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updated 11/9/2012 5:33:55 PM ET 2012-11-09T22:33:55

Lee Woodruff’s debut novel centers around a suburban mother coping with the death of her eldest son, 9-year-old James. Tackling tough subjects like marriage and sudden loss, Woodruff tells a story about family members who must re-examine their own lives in the wake of devastating tragedy. Here’s an excerpt.

It was only the front edge of summer and the yard already looked overgrown, as if the squalls of May and early June had held a kind of magical elixir, a formula that put all of the plants on steroids. Standing on the perimeter of the flagstone patio with her coffee, Margaret studied the impatiens with their fat, red heads, nodding downward, and the fecund look of the peonies as they passed their peak, rotting from fuchsia and ballet slipper pink to a brown mush.

She began to walk out past the shed where the yard narrowed between two bent willows, toward her beloved vegetable garden. When the kids were little, she had carved out slivers of her day to be here, sacrificing so she could embrace the peace this plot of land afforded her. Morning was her favorite time to be out among her plants, when her energy and joy for the day were at their peak. “Your mistress,” Roger had called her garden once, and she’d never forgotten it. The irony, she’d thought bitterly.

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There was another one, she noticed, as her mouth curved downward with displeasure. Another chipmunk hole, or possibly a mole, next to the bright green shoots of her coreopsis. It had been burrowing down and feasting on the tender roots, and nothing enraged her more than having her flowers under attack. Rodents were where she drew the line, rodents and slugs. Summer was just beginning, and they were already declaring war.

Margaret could feel her agitation rising and fought to contain it. It was too early in the season to get worked up. In many ways, gardening was an exercise in patience, an endurance sport. She loved how it changed through the seasons. In July and August, she became an avid canner, preserving vegetables and then freezing sauces for winter. Autumn brought late- September raspberries, ropy vines with fat, lumpy pumpkins and squash. There was always enough zucchini to supply the neighbors, and she derived pleasure in baking bread and muffins. Her labors slowed in September until the first frost of October stopped the leggy fall dahlias, asters, and mums in their tracks. When it all hung brown and yellowed from the cold, she would cover the beds and perennials with dried leaves in a quiet funeral ritual, digging up the dahlia tubers to winter over in peat moss.

Weeding between the rows of beans, she thought she heard a distant sound from the house. Could that be the phone, or was the breeze playing tricks on her? There again, so faint from all the way out back. No matter. She’d be in soon enough. There was nothing that couldn’t wait. It was probably Roger, calling from the road. This trip was Denver first and then Florida, if she remembered. It was hard to keep all the deals at his commercial real estate firm straight sometimes, and frankly she’d given up trying.

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The members of her family were like lines intersecting at random points. Her two grown daughters close to home, Maura and Erin, and her son, Stu, in Milwaukee, flitted in and out of her weeks, as did her grandchildren, with their multiple school and sports activities. Roger was mostly consumed with his work and weekend golf at the club. These days, there were times she simply felt like an afterthought.

Margaret sighed and hauled herself up off the weeding pad and toward the shed. She would find a new sticky trap and then dig out the pack of Merits stashed behind the slug pellets on the top shelf. Although her kids thought she’d quit long ago, Margaret indulged her secret vice once or twice a day, sometimes with her morning coffee and usually with a glass of pinot grigio before Roger came home.

Now there was the phone ringing again, just seconds after it had stopped. Someone must need to reach her, or maybe it was just coincidence. There were so many of those automated callers now, even on the off-hours, but it wasn’t even nine in the morning. She sighed and tucked the cigarettes back on the shelf in the shed. Maybe it was Maura calling. Her daughter knew she would be alone until late that night, perhaps she had an invitation for dinner. Margaret’s spirits rose. She’d bring the rest of the blueberry banana bread she had baked yesterday.

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As she approached the house, Margaret heard the measured cadence of Roger’s recorded voice on the answering machine asking callers to repeat their phone number twice. There was the shrill beep of the machine and then a woman’s voice; it was impossible to tell who was leaving a message. The words were indistinct but the tone urgent, the voice muffled as it carried across the yard and out to where she was walking. Margaret quickened her pace as she headed in.

Excerpted from Those We Most Love. Copyright © 2012 by B&L Woodruff, LLC. Excerpted with permission of Voice.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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