Independent authors often collaborate to write stories with a theme. The collection is then sold as a boxed set.
This year a group of 20 authors I am with picked the theme of Christmas Songs. Each story uses the title of a Christmas song taken from reader’s suggestions.
My song was, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Since I write the Trahern series, I thought at first that I would write it as a Civil War era story, of a soldier trying to get home, who keeps stopping to help strangers as he goes. One of the people he helps is a woman he falls in love with, and when he does get home he brings her, too.
But that was very close to the plot of a story I had already written, “The Quietest Woman in the South.” In that book, young Cade Trahern heads home at the end of the war, riding a cantankerous mule, General Wheezer, who becomes part of the story. While helping people, Cade falls for a woman who doesn’t say much, but when she does, she makes it count.
So I switched to modern times with our dangerous world, and put Lee Trahern in a rowboat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. He has told his family that he would be home for Christmas, but he gave up his seat on the last plane out of the country being invaded, so is rowing back. Now all he has to do is row hard. All I have to do is get a young woman in the boat with him.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
by Nancy Radke
Dedicated to Delene Yochum
The ship, an old steamer, almost a derelict, looked like it was about to swamp, joining the many others at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
Paralee Trahern could see people everywhere, covering it in the same manner in which they piled on top of the cars and other vehicles in the third world countries, not considering that a boat was different, and overloading it could cause it to capsize. If there was any room at all, they climbed aboard.
He watched as it approached him, then rowed closer. “I can take a few of you here,” he called, first in Aramaic, then French, and then in English. “Send three over.” It would almost swamp him, but if just a few came…
About forty jumped off the sinking ship and swam towards him. He hastily turned his rowboat around and started rowing like he was at Henley. If he let them come aboard, or even grab hold, he would be capsized and sunk along with them.
He rowed hard and fast, making the little boat jump. If he hadn’t rowed so close to start with, he might have made it. But the first one to reach his boat acted like an anchor. Then the rest came, flailing their way through the water.
Several grabbed the stern, their faces desperate. They were the ones who had rid themselves of their heavy clothing, enabling them to catch him, at the same time slowing his boat enough that the others reached it. Seeing the inevitable, he yanked both oars out of the oarlocks and stood up, holding them.
They tipped it sideways, trying to get in. As it filled with water, Lee simply walked over their bodies and out into the Mediterranean. Then he swam away from the rowboat a short distance and turned around.
Placing the oars under his arms, he waited, patience being one of the things a SEAL learns early on. The saltwater wouldn’t do his prosthetic leg any good, but he couldn’t take it off and maybe lose it. He felt thankful that he was in the warm Mediterranean and not the North Sea.
He watched while his rowboat went completely under. When they realized the boat was gone, the men swam back toward the steamer, which wasn’t doing much better, but which had not slowed down.
With their weight gone, the rowboat was still submerged, while his group of plastic water containers, tied by a rope to one of the thwarts, floated next to it.
The men paid it no attention, as they were intent on getting back. Some did, most didn’t. Those on the ship ignored them, leaving them in the water. They waved and screamed, but the ship continued on, and soon there were none.
It was growing dark and he kicked underwater to keep his movements hidden, while he maneuvered himself back to where they had sunk his rowboat. For a few minutes he couldn’t see it, then he stuck his head under and looked around. He had passed it on the right, its shadowy form suspended just below the surface.
He swam up to the boat and over it, then rested his body on the seat, which was about a foot underwater. Once the other ship steamed far enough off into the distance, he let go of the oars and laid sideways across the boat, his legs hanging over one side. In position, he reached across and grabbed the other side of the rowboat, and turned it on edge, letting it drain as much as possible while shoving it up into the air. Then he dropped it right side up.
It wasn’t completely void of water, but enough had gone out that the bow and stern were clear, and the gunwales a few inches above it. He retrieved his oars, flipped himself over the side and reentered the boat.
He worked for a while to get more water out, bailing with a small can he had kept for that purpose. Thankfully, the desperate men hadn’t tried to untie his bag of provisions, as they were too intent on keeping afloat. Once he had the water down to a few inches, he turned his back to the north and started rowing again.
Sofia Morgan stiffened as she hit the cool water, going down in a swirl of bubbles and clothing. After the searing heat of the sun, increased by the pressure of too many bodies jammed close together on the deck, the water shocked her, making her gasp for air.
Her friend’s husband hadn’t even allowed her to take her enveloping cloak off, before pushing her over the rail to join the men in the sea. His hand had thrust hard between her shoulder blades, sending her out into the air, as well as over the side. Did he want to get rid of her, that much?
She knew he hadn’t been happy, having her around, with her American ways. She was too independent, and made her college friend want to do things that were forbidden.
Once in the water, the cloak tangled around her, and she had to fight against a rising panic. She held her breath and pulled it off, one sleeve at a time. It was overly large, and she held it away from herself as she resurfaced.
The side of the steamer loomed over her, and men were thrashing all around in the water. They turned, almost as one, and started swimming toward the lone rowboat.
She looked up at the side of the ship and realized there were no ladders or anything hanging from the side. No way to climb back on unless someone lowered a rope. It was moving away from her. It hadn’t stopped when the men jumped off. She swam hard to make sure she was clear of the propellers.
Once at a safe distance, she looked around to where the rowboat had been. It would soon be sunk, unless the man rowing it got away in time. She swam back to where her cloak still floated on the surface, and grabbed it. Tying the arms together at the wrists, she whipped the wet garment through the air, catching enough air to create a small bubble that she could rest against.
When she looked again, the rowboat was turning on its side as the men tried to climb aboard. She watched as it sunk beneath them and they frantically tried to climb on top of one another.
What had become of the Good Samaritan? She figured he hadn’t expected such a reaction.
Then the men turned and started to swim back toward the ship. Not toward Sofia, as the ship had moved on, so the swimmers swam toward it and not to where she was, but she remained quiet in the water, not making so much as a splash. Desperate swimmers would try to climb on top of anything, so they mustn’t see her.
That had looked like a wooden rowboat. It should still be there, even if underwater. The men had all left it by now, swimming hard to catch the boat. Most were swimming with their robes still on, and the weight was pulling them under, causing them to grab their companions and pull them under too. A few had shed their clothes, and actually were catching up to the steamer, but no rope was thrown to them and they were left in the middle of the sea. Soon all but two were gone and she could no longer see the ship from her position in the water.
Would they try to get back to the rowboat? Then they too disappeared from sight, below the sparkling waves. Everything took on a serene, unreal quality, as if never disturbed by the floundering men.
She had tried to picture the location of the rowboat in her mind. It would be hard to judge distances, and she might swim right on past it, but there was no stopping. Nowhere to go but toward where she had seen the boat sink.
Now Sofia kicked hard for the rowboat, hanging onto her improvised flotation device. As she got nearer, she saw it flip on its side out of the water, and realized that the man must have gotten away from the mob, and had returned to claim his boat. He had invited a few, and probably hadn’t expected what happened. Maybe he would still be willing to take on an extra passenger. It wasn’t like she had an option.
She adjusted her direction. She would have missed it by ten feet or more, the way she was headed. She could see the man bailing out the water and kicked harder. She had to reach him before he started up again.
The stranger was her only hope. It wasn’t like there were ships aplenty around, for although the Mediterranean did have a lot of traffic, it was sporadic. She couldn’t count on another boat coming by before she drowned.
The man occasionally glanced toward the departing steamer, but he wasn’t looking her way. Even as she decided to leave her cloak behind so that she could go faster, he picked up the oars and started to row. “Help!”
He didn’t hear her. The noise of rowing must have covered her cries. Why hadn’t she yelled sooner?
“Help. Help!” The boat moved sluggishly, but way too fast for her to reach.
The Love Christmas Romance Collection, featuring 20 NY Times and USA Today bestselling authors, will be available for pre-order in the fall. I'll post the link as soon as it's available.