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Finding Mariah

Mariah Mccoy's family is moving. Again. A new military base to get used to; a new high school for her senior year. Another struggle to make new friends; to fit in. She convinced her parents to let her spend one last summer with friends at their old base, but knowing she'll be moving, already she's withdrawn from them. So when her stepbrother Mike, who's always been her friend and protector, calls begging her help in taking care of his children while his wife is in the hospital, she's glad to rush to his rescue. Mike lives in the small mountain town of Morrell Creek, in a big old house he rented from a distant relative. A small town, where everyone knows everybody else; where people put down roots. The kind of town Mariah wishes she could live in. But small towns also hold secrets--secrets Mariah is determined to find out. But such curiosity can be dangerous, as Mariah discovers when she must run for her life after learning one of those secrets is murder!

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Eloise Barton     Eloise Barton's first book, a 125,000 word novel based on the blending of her four and her husband's five children into one big happy-well, interesting-family, is not publishable, but it was the source of many of her over one hundred published articles and stories. Her first published book, Finding Mariah, a YA Suspense released by Hard Shell Word Factory, was a 2001 EPPIE Finalist. 
    During her motherhood years, Eloise volunteered as a Bluebird and Campfire Girls Leader, Girl Scout Leader and Cub Scout Den Mother, Sunday School teacher and Youth Group Leader. As a writer, she joined a half dozen writer's organizations and held office in all of them-most recently, Treasurer for two years for EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection.) After her husband's death, she worked for the California State Fair and was a busy "Grama Boo" to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Thirty-one at last count.) 
    Eloise has now retired and moved to the mountains of Northern California with her new husband, his big black Lab, Scooter (a retired service dog) and their three fat cats. She has declared a moratorium on volunteering and holding office so she can be what she started out to be: be a full-time writer. In their spare time, she and her husband go square dancing and motorcycle riding. 
    Eloise can be reached through her website, www.eloisebarton.com

"This book was great! My class read, and loved it. Some of the less avanced readers had trouble, but overall it was a huge sucess. Since many of my students have military families, they could sympathise with Mariah. The suspensful story and wonderful writing definetly made it a hit. I try steering away from books with one main character, as boys don't like 'girl books' and vice versa, but even my most picky readers enjoyed this story. Thanks! 'I didn't want to put it down. great!'-one of my students."

Winning Reader Review from Christa

4 Stars!

"Finding Mariah will make you chuckle even as it pulls on your heartstrings. The interaction between Mariah and her niece and nephews is well developed while the boy-girl relationships are definitely G-rated. The book is a quick read (a mere 103 pages) with short, cliff-hanging chapters. Mariah's resourcefulness, as well as her mistakes, make her a heroine most young readers will enjoy."

Scribes World Reviews

"Finding Mariah is a total delight. The mystery is fast paced and compelling, the characters memorable. The best thing about this book is the way Ms. Barton draws the relationships between her characters. Finding Mariah blends romance, suspense, and some serious issues into a completely satisfying quick summer read. I give it my highest recommendation."

Carrie S. Masek -- The Independent Publisher

Chapter 1

MARIAH MCCOY was lost. Again.

"I should never have tried to make this trip without a map," she muttered, her voice shaking. "Mike's directions leave a lot to be desired. He said five miles after the turnoff, and already I've gone fifteen."

She gunned the ancient VW up and around another steep curve, then down into a shadowy tunnel of trees, gripping the steering wheel as if to squeeze her panic out through her fingers. Already, daylight was fading on this side of the mountains. If the road looked scary now, what would it be like in the dark?

A barbwire fence, silhouetted against the sky, marked the edge of a graveled turnout. If she'd been going any faster, she'd have missed it. She pulled over, turned off the engine, and rested her face in her hands.

No sense trying to tell herself she wasn't scared; she was shaking. Maybe if she got out and walked around a bit -- if she could do it without falling over the edge of this cliff!

Mariah climbed out of her car, twisted and stretched to get the kinks out, then walked to farthest edge of the turnout. Tossing her thick dark braid behind her, she stood, fists on hips, and gazed across the valley. Rows of tree-covered mountains, gilded by the sunset, faded to blue in the distance. No houses; no signs; just mountains and trees.

Her parents would have a cow if they knew how far she'd traveled alone in the old VW they'd left for her to use. Luckily she'd had no way to reach them. They were on a trip from California to her father's new duty station in Illinois.

Mariah would have loved to see the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, and whatever else was on the family's itinerary. She did not want to spend two weeks on her grandparents' farm in Missouri. In the first place, Grandmother Florence didn't like her. In the second, she'd be bored out of her skull.

She'd convinced her parents to let her stay the rest of the summer with another family at Travis Air Force Base. She'd still be there, lounging around the pool and the Teen Center with her friends, if she hadn't answered Mike's frantic call for help.

One thing she'd learned as an Air Force brat: family came first. Friends got transferred, or you did; and few people kept their promises to write.

Her stepbrother Mike had been her friend and protector since she was three years old. How could she not come when he needed her? Surely her parents would understand that.

So here she stood, lost in the middle of this wilderness. Where was civilization when she needed it?

She couldn't really blame Mike. In all her seventeen years, she'd never developed a reliable sense of direction. Yet she'd left the base the day after Mike's phone call without bothering to pick up a California road map.

Behind her, pine trees sighed in the breeze. Manzanita bushes rustled. She could hear water gurgling and splashing -- probably that little creek beneath the cement bridge she'd crossed almost an hour ago.

Below her, at the bottom of the canyon, a tall rock fireplace, lonely remnant of a Gold Rush miner's cabin, rose like a ship's prow, plowing through a sea of bushes. Beyond it, halfway up the next hill, she saw a round white shape, like a huge bowl. A satellite dish! And where there was a satellite dish, there had to be people!

"Yes!" Mariah shoved her fists heavenward in gratitude, then dashed for her car.

Less than half an hour later, Mariah crunched into the graveled parking area in front of a sprawling old house with a screened porch across the front. Through the screen, she could see several frail old people, huddled in wheelchairs, facing the last remnants of a rose and gold sunset. A sign over the porch steps proclaimed this the "Peaceful Valley Guest Home."

Mariah climbed the steps and knocked on the door. No one answered. She knocked again.

This time, one old woman slowly turned her head. When she saw Mariah, her eyes widened and sounds poured out of her -- but without teeth, her words were a garbled gibberish. Mariah shuddered, but forced herself to smile at the old woman as she knocked a third time.

A large man in a white uniform peered through a window, then stepped out on the porch. "Yeah?"

"I'm sorry to bother you," Mariah said. "I'm looking for the town of Morrell Creek. Can you tell me how to get there?"

Moving quietly on rubber-soled shoes, the uniformed man crossed the porch. The woman in her wheelchair squawked at him.

Mariah shivered in a breeze that had cooled as the sun went down. That poor old lady must be freezing, she thought angrily. Why doesn't that man take care of her?

But the attendant ignored his patient. Instead, his gaze roamed slowly over Mariah's tee-shirt-and-jeans-clad body. She felt as if she were being undressed by grimy hands.

"Come on inside," the man said softly, "and we'll see what we can do for you."

Mariah shivered again, not just from the cold. "If you could just tell me the way--"

"I've got a map. I'll show you." The man smiled, and Mariah thought of a spider greeting a fly. He wore a white uniform -- one which strained at all its buttons -- so he must work here. But as Mariah stepped back down the stairs to avoid being hit by the opening screen door, she felt uneasy. If she went into the house alone with this man, would she be able to get out?

At a sound of gravel crunching, she turned, relieved to see another vehicle coming down the driveway. A big-wheeled pickup with searchlights mounted on a chrome roll-bar pulled into the parking area. A tall young man dressed in a white cowboy hat, plaid shirt and faded jeans climbed out.

The attendant stepped outside and closed the screen door behind himself. Mariah retreated to the bottom step.

"Hi, Calvin," the visitor called. He nodded at Mariah. "Came to get that map table the search and rescue team left here."

"Sure thing, Brian. It's in the shed."

Brian glanced at Mariah, then headed for a shed at the edge of the parking area.

Calvin stood with arms crossed and feet planted wide apart, as if standing guard against any intrusion into his own private kingdom.

"Too bad the search didn't turn out better," he called.

"Yeah." Brian lifted a large table into the back of his pickup and began tying it down. "She was still alive when we found her, but by the time we got her over to the hospital in Placerville, it was too late."

"I don't know how she got out," Calvin said. "When I'm on duty, I make sure all the doors are locked at night."

"I'm sure you did the best you could, Calvin. And some of these old people -- once they make up their minds to do something, or go somewhere--"

Calvin nodded. "But that old lady was just waiting to die anyway. All her money was gone, and nobody ever visited her."

"She still didn't deserve to die like that!" Brian snapped. "Lost, out in the cold--" He scowled, and gave the rope he was tying an extra yank.

At least Brian cares about these old people, Mariah thought.

Obviously, Calvin didn't care a bit about the patients he was supposed to take care of. And he'd closed the screen door so no one could see how he'd left all those old people sitting out on the porch, getting cold.

Brian finished tying the table down, then strode toward the house. Calvin, who'd moved so close Mariah could smell his garlicky breath, retreated up the stairs and stood once again blocking the door. Brian stopped in front of Mariah.

"Hi. I'm Brian Thorp. Come to visit somebody out here?"

Mariah tipped her head and looked up into the most friendly, compassionate, deep brown eyes she'd ever seen.

"No, I got lost. I'm looking for the town of Morrell Creek. My brother Mike told me to take the first turnoff after leaving the main highway, but--"

"It's the second turnoff," Brian interrupted. "Go back to the highway, turn right, and--"

Mariah glanced at the road, which wound down the hill into the darkness, and her stomach knotted. With steep cliffs on one side, sharp drop-offs on the other, in the dark--

"You can follow me, if you'd like," Brian offered. "I'm going right to the middle of town."

Mariah smiled. "Thanks!"

She hurried to her car, eager to get away from this horrible house full of people waiting for death.

The road back was not half so frightening with Brian's tail-lights ahead of her. By the time they reached Morrell Creek, moonlight silvered the trees. Lights shone like welcoming beacons in the windows of houses on the main road.

Brian waved at her, then turned down a side street. Mariah watched his tail-lights disappear and felt strangely abandoned. But in a town as small as this, she was bound to see Brian Thorp again. She'd make sure of it.

She'd stopped by a Quonset hut with a big sign on the door announcing "For Lease. Call George Cameron Realty Company."

George Cameron. Wasn't he a relative of some kind? She knew her mother's Uncle Henry Cameron had been the town's doctor. He'd retired soon after Aunt Tilda died. Mike had said something about renting the house he found because they were related to Doctor Cameron. She'd have to ask Mike about the details.

Mariah drove on past Toscano's Meat & Groceries, Grandma's Kountry Kitchen, and the square white wooden steeple of the Morrell Creek Community Church; past houses, fields, and a school. Finally, she saw a mailbox with crooked letters spelling out "Michael McCoy and Family."

As she turned onto the driveway, Mariah's headlights punched holes in the darkness between two rows of overgrown Christmas trees. The driveway curved up to a wide graveled parking area.

As Mike had told her, the house was big -- at least three stories high -- and it was old. Like an elegant lady fallen on hard times, it looked sad and neglected -- with bushes overgrown and basement windows boarded up. Scraggly vines crawled up pale columns lining the carriage drive. In the front yard, a three-tiered birdbath cast its moon shadow over the surrounding weeds.

Yet unlike the cookie-cutter military housing Mariah had lived in all her life, this house had character. It seemed to promise secrets. Mariah could hardly wait to see the inside; could hardly wait to be surrounded by the love of the family waiting for her.

A cement walkway circled the birdbath and led to the house. Huge bushes loomed on either side of wide cracked cement steps. Beyond them, a lantern porch light beckoned beside a massive wooden door. Mariah hurried to the porch and pushed the doorbell. She heard a shrill ring; then brisk footsteps.

A sturdy woman with warm dark eyes and white curly hair opened the door. Her friendly expression changed to one of shock, then anger. "You! What are you doing here?"