The Apple Orchard

The Apple Orchard

A Flying Solo Novel - Book 4
Flying Solo – single parents, second chances and the power of love...

Abby Mackenzie, a psychologist treating first responders, needs an R & R after a patient’s suicide. Her solution is hard physical work during the day so she can sleep at night. Picking apples in the fresh air of New England—far away from her home in L.A.—may be just what the doctor ordered. Her aunt’s friends own a thriving orchard and hire her.

The large Templeton family greets her warmly as both a worker and a guest. All except Dr. Jake Templeton, who doesn’t want Abby befriending his unhappy young daughter. He’s suspicious of the mental health profession in general, as well as Abby’s need for what she calls her ‘sabbatical.’ So far, four therapists have failed to help his child deal with her mom’s death two years earlier.

As the apple season progresses, however, the little girl seeks Abby out. Jake watches, worries and tries to protect Stacy. And finds himself falling for the sensitive and lovely woman hiding from her past.

Will these two shattered hearts complete a journey from sorrow to joy and reclaim their faith in the future?

***** 5 Stars!: HUNTRESS REVIEWS

“In my opinion, this story is 100% perfect! I highly recommend it to all.”

Reviewd by Debra Fitch

“These characters will tug at the heartstrings and not let go. The Apple Orchard should find its way onto many keeper shelves. Bravo, Linda Barrett!”

Reviewed by Yvonne Herring, New and Used Books

“I loved this book! The Apple Orchard is first and foremost a love story, but on two levels: romantic and familial. I highly recommend The Apple Orchard by Linda Barrett.”

Reviewed by Amy Cunningham, Romance Reviews Today

Chapter One

She loved Monday mornings. Psychologist Abby MacKenzie grinned to herself as she tapped the brakes of her late model Toyota Corolla. She was five blocks from her office in downtown Los Angeles and could feel her energy escalate at the thought of starting her week. Most folks would probably regard her as certifiable. But she wasn’t crazy. She merely loved her job.

The light changed and she accelerated, enjoying the absence of heavy traffic in early August. The clear roads served to make the morning sweeter, and she mentally saluted every working person who’d taken vacation. Summer was still only half over, she reminded herself; there’d be many more days to enjoy the relatively empty streets!

She glanced at the clock, noting she had plenty of time before her first patient was due and confident that the four- story professional building where she practiced would already be open. Early access was necessary to accommodate the variety of medical specialties who had offices there, including her own group—Los Angeles Mental Health Associates.

Abby reached her building and turned her car into the attached garage, carefully making her way to the fourth level while her mind jumped to the week ahead. A week where she could make a difference in people’s lives. Cops, firefighters, secret service, medical personnel. Those heroes were her patients.

She slipped into her assigned stall, reached for her briefcase, and got out of the vehicle. Looking toward the doorway of the building, she felt her grin return. Five-and-a-half years and she still loved being a part of the practice.

Walking briskly through the entrance, she noted the corridor lights were on, as expected. She smiled with satisfaction and confidently made her way toward her suite.

She selected the appropriate key from her ring and inserted it into the lock, surprised when the door swung open almost by itself. Pausing, she called “hello” but got no reply.

“Odd,” she murmured as she pulled the key out of the door.

With a frown, she walked across the softly lit waiting room toward her own office. Again, the door moved easily. With a mixture of curiosity and annoyance, Abby pushed it open all the way. And stood frozen in place...her eyes locked on the scene in front of her.

Blood everywhere. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. “No,” she whispered, dropping her briefcase from lifeless fingers. Oh, no....No!  She shook her head in futile denial as the horror pierced her mind, ripped her heart, and shattered her world. Slowly, her left hand clamped into a fist and pressed against her stomach as she finally recognized the dead cop on the floor.

Her nine o’clock patient. Tom Conroy. A great guy, with a warm smile, a wife and two young kids. Ten years on the force and now barely recognizable. His department-issued handgun lay against the far wall, and his uniform, protected in plastic, hung on a hanger from the top of her closet door. He wore chinos and a white T-shirt. Not white anymore.

Plastic dropcloths covered her couch and chairs, as well as most of the carpeted floor. But blood covered the plastic. Blood covered her unprotected desk. So much blood. Everywhere.

Abby turned her head inch by inch. Like a grotesque abstract painting, her walls had become a canvas of blood-red patterns on a pale yellow background.  

She slowly backed out of the room. Think!  She was the daughter of a cop, the sister of two more, and knew enough not to disturb the scene. With shaking hands, she reached for the phone on the reception desk and dialed 9-1-1.

“I want...I want to report a suicide,” she managed to say between breaths. And then stopped short. “No, no, change that,” she said, as the truth hit with the force of a bullet. “Officer down,” she cried. His mind was wounded two months ago, and his body died today. “For God’s sake, send some help!”

She gave the address and slammed the receiver into the cradle, tears burning behind her eyes. Office Tom Conroy couldn’t be helped any more. But he’d come to her...to her!...for help in relieving his pain. She’d had her chance and had blown it in the worst way. She allowed the tears to run down her cheeks as she glanced at the calendar next to the phone.

It was only Monday morning and a lifetime lay ahead.

#

He hated Monday mornings. Dr. Jake Templeton grabbed a clean lab coat from the supply he kept at the farmhouse and tiptoed across the upstairs hall to his daughter’s bedroom. The door stood half-open. Betsy, their collie, was lying across the threshold, and Jake bent down to scratch the dog behind the ears. When he straightened, he paused before entering the room, the love he felt for his child hitting him solidly in the chest as it did every time he looked at her. The love...and the pain. The powerful combination he’d lived with since Claire had died in the accident that had changed all their lives two years ago.

Except for Stacey’s night-light, the room was dark, the sun not yet tipping the horizon. Made sense at 4 a.m. on a midsummer’s morning in Massachusetts. What didn’t make sense was not seeing his daughter for another week. But he’d learned to live with it. He’d see her again next weekend when he made the hour-and-a-half trip back to the family home from Boston where he practiced at prestigious Mass General Hospital.

He hung the white coat on the doorknob, and making no sound in his rubber-soled shoes, Jake approached the bed and bent down to kiss his nine-year-old.

“I love you, Stace,” he whispered.

“Hmmm.”

Was that a happy sound? Had she moved a fraction closer to him? Or was his imagination working overtime? He closed his eyes, picturing earlier days when an energetic girl danced across the room to jump into his arms and squeal with delight as he tossed her to the ceiling. The image almost choked him. Don’t go there, Jake. Stay in control. He had to concentrate on now. On figuring out a miracle to return the laughter and joy to his daughter. The shrinks had failed, but Jake wouldn’t give up. He was a physician, for God’s sake, a cardiologist whose patients thought he was a miracle worker. Surely such a man could help his own daughter.

He kissed Stacey again, inhaling the little-girl aroma of baby shampoo and talc, admiring the beautiful profile, and once more, reluctant to leave. But he turned toward the door, retrieved his lab coat and walked downstairs.

In reality, he knew they were lucky—he and Stacey. His daughter lived with a grandma who adored her, an aunt and uncle who treated her as their own, and younger twin-boy cousins who kept her hopping. A terrific family plus about two hundred acres to play on and hundreds of apple trees to climb. His and Stacey’s situation could have been worse, much worse. He knew that—in his head. But in his heart...Hell, he wanted to see Stacey every day.

He really hated Monday mornings.

A half-hour later, he steered his Subaru onto the almost- empty Mass Pike, his thoughts focused on the workweek. The commuting time always helped him make the transition from his personal world at the apple orchard to his professional world at the hospital. Compartmentalizing his life was the key to survival. He grunted. Survival was the word, all right.

Since he lost Claire, he’d become the wunderkind of the Cardiology Department. Work was therapy. No question about it. He’d pioneered cutting edge procedures to help patients avoid the risks of open-heart surgery wherever possible. The cardiac surgeons and the older doctors in his own department weren’t too happy with him. No one liked change and Jake understood that. But to serve their patients properly, they’d better jump on board and learn the procedures, or get out of his way.

If only these techniques had been available years ago, his grandfather would have been alive today. But the grandpa he loved so fiercely had refused to allow anyone to cut open his chest. “Just give me some pills for the pain, and I’ll live with it,” he’d said. But he’d died from the clogged arteries instead. And that’s when Jake changed his college major from botany to biology and focused his energies on getting into medical school.

His brother, Robert, stuck to agriculture and now he and their mom ran Templeton Orchards, where Stacey lived all week. And for that, Jake was grateful. His work had become a refuge, but how would he have survived the last two years without his family?

The sun’s rays bathed Boston in a soft glow as Jake pulled into the hospital’s parking lot, all thoughts of family gone. For the next five days, he’d focus entirely on his patients and his research.

The only exception would be his nightly phone call to Stacey. He’d never forget that.

#

On Monday morning, Stacey Templeton stretched full length on her bed, opened her lids half-way, then closed them. She turned on her side and pulled the covers back up over her face. Her stomach hurt. Again. Sometimes it hurt all day. Sometimes it didn’t hurt at all. But it always hurt on Monday mornings.

She bent her knees closer to her chest and rubbed her belly with one hand. Rubbing didn’t usually help, but she had to do something! She’d been to the doctor about a million times already and her dad said she had a “clean bill of health.” That meant she was okay. But she wasn’t okay. She knew it and Daddy knew it. The hardest part about it was that Daddy was a very good doctor, but he didn’t know how to make her better. And that was driving him crazy.

She sniffed, reached for a tissue and wiped the tears before they could drench her pillow. She wished she could help him. Her dad. She wished he didn’t worry about her so much. It wasn’t his fault she had stomachaches. Nothing was his fault. It was all her fault, but she couldn’t tell him that. Because if he knew what caused the big accident, maybe he wouldn’t love her anymore. And then she’d have nobody.

She turned over onto her stomach and scrunched completely under the covers. Maybe he already knew it was her fault and that’s why he left her with Grandma all week. Maybe he didn’t want her around all the time.

But he always came back!

Yeah, he did. She smiled and thought about Fridays. He came home on Fridays. The best day of the week.

#

Less than ten minutes after making her emergency call, Abby stood alone in the doorway of the suite watching two police officers make their way toward her. She hadn’t gone back into her office since she discovered her patient lying there, but avoidance didn’t help her nausea. None of her colleagues had arrived yet—Abby was always the earliest. But she glanced at her watch for at least the hundredth time, needing the companionship they would have provided.

Now she had other companions.

“Are you the one who made the call?” asked the taller officer.

Abby nodded.

“The dispatcher couldn’t figure it out. What happened?”

“Combine a Code-30 with a 10-56 and call him Officer Tom Conroy,” she said, tilting back her head to meet the policeman’s gaze.

The cops stared at her. She saw their eyes widen, then narrow as her meaning penetrated. She’d used the codes for an officer needing help and for a suicide. The identical protective walls that slipped over the two policemen were so clear to Abby’s trained eye that they were as tangible to her as the shields worn by twelfth-century knights. Although she often cursed that almighty control that prevented so many of her highly stressed patients from making progress, today Abby could have used a shield of her own to get through the next few hours.

She led them to her office and stepped aside as they surveyed the scene.

“Holy Toledo,” whispered one.

“Holy shit!” whispered the other simultaneously.

The cops’ reactions said it all, but Abby knew that more was coming as soon as she turned around and saw three additional officers, two newspaper reporters, and...her dad. His blue Irish eyes were not smiling.

What was he doing here?  He worked out of the West Division while her office was located in Central.

“I was in the car when the call came through and recognized your address. I’m damn glad I heard it, Abby. What happened?  Who is it?” Lieutenant Patrick MacKenzie’s voice reflected his dismay. He patted Abby’s shoulder and walked to the threshold of her office where he flinched and said nothing. His eyes widened, then narrowed, as he methodically examined the room.

“And there it is,” he mumbled under his breath.

“There what is?” asked Abby in a whisper.

“The note,” replied her father, walking into her office.  He put on a pair of plastic gloves and took something from her desk. An envelope.

“I don’t think it is, but we’ll treat it as a crime scene for now,” he said, looking over his shoulder at his associates, “so get a forensic detective and call the medical examiner. Don’t touch the body or anything else in the room.” He turned back to Abby. “What happened?” he asked again, still holding the envelope.

She shook her head. Her lips trembled. “I found him just like that.”

“I know, Abby. I know that. But what really happened?  He was your patient, wasn’t he?” So why did he kill himself?

Abby heard the unasked question as loudly as if it were accompanied by a full symphonic orchestra, and suddenly her control snapped. She jumped to her feet.

“You want an easy answer, Dad? Well, it doesn’t exist. Tom Conroy was a good cop. Ten-year veteran. And two months ago he accidentally killed a child while trying to maintain order in a violent situation on the street. He couldn’t get past it. Do you ever think what that does to a person’s mind? What happens when the control that you’re all so proud of slips? Where was the support from his friends? Where was the support from his commanding officer?  You know what happens. Everybody turns the other way. When a cop kills, everybody avoids him...afraid it could just as easily have been one of them! As if what happened to Tom is catching. He felt alone—” she choked on the words “—except…except...God help him...except for me. And I let him down!”

The tears fell then, she couldn’t catch her breath. Anger, guilt, grief, frustration. She grabbed the back of a chair and held on.

“Abby, Abby, my beautiful girl.” Her dad’s voice floated to her. “You always did think you could fix the world!”

She felt Patrick’s arm around her, felt his hug, and was touched. She wanted to crawl into his lap and be five years old again. Instead she shook her head. “No, Dad. Not the world. Only one human being at a time.”

The look in his eye had her chin wobbling again. Pride, wonder. And then, “The day’s not over, Abigail. There’s more ahead starting with this.” Holding it by the corner, Patrick held out an envelope, various sized red polka dots scattered all over it. But the blood was dry now.

“Put on the plastic gloves, baby,” he said, handing her his own pair, “and read it.”

Her shaky hands fumbled with the seal. She should have expected a note. Should have looked for it. What could Tom Conroy say to her in death that he didn’t confide in life?  She scanned the page.

I can’t forget the little boy’s face. I can’t look at my own kids without seeing him. My job was to protect people, and instead I killed the most innocent of them. I can’t forgive myself. Worst of all, what will my kids think of me when they’re old enough to know I killed a child? I can’t sleep and I can’t eat. I’m afraid I’ll jeopardize my partner and someone else might die. So it’s better this way. Dr. MacKenzie, you’re a good therapist and a good person. Don’t blame yourself. No one can help me. But please explain to my wife.  You’re the only one who understands.

Abby felt tears forming again. The cop’s pain was reflected in every sentence. How could she explain to his wife? As if any explanation would satisfy a young woman who loved her husband.

“You can accompany the police, Abby, when they inform Mrs. Conroy,” said her father, reading over her shoulder. “But you’ll all have to move quickly. The news hounds are here. Forensics will have a report in an hour. We won’t release Officer Conroy’s name yet, but his wife needs to know ASAP. This won’t be kept secret very long.”

Abby nodded slowly. “The officers should be from his own division.”

“I’ll go along, too,” Patrick said immediately.

“He wasn’t one of yours, Dad.”

“But you are.” Patrick’s gruff voice was betrayed by his kiss on her forehead, and this time Abby leaned into him, hugging him hard around the waist with both arms.

“Thanks, Dad, but I can do it on my own. It’s my responsibility.” She blinked back her tears and met her father’s gaze.

“Always were too independent,” he growled. “Let’s see if we can arouse Conroy’s supervisor.”

Twenty minutes later—on her way to meet the officers from the Central Division—Abby glanced into her office. Forensics had done their job lifting fingerprints from everywhere and everything in the room. Tom Conroy had been taken to the morgue, his uniform and revolver with him. All the plastic dropcloths had been picked up. Fresh paint would soon cover the spattered walls, but Abby knew the office would never be the same to her.

On impulse, she entered the room. Crossing to her file cabinet, she pulled Tom Conroy’s folder, and tucked it under her arm. The details of each of his visits were inside, as reported in her own words, based on her conversations, observations and conclusions. Somewhere inside would also be the warning. The warning she’d missed. She needed time to search. And she couldn’t do it in the office.

Her co-workers had started arriving just when the police were removing the body and belongings, and each one’s vocal reaction to the tragedy quickly seared itself into Abby’s memory. High or low pitched exclamations of horror followed by quieter questions and glances toward her. Brief glances before they turned to their own concerns.

As Abby turned toward the exit, her own supervisor approached. Tall and lanky, his wavy hair more gray than brown, Dr. Martin Bernstein, a psychiatrist with years of experience in the mental health field was both intelligent and compassionate. Abby felt lucky to be part of his group practice.

“Don’t worry about your other patients, Abby. We’re calling them to reschedule, and you’re going to take the rest of the day off to decompress...with one exception.”

She raised her brow in inquiry.

“When the cops drop you off back here, you’ll come see me and we’ll talk. You’ve been through trauma today and can use some counseling, too.”  His voice was kind, not condemning, and Abby managed a small smile. “I’ll drive you home later if necessary. Your car will be fine in the garage.”

“Thanks,” she said, renewed dread filling her at the thought of the upcoming interview with Mrs. Conroy, but she forced another smile. “I’ll be okay,” she said. “I can handle it.”

“I know you can, but this has not been a run-of-the-mill type day so far. Humor me. Get yourself back to the office after seeing Mrs. Conroy.”

“Yes, boss.”

But two hours later, Abby knew she couldn’t return to the practice that day. Not with Mrs. Conroy’s accusations ringing in her ears, not with the woman’s ravaged face etched in her mind, not with the confused face of a little boy and an adorable toddler fearfully clinging to her mother’s leg still in her memory. No, she couldn’t go back to her office, so she had the lieutenant drop her off right next to her car in the garage. Her getaway car.

She got behind the wheel, looked over her shoulder and reversed as though the demons of hell were after her. What kind of a psychologist are you?  Michelle Conroy’s voice, edged with disbelief and pain, echoed in her mind. He went to you for help. I had to beg him to see a shrink. He didn’t want to at first, but I begged him. And now this! Maybe he was right. He didn’t want anybody to know. And now everybody will know. The whole damn LAPD will know.

The lieutenant who had accompanied her to the Conroy home was as much use as a wooden soldier. His partner was no better. They drove in silence, not offering a word of comfort. Not one. And now Abby couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her eyes as she drove from the parking garage. There were no winners in this situation. Not one silver lining in the black cloud.

At the Conroy home, she’d finally gotten one of the neighbors to come in. The woman had called Michelle Conroy’s mother. And Abby felt her own presence was more harmful than helpful by then. It was obvious Mrs. Conroy couldn’t stand the sight of her.

She clasped the steering wheel with both hands, consciously counting each street she passed, one by one until she reached the freeway. “Drive onto the freeway,” she whispered. Half-way home now. Only one more exit.  Around the ramp. A mile up the road. Right turn into her apartment complex. Safely into her spot. Shift into Park. Turn off the ignition.

She slumped over the wheel, her forehead resting on it. A bead of perspiration slid down her back and she shivered in the quickly warming car. Summer in L.A. heated a closed vehicle in no time. But the heat felt good to her trembling body.

She lifted her head and breathed deeply. Then grabbed Officer Conroy’s file and walked into her condo. Locking the door, she glanced at her watch. Two o’clock! Later than she’d thought. She called Dr. Bernstein and told him she’d see him in the morning. He wasn’t too happy with her, but Abby didn’t care at the moment. She needed time. Time to study Conroy’s file. She removed the contents to her kitchen table and began to read.

Her afternoon was just beginning.

Abby read her notes carefully, barely moving a muscle, and ignoring the constant ringing of the phone as she sat at her kitchen table. She dissected every word, every phrase, every sentence she’d written about Tom Conroy. Some sessions had been taped. She had the transcripts, but she played the cassettes and listened for voice inflections, nuances of speech.

She felt like a detective. Officer Conroy had presented the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks to the gunshot, dreams of the shooting, loss of interest in his usual social activities, trouble falling asleep, trouble concentrating. She had urged him to join a support group which she ran, but he’d nixed that.

What had she missed? She held her notes as she paced the floor, trying to get the stiffness out of her muscles after three hours of sitting. He’d kept his appointments with her faithfully, so he wanted to get better. She’d had Dr. Bernstein prescribe an anti-depressant. She’d taught her patient relaxation techniques.

And still...she’d failed.

She had to find something she’d missed and learn from it. She had to! Because if she didn’t, God help her, she might make the same mistake again and...and...lose someone else.

She started to shake. Her well-read notes dropped to the floor. Suddenly, a crystal-clear snapshot of Tom Conroy lying on the floor of her office, embedded itself in her mind. Her once- pristine environment, reserved for healing, had been forever marked by her failure.

Marked in blood.

She practically crawled to the bathroom. “OhmygodOhmygod—Ohmygod,” she moaned as she doubled up over the basin and vomited.

The phone shrilled again, and Abby picked it up on the fourth ring.

“How are you, dear?” Abby recognized her mother’s voice.

“I’m handling it the best I can.”

“How about coming home tonight? Sleeping over here?”

Tempting. Very tempting. But she was a grown woman now, a professional, and tomorrow was a work day.

“Thanks, Mom. But I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Not really. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

She hung up and gathered Tom Conroy’s file. She placed it neatly on the table, then walked slowly into her bedroom and changed into her nightgown. It wasn’t dark yet on this midsummer’s day, and she could still hear children’s voices outside. But her bed looked too inviting to ignore as exhaustion overwhelmed her. She glanced at her watch as her head hit the pillow. Eight o’clock on a day that refused to end.

Mondays would never be the same.

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