. He’s not much of a cook, and he doesn’t deal with the everyday detritus of life. Until he figures where his future lies – or if he even has one – he maintains a pretty Spartan life.
Cait: Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there.
Marilyn: Easy with Dane: first, there’s only one foot. He favors running shoes when he’s not in uniform – they give him good traction, important to someone who’s not so steady on his feet, and he spends most of his time in rehab anyway.
Carly aims for comfort. As a schoolteacher, she’s on her feet a lot, and she just doesn’t do physical activity. She tried jogging once but declined to ever do so again, thank you very much.
Cait: lol. On a day off, what would your characters be doing?
Marilyn: Dane watches a lot of TV. He’s new to Fort Murphy and hasn’t met many people besides the staff and other patients at the Wounded Warrior transition unit. Carly’s in a stage of making changes—to her house, her yard, her life in general. She doesn’t stay still too often.
Cait: Now, make me swoon. Give me few sentences that are going to make me buy this book.
Marilyn: Oh, boy. Um, one reader said it has the best marriage proposal she’s ever read? Publisher’s Weekly said it’ll make you cry?
It’s a sweet, difficult, tender, silly, touching, sad, hopeful, uplifting look at the lives of the families of our troops, whose sacrifices aren’t as recognized or acknowledged but are still very real.
Cait: That did it for me. I’m starting your book today. Now, let’s talk about you? What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Marilyn: Ah, an easy one: my husband Robert, our son Brandon, and our grandson Cameron. They’re my blessings.
Cait: When and where were you the happiest?
Marilyn: Right now. Things aren’t always easy, but I’ve learned that everything shall pass. The downs always go back up; the lows always rise again. We’re happy and healthy, and we’ve got family and friends. What more could we ask for?
Cait: I agree with you one hundred percent. Which talent would you most like to have?
Marilyn: Singing. I love to sing, though even the dogs cringe when they hear me.
Cait: *giggles* If you had a choice, where would you like to live?
Marilyn: I’m happy where I am now, though I wouldn’t mind if I could move our house into the valley out back and look up at the trees instead of down on them. And I wouldn’t turn down a winter place in Cozumel.
Cait: I love Cozumel. My husband and I went there for our honeymoon. I think it’s time for a return trip. What do you most value in your friends?
Marilyn: The certainty that they’ve got my back, and that they know I have theirs. It’s love and trust and acceptance and loyalty all wrapped up together. They’re here for me, always, and me for them. I find a lot of comfort in that.
Cait: Your and you friends are lucky. What is your motto?
Marilyn: My husband would probably say it’s, “I don’t know.” Where is the phone? Why isn’t the laundry in the hamper? What’s for supper? What day of the week is it? My answer’s always the same: I don’t know. I live in multiple worlds without the capacity to keep track of even one. I’m just happy to remember my characters’ names and my own.
Cait: Marilyn, it’s been a joy talking with you and getting to know you. Thank you. Below is Marilyn Pappano’s contact information and an excerpt from her book that was released in June. Also, she has two more books releasing within the year: Copper Lake Encounter in August 2013 and A Man To Hold on To February 2014.
Excerpt from A Hero to Come Home To:
It had taken only three months of living in Oklahoma for Carly to learn that March could be the most wonderful place on earth or the worst. This particular weekend was definitely in the wonderful category. The temperature was in the mid-seventies, warm enough for shirt-sleeves and shorts, though occasionally a breeze off the water brought just enough coolness to chill her skin. The sun was bright, shining hard on the stone and concrete surfaces that surrounded them, sharply delineating the new green buds on the trees and the shoots peeking out from the rocky ground.
It was a beautiful clear day, the kind that Jeff had loved, the kind they would have spent on a long walk or maybe just lounging in the backyard with ribs smoking on the grill. There was definitely a game on TV—wasn’t it about time for March Madness?—but he’d preferred to spend his time off with her. He could always read about the games in the paper.
Voices competed with the splash of the waterfall as she touched her hand to her hip pocket, feeling the crackle of paper there. The photograph went everywhere with her, especially on each new adventure she took with her friends. And this trip to Turner Falls, just outside Davis, Oklahoma, while tame enough, was an adventure for her. Every time she left their house in Tallgrass, two hours away, was an adventure of sorts. Every night she went to sleep without crying, every morning she found the strength to get up.
“There’s the cave.” Jessy, petite and red-haired, gestured to the opening above and to the right of the waterfall. “Who wants to be first?”
The women looked around at each other, but before anyone else could speak up, Carly did. “I’ll go.” These adventures were about a lot of things: companionship, support, grieving, crying, laughing and facing fears.
There was only one fear Carly needed to face today: her fear of heights. She estimated the cave at about eighty feet above the ground, based on the fact that it was above the falls, which were seventy-two feet high, according to the T-shirts they’d all picked up at the gift shop. Not a huge height, so not a huge fear, right? And it wasn’t as if they’d be actually climbing. The trail was steep in places, but anyone could do it. She could do it.
“I’ll wait here,” Ilena said. Being twenty-eight weeks pregnant with a child who would never know his father limited her participation in cave-climbing. “Anything you don’t want to carry, leave with me. And be sure you secure your cameras. I don’t want anything crashing down on me from above.”
“Yeah, everyone try not to crash down on Ilena,” Jessy said drily as the women began unloading jackets and water bottles on their friend.
“Though if you do fall, aim for me,” Ilena added. “I’m pretty cushiony these days.” Smiling, she patted the roundness of her belly with jacket-draped arms. With pale skin and white-blond hair, she resembled a rather anemic snowman whose builders had emptied an entire coat closet on it.
Carly faced the beginning of the trail, her gaze rising to the shadow of the cave mouth. Every journey started with one step—the mantra Jeff had used during his try-jogging-you’ll-love-it phase. She hadn’t loved it at all, but she’d loved him so she’d given it a shot and spent a week recovering from shocks such as her joints had never known.
One step, then another. The voices faded into the rush of the falls again as she pulled herself up a steep incline. She focused on not noticing that the land around her was more vertical than not. She paid close attention to spindly trees and an occasional bit of fresh green working its way up through piles of last fall’s leaves. She listened to the water and thought a fountain would be a nice addition to her backyard this summer, one in the corner where she could hear it from her bedroom with the window open.
And before she realized it, she was squeezing past a boulder and the cave entrance was only a few feet away. A triumphant shout rose inside her and she turned to give it voice, only to catch sight of the water thundering over the cliff, the pool below that collected it and Ilena, divested of her burden now and calling encouragement.
“Oh, holy crap,” she whispered, instinctively backing against the rough rock that formed the floor of the cave entrance.
Heart pounding, she turned away from the view below, grabbed a handful of rock and hauled herself into the cave. She collapsed on the floor, unmindful of the dirt or any crawly things she might find inside, scooted on her butt until the nearest wall was at her back, then let out the breath squeezing her chest.
Her relieved sigh ended in a squeak as her gaze connected with another no more than six feet away. “Oh, my God!” Jeff’s encouragement the first time she’d come to eye to eye with a mouse echoed in her head: He’s probably as scared of you as you are of him.
The thought almost loosed a giggle, but she was afraid it would have turned hysterical. The man sitting across the cave didn’t look as if he were scared of anything, though that might well change when her friends arrived. His eyes were dark, his gaze narrowed, as if he didn’t like his solitude interrupted. It was impossible to see what color his hair was, thanks to a very short cut and the baseball cap he wore with the insignia of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He hadn’t shaved in a day or two, and he was lean, long, solid, dressed in a T-shirt and faded jeans with brand-new running shoes.
He shifted awkwardly, sliding a few feet farther into the cave, onto the next level of rock, then ran his hands down his legs, smoothing his jeans.
Carly forced a smile. “I apologize for my graceless entrance. Logically, I knew how high I was, but as long as I didn’t look, I didn’t have to really know. I have this thing about heights, but nobody knows—” she tilted her head toward the entrance where the others’ voices were coming closer—”so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything.”
Stopping for breath, she grimaced. Apparently, she’d learned to babble again, as if she hadn’t spoken to a stranger—a male stranger, at least—in far too long. She’d babbled with every man she’d met until Jeff. Though he’d been exactly the type to intimidate her into idiocy, he never had. Talking to him had been easy from the first moment.
“I’m Carly, and I hope you don’t mind company because I think the trail is pretty crowded with my friends right now.” She gestured toward the ball cap. “Are you with the 173rd?”
There was a flicker of surprise in his eyes that she recognized the embroidered insignia. “I was. It’s been a while.” His voice was exactly what she expected: dark, raspy, as if he hadn’t talked much in a while.
“Are you at Fort Sill now?” The artillery post at Lawton was about an hour and a half from the falls. It was Oklahoma’s only other Army post besides Fort Murphy, two hours northeast at Tallgrass.
“No.” His gaze shifted to the entrance when Jessy appeared, and he moved up another level of the ragged stone that led to the back of the shallow cave.
“Whoo!” Jessy’s shout echoed off the walls, then her attention locked on the man. The tilt of her green eyes gave her smile a decided feline look. “Hey, guys, we turn our back on her for one minute, and Carly’s off making new friends.” She heaved herself into the cave and, though there was plenty of room, nudged Carly toward the man before dropping to the stone beside her. She leaned past, offering her hand. “Hi, I’m Jessy. Who are you?”
Carly hadn’t thought of offering her hand or even asking his name, but direct was Jessy’s style, and it usually brought results. This time was no different, though he hesitated before extending his hand. “I’m Dane.”
“Dane,” Therese echoed as she climbed up. “Nice name. I’m Therese. And what are you doing up here in Wagon Wheel Cave?”
“Wishing he’d escaped before we got here,” Carly murmured, and she wasn’t sure but thought she heard an agreeing grunt from him.
The others crowded in, offering their names—Fia, Lucy and Marti—and he acknowledged each of them with a nod. Somewhere along the way, he’d slipped off the ball cap and pushed it out sight, as though he didn’t want to advertise the fact that he’d been Airborne. As if they wouldn’t recognize a high-and-tight haircut, but then, he didn’t know he’d been cornered by a squad of Army wives.
Widows, Carly corrected herself. They might consider the loose-knit group of fifteen to twenty women back in Tallgrass just friends. They might jokingly refer to themselves as the Tuesday Night Margarita Club, but everyone around Tallgrass knew who they really were, even if people rarely said the words to them.
The Fort Murphy Widows’ Club.
Marti, closest to the entrance, leaned over the edge far enough to make Carly’s heart catch in her chest. “Hey, Ilena, say hi to Dane!”
“Hello, Dane!” came a distant shout.
“We left her down below. She’s preggers.” At Dane’s somewhat puzzled gesture, Marti yelled out again, “Dane says hi!”
“Bet you’ve never been alone in a small cave with six women,” someone commented.
“Hope you’re not claustrophobic,” someone else added.
He did look a bit green, Carly thought, but not from claustrophobia. He’d found the isolation he was seeking, only to have a horde of chatty females descend on him. But who went looking for isolation in a public park on a beautiful warm Saturday?
Probably lots of people, she admitted, given how many millions of acres of public wilderness there were. But Turner Falls wasn’t isolated wilderness. Anyone could drive in. And the cave certainly wasn’t isolated. Even she could reach it.
Deep inside, elation surged, a quiet celebration. Who knew? Maybe this fall she would strap into the bungee ride at the Tulsa State Fair and let it launch her into the stratosphere. But first she had to get down from here.
Her stomach shuddered at the thought.
After a few minutes’ conversation and picture-taking, her friends began leaving again in the order in which they’d come. With each departure, Carly put a few inches’ space between her and Dane until finally it was her turn. She took a deep breath . . . and stayed exactly where she was. She could see the ground from here if she leaned forward except no way was she leaning forward with her eyes open. With her luck, she’d get dizzy and pitch out headfirst.
“It’s not so bad if you back out.” Despite his brief conversation with the others, Dane’s voice still sounded rusty. “Keep your attention on your hands and feet, and don’t forget to breathe.”
“Easy for you to say.” Her own voice sounded reedy, unsteady. “You used to jump out of airplanes for a living.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not the jumping that’s hard. It’s the landing that can get you in a world of trouble.”
On hands and knees, she flashed him a smile as she scooted in reverse until there was nothing but air beneath her feet. Ready to lunge back inside any instant, she felt for the ledge with her toes and found it, solid and wide and really not very different from a sidewalk, if she discounted the fact that it was eighty feet above the ground. “You never did say where you’re stationed,” she commented.
“Fort Murphy. It’s a couple hours away—”
“At Tallgrass.” Her smile broadened. “That’s where we’re all from. Maybe we’ll see you around.” She eased away from the entrance, silently chanting to keep her gaze from straying. Hands, feet, breathe. Hands, feet, breathe.