Award winning romance author, Sharlene MacLaren has released 13 novels since embarking on a writing career in 2007. After a career teaching second grade “Shar” says she asked God for a new mission “that would bring her as great a sense of purpose” as she’d felt teaching and raising her children. She tried her hand at inspirational romance, releasing Through Every Storm to critical and popular acclaim in 2007, and the rest, as they say, is history. She quickly became the top selling fiction author for Whitaker House, has accumulated multiple awards, and endeared herself to readers who can’t get enough of her long, luscious and often quirky tales – both historical and contemporary. Her novels include the contemporary romances Long Journey Home, and Tender Vow; and three historical series including Little Hickman Creek series (Loving Liza Jane; Sarah, My Beloved; and Courting Emma); The Daughters of Jacob Kane (Hannah Grace, Maggie Rose, and Abbie Ann) and River of Hope (Livvie’s Song, Ellie’s Haven, and Sofia’s Secret).
The single word had the power to force a body to drop his knees and call out to his Maker for leniency. But most took time for neither, instead racing to the scene of terror with the bucket they kept stored close to the door, and joining the contingent of citizens determined to battle the flames of death and destruction. Such was the case tonight when, washing the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink, Mercy Evans heard the dreaded screams coming from all directions, even began to smell the sickening fumes of blazing timber seeping through her open windows. She ran through her house and burst through the screen door onto the front porch.
“Where’s the fire?” she shouted at the people running up Wood Street carrying buckets of water.
Without so much as a glance at her, one man hollered on the run, “Looks to be the Watson place over on Caldwell.”
Her heart thudded to a shattering halt. God, no! “Surely, you don’t mean Herb and Millie Watson!”
Mercy Evans and Millie Watson, formerly Gifford, had been fast friends at school and had stuck together like glue in the dimmest of circumstances, as well as the sweetest. Millie had walked with Mercy through the loss of both her parents, and Mercy had watched Millie fall wildly in love with Herb Watson in the twelfth grade. She’d been the maid of honor in their wedding the following summer.
But her voice was lost to the footsteps thundering past. Whirling on her heel, she ran back inside, hurried to extinguish all but one kerosene lamp, snatched her wrap from its hook by the door, and darted back outside and up the rutted street toward her best friends’ home, dodging horses and a stampede of citizens. “Lord, please don’t let it be,” she pleaded aloud.
“Oh, God, keep them safe. Jesus, Jesus….” But her cries vanished in the scramble of bodies crowding her off the street as several made the turn onto Caldwell in their quest to reach the flaming house, which already looked beyond saving.
Tongues of fire shot like dragons’ breath out windows and up through a hole in the roof. Like hungry serpents, flames lapped up the sides of the house, eating walls and shattering panes, while men heaved their pathetic little buckets of water at the volcanic monster.
“Back off, everybody. Step back!” ordered Sheriff Phil Marshall. He and a couple of deputies on horseback spread their arms wide at the crowd, trying to push them to safety.
Ignoring his orders, Mercy pressed through the gathering mob until the heat so overwhelmed her that she had no choice but to stop. Besides, a giant arm reached out and stopped her progress. She shook it off. “Where are they?” she gasped, breathless. “Where’s the family?”
The sheriff moved his bald head from side to side, his sad, defeated eyes telling the story. “Don’t know, Miss Evans. No one’s seen ’em yet. We been scourin’ the crowd”—he gave another shake of the head—“and it don’t appear anybody got out of that inferno.”
“That can’t be.” A sob caught at the back of her throat and choked her next words. “They were at my place earlier. I made supper.”
“Someone’s comin’ out!” A man’s ear-splitting shout rose above the crowd.
Dense smoke enveloped a large figure emerging—staggering rather like a drunkard—from the open door and onto the porch, his arms full with two wriggling bundles wrapped in blankets and
screaming in terror. Mercy sucked in a cavernous breath and held it till weakness overtook her and she forced herself to let it out. Could it be? Had little John Roy and Joseph survived the fire thanks to this man?
“Who is it?” someone asked.
All stood in rapt silence as he passed through the cloud of smoke. “Looks to be Sam Connors, the blacksmith,” said the sheriff, scratching his head and stepping forward.
“Sure ’nough is,” someone confirmed.
Mercy stared in wonder as the man, looking dazed and almost ethereal, strode down the steps, then wavered and stumbled before falling flat on his face in a heap of dust and bringing the howling bundles with him.
Excited chatter erupted as Mercy and several others ran to their aid. Mercy yanked the blankets off the boys and heaved a sigh of relief to find them both alert and apparently unharmed, albeit still screeching louder than a couple of banshees. Through their avalanche of tears, they recognized her, and they hurled themselves into her arms, knocking her backward, so that she wound up on her back perpendicular to Mr. Connors, with both of the boys lying prone across her body. In all the chaos, she felt a hand grasp her arm and help her up to a sitting position.
“Come on, Miz. You bes’ git yo’self an’ them chillin’s out of the way o’ them flames fo’ you all gets burned.” She had the presence of mind to look up at Solomon Turner, a former slave now in the employ of Mrs. Iris Brockwell, a prominent Paris citizen who’d donated a good deal of money to the hospital fund.
Mercy took the man’s callused hand and allowed him to help her to a standing state. By the lines etched in his face from years of hard work in the sweltering sun, Mercy figured he had to be in his seventies, yet he lifted her with no apparent effort. “Thank you, Mr. Turner.”
Five-year-old John Roy stretched his arms upward, pleading with wet eyes to be held, while Joseph, six, took a fistful of her skirt and clung with all his might. “Come,” she said, hoisting John Roy up into her arms. “We best do as Mr. Turner says, honey. Follow me.”
“But…Mama and Papa….” Joseph turned and gave his perishing house a long perusal, tears still spilling down his face. John Roy buried his wrenching sobs in Mercy’s shoulder, and it was all she could do to keep from bolting into the house herself to search for Herb and Millie, even though she knew she’d never come out alive. If the fire and smoke didn’t kill her, the heat would. Besides, before her eyes, the flames had devoured the very sides of the house, leaving a skeletal frame with a staircase only somewhat intact and a freestanding brick fireplace looking like a graveyard monument. Her heart throbbed in her chest and thundered in her ears, and she wanted to scream, but the ever-thickening smoke and acrid fumes burned to the bottom of her lungs.
With her free hand, she hugged Joseph close to her. “I know, sweetheart, and I’m so, so sorry.” Her words drowned in her own sobs as the truth slammed against her. Millie and Herb, her most loyal friends. Gone.
Sheriff Marshall and his deputies ordered the crowd to move away from the blazing house, so she forced herself to obey, dragging a reluctant Joseph with her. At the same time, she observed three men carrying a yet unconscious Sam Connors across the street to a grassy patch of ground. Several others gathered around, trying to decide what sort of care he needed. Of course, he required medical attention, but Mercy felt too weak and dizzy to tend to him. Best to let the men put him on a cart and drive him over to Doc Trumble’s. Besides, she highly doubted he’d welcome her help. He was a Connors, after all, and she an Evans—two families who had been fighting since as far back as anyone could remember.
She’d heard only bits and pieces of how the feud had started, with a dispute between Cornelius Evans, Mercy’s grandfather, and Eustace Connors over property lines and livestock grazing in the early 1830s. There had been numerous thefts of horses and cattle, and incidents of barn burnings, committed by both families, until a judge had stepped in and defined the property lines—in favor of Eustace Connors. Mercy’s grandfather had gotten so agitated over the matter that his heart had given out. Mercy’s grandmother, Margaret, had blamed the Connors family, fueling the feud by passing her hatred for the entire clan on to her own children, and so the next generation had carried the grudge, mostly forgetting its origins but not the bad blood. The animosity had reached a peak six years ago, when Ernest Connors had killed Oscar Evans—Mercy’s father.
“That man’s a angel,” Joseph mumbled into her skirts.
“John Roy was wailin’ real loud, ’cause he saw somethin’ orange comin’ from upstairs, so he got in bed with me, and after a while that angel man comed in and took us out of ar’ bed.”
She set John Roy on the ground, then got down on her knees to meet Joseph’s eyes straight on. His were still red, his cheeks blotchy. She thought very carefully about her next words. “Where were your parents?”
Joseph sniffed. “They tucked us in and went upstairs to their bedroom. John Roy an’ me talked a long time about scary monsters an’ stuff, but then, after a while, he went to sleep, but I couldn’t, so I got up t’ get a drink o’ water, and that’s when I heard a noise upstairs. I looked around the corner, and I seed a big round ball o’ orange up there, and smoke comin’ out of it, and I thought it was a dragon come to eat us up. I runned back and jumped in bed with Joseph and tol’ him a mean monster was comin’ t’ get us, and I started cryin’ real loud.”
John Roy picked up the story from there. “And so we waited and waited for the monster to come after us, but instead the angel saved us. I think Mama and Papa is prolly still sleepin’. Do you think they waked up yet?”
Mercy’s throat burned as powerfully as if she’d swallowed a tablespoonful of acid. Her own eyes begged to cut loose a river of tears, but she warded them off with a shake of her head while gathering both boys tightly to her. “No, darlings, I don’t believe they woke up in bed. I believe with all my heart they awoke in heaven and are right now asking Jesus to keep you safe.”
“And so Jesus tol’ that angel to come in the house and get us?” Joseph pointed a shaky finger at Sam Connors. The big fellow lay motionless on his back, with several men bent over him, calling his name and fanning his face.
Mercy smiled. “He’s not an angel, my sweet, but that’s not to say that God didn’t have something to do with sending him in to rescue you.”
“Is he gonna die, like Mama and Papa?” John Roy asked between frantic sobs.
“Oh, honey, I don’t know.”
She overheard Lyle Phelps suggest they take him over to Doc Trumble’s house, but then Harold Crew said he’d spotted the doctor about an hour ago, driving out to the DeLass farm to deliver baby number seven.
A few sets of eyes glanced around until they landed on Mercy. She knew what folks were thinking. She worked for Doc Trumble, she had more medical training and experience than the average person, and her house was closest to the scene. But their gazes also indicated they understood the awkwardness of the situation, considering the ongoing feud between the two families. Although the idea of caring for him didn’t appeal, she’d taken an oath to always do her best to preserve life. Besides, the Lord commanded her to love her neighbor as herself, making it a sin to walk away from someone in need, regardless of his family name.
She dropped her shoulders, even as the boys snuggled close. “Put him on a cart and take him to my place,” she stated.
As if relieved that his care would fall to someone other than themselves, several men hurried to pick him up and carried him to Harold Crew’s nearby buggy.
“What about us?” Joseph asked.
The sheriff stepped forward and made a quick study of each boy. “You can stay out at my sister’s farm. She won’t mind adding a couple o’ more young’uns to her brood.”
Joseph burst into loud howls upon the sheriff’s announcement. Mercy hugged him and John Roy possessively. “Their parents were my closest friends, Sheriff Marshall. I’d like to assume their care.”
He frowned and scratched the back of his head. “Don’t know as that’s the best solution, you bein’ unwed an’ all.”
“That should have no bearing whatever on where they go. Their parents were my closest friends. They’re coming home with me.” She took both boys by the hands, turned, and led them back down Caldwell Street, away from the still-smoldering house and the sheriff’s disapproving gaze. Overhead, black smoke filled the skies, obliterating any hope of the night’s first stars or the crescent moon making an appearance.
As a lifelong Tennessean I was excited to read a historical novel about my part of the country. Although I live close to one hundred miles from Paris, I have been to the area on several occasions. Although I found few specific details about Paris and the fact that Heart of Mercy could probably have taken place in almost any small town during that time period, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed the book.
With a plot centered around a long-standing family feud between the Connors and Evans families, the reader is reminded of both the Hatfields and McCoys and Romeo and Juliet. Fortunately Heart of Mercy does have a much more positive outcome. A marriage of convenience between Mercy Evans and Samuel Connors for the purpose of providing a home for two orphaned brothers stirs the flames of the feud once again. Samuel’s mother in particular is not at all happy and her actions contributed to the problems. Mercy and Samuel’s marriage has the potential to bring the warring families together but is it too late for that? Old secrets are revealed that shock both families. Only the Lord can make things right again.
Both Mercy and Samuel are strong characters who mature spiritually during the course of the book. Mercy truly lived up to her name and Samuel proved himself over and over. I loved how things turned out for Samuel’s mother who easily tied for the most unlikeable character in this story. Heart of Mercy is not only an enjoyable novel but it carries a strong message about mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I eagerly look forward to the next book in this series.