It may not be summer in your part of the world yet, it certainly isn't in mine, but I'm bringing you a bit of summer with my upcoming novel, SUMMER OF THE LOON. The release date is set for March 5th, but I can't wait that long to share the first chapter. So here it is - the first chapter of SUMMER OF THE LOON. Enjoy!
Life can change in a heartbeat…
Ali Jenson's life changed forever the moment her mother died. The sixteen-year-old was suddenly swept away from the life she knew in California to live with her estranged grandfather in the woods of northern Minnesota. Ali's life has never been easy, but it seems her grandfather is trying his best to make it even more difficult. Her only hope is to get through the summer and her last year of high school so she can return to her old life in California. What she hadn't counted on, though, was slowly becoming attached to the grumpy old man and falling in love for the very first time.
Benjamin Jenson never planned on meeting his granddaughter, let alone having her live with him. He wasn't thrilled with the idea of a teenage girl coming into his home or his life. He'd been down that path once before, and he didn't want to relive it again. But he is her only living relative, and he knew his deceased wife, Lizzie, would have wanted him to give Ali a home. Grudgingly, he figured he could put up with the girl for a year. He never expected Ali to find a way into his heart and make him face painful past memories and his worst fear. The fear of losing yet another person he loves.
Will Ben finally let go of the past and give Ali the one thing she's always dreamed of? A home.
SUMMER OF THE LOON
Deanna Lynn Sletten
Alison Jenson tucked a stray strand of dark brown hair behind her ear as she wriggled again to try to get comfortable in the narrow airplane seat. She was happy she had a window seat. The airplane from Minneapolis, MN to Duluth was small—only fifty seats in all—with a very narrow aisle, meaning she'd have had a person on either side of her. Sitting by the window meant she could pretend to be busy looking down at the landscape below and not have to make small talk with the older gentleman sitting next to her.
Ali rubbed her sweaty palms over her jean-clad legs as she stared out the window. All she saw below were trees and lakes. Very few towns popped up between Minneapolis and Duluth once they'd left the Metro area. Until about fifteen minutes ago, she was able to distract herself from her destination by texting her best friend, Megan, back in California. But then her phone service was cut off suddenly and she lost contact with her last tie to her old life. Ali already missed Megan and her other friends in California, she already missed her high school in Torrance, and she missed the warm sun and sandy beaches. Most of all, she missed her mom.
The small airplane banked, and Ali saw that they were already making their descent into Duluth. She'd never been to this part of the country before and had no idea what to expect. When her plane had landed in Minneapolis, she'd been delighted to see how large the airport was. During her two-hour delay, she'd wandered the shops and enjoyed a caramel cappuccino and a cookie in a Starbucks. Her phone had informed her that it was fifty-seven degrees outside, which she thought was cold, but apparently it was normal for the middle of May in Minneapolis. Ali had no idea how cold it would be farther north and hoped she'd dressed warm enough in her jeans, UGG boots, and zippered hoodie over a T-shirt.
The plane landed smoothly on the tarmac, and Ali reached down under the seat in front of her to retrieve her laptop backpack. Looking out the window once more, she was surprised to see how small the airport was. She wondered if he was in the terminal, waiting for her. She wondered what he looked like, and how she'd recognize him. She wondered if he was as nervous as she was.
Ali stood, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and followed the other passengers out of the plane and up the ramp into the terminal. This was it. At only sixteen years old, her former life was behind her, and she was walking toward her new life, meeting her estranged grandfather for the very first time.
Benjamin Jenson stood in the airport terminal behind the crowd of people waiting for the passengers from Minneapolis to disembark. His tall frame allowed him to see easily over the crowd, so he stood in the very back so he could spot his granddaughter before she saw him. He knew he had an advantage. Even though he hadn't seen a photograph of his granddaughter since she was five years old, he knew there'd be no mistaking his Jennifer's child. She'd have Jen's vibrant blue eyes and creamy skin, she'd be tall and slender, and she'd probably have that same stubborn set to her jaw that he remembered so well from his little Jen.
Ben straightened the collar of his blue, plaid, flannel shirt and ran his hand through his salt and pepper hair. At sixty years old, he was in good shape and looked much younger than his age. Years of physical labor working outside had helped to keep his body lean and strong, although being exposed to the elements had etched creases in his face, especially in the corners of his dark blue eyes when he smiled, which he rarely did. He hadn't had much to smile about over the past seventeen years, and most of the people who knew him understood without being told that he was a man of few words. He was a hardworking man, and an honest one, which was all that really mattered in the tough country of the north woods.
Ben wasn't happy at the prospect of having a teenage girl he didn't even know moving in with him. The news of his daughter's untimely death had jolted him severely and brought back a range of emotions that he thought he'd buried deep down inside long ago. Pain, heartbreak, anger, resentment, and guilt had all filtered through the crevices of the locked door to his heart, feelings he thought he'd never have to deal with again. But then, the realization that he was his granddaughter's only living relative and he was responsible for her, helped to push those feelings aside, all of them except resentment. Why should he be responsible for this girl he didn't know? Ben had grumbled this to himself several times over the past few weeks since he'd found out about Jennifer's death. The last thing he needed was some spoiled city girl from California to come and muck up his life, the life he'd so carefully put back together since the death of his wife, Lizzie.
Because Lizzie would want me to, was the answer he'd hear in his head every time he grumbled.
Ben was snapped out of his thoughts when he heard a woman in front of him squeal with delight at the sight of one of the first passengers filing into the waiting area. Soon, more people followed, and Ben studied each face before moving on to the next. Ben's expression turned into a scowl. Damn. What if she'd missed her flight from Minneapolis? The next flight wasn't due until this evening, and they still had a two-and-a-half hour drive back to the cabin. He wouldn't put it past the girl to have missed it. He crossed his arms and continued to wait, all the while convincing himself that it was going to be a long day of waiting.
Ali saw her grandfather immediately as she passed through the doorway into the waiting area. He was easy to recognize, standing there at the back of the crowd, scowling. He was taller than she'd imagined, and looked younger, too, but there was no mistaking that this man was her relative. The dark hair and intense blue eyes, so much like her own, gave him away, but the strong set to his square jaw was a dead giveaway. It reminded her of her mother when she was stubborn. As she stared at him, Ali saw her grandfather's eyes settle upon her, and recognition filled his gaze. She felt his eyes as intensely as if he'd actually touched her. It was a strange feeling, seeing him for the first time, yet feeling his presence as if she knew him. Straightening her back, Ali lifted her backpack up higher on her shoulder and strode purposefully through the crowd of people toward her grandfather's stern eyes.
Ali stopped only inches from him and stared up at him with questioning eyes. She didn't smile, and neither did he.
"Alison?" he asked, staring down at her.
Ali nodded. She didn't know what else to do. As everyone else around them hugged each other in greeting, they just stood there and stared at each other. Finally, feeling as if she should do something, Ali raised her hand and extended it to him. "It's nice to finally meet you, Grandfather."
Ben frowned down at her and stared at her offered hand as if contemplating whether or not to shake it. Finally, he grasped it in his own large, rough hand, gave it a squeeze, and quickly let it go.
"Well, I see you made your flight," Ben said, his face still stern. "We have a long drive ahead of us. I assume you have more bags." He nodded toward the bag on her shoulder.
Ali merely stared at him. She hadn't expected him to be thrilled that she was here, but she'd hoped he'd show some warmth toward his only grandchild. Her mother had been so affectionate and loving. How in the world had she come from this cold, hard person in front of her?
"I have one other bag," Ali finally answered.
"Only one?" Ben raised his brows.
"Hmmm." Ben turned on his heel and waved for Ali to follow. She did. They made their way to the baggage claim area behind the line of other passengers who had come off her flight.
Ali saw her large, black bag on the carousal and immediately headed over to lift it off. Seeing her struggle with the heavy bag, Ben came up beside her and lifted it easily out of her hands and onto the floor in one smooth motion.
Ali cut her eyes to him. "Thanks," she said through pursed lips as she took ahold of the handle and pulled it away from him.
"Let me carry that for you," Ben offered.
"I can take care of it myself," Ali said.
Ben stared at her for only a second. "Fine. The truck is this way." He turned and walked away with Ali on his heels.
Her grandfather led her outside to a parking lot filled with oversized pickup trucks and SUVs. It was a sunny day, although the air was cool. Ali was glad she'd worn her sweatshirt. When she'd left California, it was eighty-three degrees. Here, it was more like fifty degrees.
They stopped at an extended cab, navy blue, Dodge Ram truck that looked fairly new. Ben took Ali's large bag from her and easily hoisted it up into the back seat of the truck, then walked around to the driver's side and stepped up behind the wheel. The truck was so high off the ground, Ali found she had to literally pull herself up into the cab.
Not a word passed between the two in the pickup as Ben maneuvered his way out of Duluth and headed northwest. Ali had no idea where he lived. She knew he lived on a lake and had owned and operated a resort, but that was about all her mother had told her over the years. Ali watched as the road turned from four lanes to two and the landscape turned from homes and businesses to trees. There was nothing for miles and miles except trees.
After riding for a while without her grandfather saying a word to her, Ali pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked for a signal. She had two bars. She quickly texted Megan to tell her she had arrived safely and was with her grandfather.
"That thing won't do you much good once we get closer to home," Ben said into the silent cab.
Ben's sudden words startled Ali, and she looked up at him with wide eyes. His voice was deep and gruff, which didn't make him sound any friendlier.
"There's spotty cell service in Auburn, the town near where we live, but none out at the cabin. It won't be worth the money you pay to have it there," Ben said.
Ali looked down at her phone. It was at one bar now. "I was just texting my friend back home to let her know I made it here," she said. "Her mother wanted to make sure I was safe."
Ben nodded as he continued staring straight ahead at the road. "Is your friend's mother the woman I spoke to? The one you were staying with these past few weeks?"
"Yes," Ali said. "That was Megan's mom, Amy."
"Nice woman," Ben said, the gruffness in his voice softening a little. "It was kind of her to take you in like that."
Ali's heart quickened at his words and she bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from hurling a nasty retort. Ali had known Megan and her family since the school had moved Ali ahead a year into second grade, and Megan became her best friend. Megan's mother was like a second mother to Ali. Of course they took her in after her mother died. Amy had even offered to allow her to live with them over the next year so Ali could spend her senior year of high school in the same school and not have to transfer. But then Ali's grandfather had agreed to take her in, and there was nothing she or Amy could do about it since he was her only living relative.
Ali felt her grandfather's eyes on her and turned to see him staring at her. She felt compelled to say something. "I've known Megan's family for a long time. They were happy to help."
Ben's eyes narrowed slightly and he nodded toward Ali's phone. "Well, don't expect me to pay for you to have that thing while you're living here. It's too expensive to pay for something that can't be used most of the time."
Ali pocketed her phone and turned her head to look out the side window. She didn't expect the old man to pay for anything for her. She could take care of herself.
The miles dragged on as the silence in the truck grew thicker. Ali wanted to attach her headphones on her phone and block out the silence with music, except her battery was low and her charger was packed in her big bag. So, she sat there as they passed tree after tree, broken up by an occasional body of water or a field of cows or horses. Ali had never seen so much unoccupied land in her life, let alone so many pine trees. Where did all the people live? Occasionally, they'd drive through a small town, or at least a place that had a sign stating there was a town, but all Ali saw was a rundown gas station and maybe a church and a couple of houses. It felt like they were driving to the last place on earth.
Ben pulled over at a small gas station and restaurant in a tiny town about an hour and a half out of Duluth. The parking lot was filled with trucks pulling boats on trailers. It seemed full for such a small town.
"Hungry?" he asked.
Ali shrugged. The little restaurant looked fairly clean, but it was nothing like what she was used to.
"Well, we either eat supper here or else go hungry. We're going to miss supper at the lodge, so we may as well get a bite here," Ben said.
Ali followed him inside and was surprised at how many people were there. Ali and Ben sat at a table by the front window, and after looking at the meager menu, both ordered cheeseburgers and fries.
Ali looked around her. The place was filled mostly with men, and they were all dressed much like her grandfather was, in jeans, T-shirts, and flannel shirts or sweatshirts, and work boots. Many had caps on their heads. She wondered what they were all doing up here in the middle of nowhere.
"Fishing opener was last weekend," Ben said, as if to answer Ali's thoughts.
Ali looked up, startled. "What?"
"The fishing opener. It's practically a holiday up here. All these men are staying at local resorts and fishing."
Ali frowned, trying to understand. "What do you mean by fishing opener? Don't you fish all year around here?"
Ben shook his head. "The season goes roughly from May to February, depending upon the type of fish you're looking to catch. Opening is a big deal. The ice has gone out on the lakes and everyone is raring to get their boats out on the water. It's basically the beginning of the summer season, and it's a good moneymaker for resorts."
Ali nodded even though she really didn't understand much about fishing. Her grandfather seemed happy to be talking about something he enjoyed though, so she listened as they ate their meal and he talked about fish like walleye, northern pike, and crappies. He said he knew every good fishing hole on Willow Lake where his house and the resort was, and he was a fishing guide to tourists who came up to the lodge.
"They never leave empty-handed," he said proudly. Ali knew about malls, crowded parks and beaches, and sunny days all year round, but she didn't know one thing about northern Minnesota, trees, or fishing.
Ali and Ben hopped back into the truck and rambled on down the road as the sun traveled low in the west. Ben seemed a little less stern after telling Ali what he knew about fishing, and there seemed to be less tension in the air between them. Ali checked her phone, and just as her grandfather had said, there was no tower service. She sighed and returned the phone to her pocket.
"If you need to make a call, we can stop in town a moment before heading out to the cabin," Ben offered.
Ali turned and looked at him, surprised by his kind offer. "No, that's okay. I'm sure they got my message."
Ben nodded and kept driving. He broke the silence again. "I'm sorry about your mother," he said, his tone gentle.
Ali had been strong all this time. From the moment she'd been told by the lawyer she was going to live with her grandfather, throughout packing up the small apartment she shared with her mother, and even through the goodbyes to her friends in California and the long flight here. She'd expected a grouchy old man, just as her mother had described him over the years, and he hadn't disappointed her. But hearing him say this, in a soft, caring voice, was the final tipping point that unnerved her to her core. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Not sorry enough to make it to the funeral, though." The harsh words came out of Ali's mouth so quickly, even she was stunned by them.
Ben sat quiet a moment, definitely not the reaction Ali expected. Finally, he said, "I didn't really think I'd be welcome there. Figured it was best to stay away."
Ali turned away as her eyes filled and two tears trailed down her cheeks. Welcome to Minnesota, she thought as those incessant trees continued to pass by and the sun sank into darkness.
I hope you enjoyed this sample of my next novel. Be sure to watch for its release on March 5th. Until then, you can add Summer of the Loon to your to-read list on Goodreads here.
Summer of the Loon is a Women's Fiction/Family Drama novel. It is perfect for the Young Adult audience, too.
Summer of the Loon will be available on Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook and will also be available in paperback.