Main The Event
The EventWhitney Dineen
There’s a reason Emmeline Frothingham left her hometown of Creek Water, Missouri as soon as humanly possible. That reason is small-minded, judgmental people who wouldn’t know the truth if it was coughed up on them like an errant furball. After graduating from college, Emmie gets her dream job in New York City. As the head buyer at Silver Spoons–a high-end boutique, and single girl about town, her life is ideal. That is, until the night of The Event, her company’s annual award’s ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nerves plus too much tequila leave Emmie dealing with a wicked hangover, the unemployment line, and a surprise to end all surprises. Facing the repercussions of her wild night, Emmie is forced to go home to work in her family’s business. But her return puts her dead in the sights of the gossipy country club harpies who drove her away in the first place. Will Emmie make peace with her past and embrace the love of her family? Will she discover that the man who seems to be judging her most has a secret of his own? Find out in this deliciously fun romantic comedy, sure to put a smile on your face!
Early Praise “The Event is like the Beverly Hillbillies meets the Real Housewives of New York City, only it takes place in Creek Water, Missouri. Once again Whitney Dineen pens a story that is comparable to outrageously hilarious events you could picture in a romantic comedy movie. This is an excellent book which needs to be picked up to become a Big Screen hit!” -AJ Book Remarks “Emmie’s big city life clashes with her small-town roots in this winning, hilarious romantic comedy.” —USA Today Bestselling Author, S.B. Babi “Whitney Dineen never ceases to amaze me with her penchant for writing original and engaging stories. The Event is all that and more. Do yourself a favor and download this sweet book fill with Southern charm and laugh out loud moments. You won’t be disappointed.” -Jennifer Peel, Author of My Not So Wicked Boss “Funny, quirky, heartwarming, small town drama. I love the way Whitney sucks you into the story so easily. From the first line and throughout the entire book, I found myself smiling and laughing and swooning. I didn’t want this story to end!” -Becky Monson, Author of Just a Name “Whitney Dineen’s sparkling wit and brilliant humour shines bright in this delightful tale of coming home and second chances.” - Bestselling author Kate O’Keeffe “I laughed until cried! I want to live in this town, with these characters. Picture Sweet Home Alabama meets Hope Floats with a touch of something totally unexpected. Hollywood needs to pay attention to this one!!”-USA Today Bestselling Author, Diana Orgain “A wildly funny, superbly romantic page-turner. Whitney Dineen brings her signature wit and wisdom to another tale that you’ll think about long after you reach the end.”-Melanie Summer, Author of The Suite Life “The Event” has all the elements I adore in a rom-com: a small-town Southern setting, relatable characters, and a witty, fast-paced storyline. Dineen brings her usual sparkle and hilarity to this super-fun novel.” -Karin Gillespie, author of the Bottom Dollar Girl series “…a clash of small-town ideals and younger generational values. Whitney Dineen takes small-town drama to the next level. With plenty of hilarious scenes sprinkled throughout, you’re guaranteed many belly-aching laughs.” -Readers Favorite, 5 Stars THE EVENT A Novel by Whitney Dineen The Event By Whitney Dineen https://whitneydineen.com/newsletter/ 33 Partners Publishing This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locales, and situations are purely the work of the author’s imagination via the voices in her head, even if her mother begs to differ. Any resemblance to people (living, dead, or taxidermied), events, places, etc. is purely coincidental. Honest. Copyright © by Whitney Dineen in 2019; All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, scanned, photographed, put on social media, or distributed in printed or electronic form without express permission from the author. But let’s face it, if you loved it, she’s probably going to let you tweet small portions. You still have to contact her first. Made in the United States of America ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The journey of writing a book is much like climbing Mt. Everest. It sounds like such an exciting adventure, it feels like the right thing to do, and your creative muscles are begging for the challenge. So, one morning you put on your best writing outfit (pajamas), sit down at your computer and crack your knuckles in a “you’re going down” kind of way, and then you unleash the beast (that sounds so wrong, sorry.) You write and write and write for hours, days, weeks on end while the voices in your head spin, weave, and otherwise release your epic from the confines of your imagination. It’s a heady rush for sure. When the last word is typed, your whole body is covered with the sheen of your efforts, your muscles ache, the relief is so great all you want to do is cry. Then you look down to see how far you’ve climbed only to realize you’re barely halfway up the mountain. Then you really do cry. The worst part of finishing a book is that you don’t finish at the peak. You’re only midway, hanging off a sheer wall with one little toe grip keeping you alight. You’ve gained five snacking pounds during the climb, and you’re pretty sure your toe is going to snap off from the extra load if you don’t get that boost to keep you going. Just when you’re sure all is lost, and you’re destined to be another climbing/authoring casualty, the first Sherpas arrive! I am fortunate to have many Sherpas on my authoring climb. They keep me motivated, encouraged, challenged, and excited. My dedicated troop includes: My mom, Libby Bohlen, who pops into my office every four hours like clockwork to see if I have something new for her to read (she reads as I go) and my husband, Jimmy Dineen, who does the first edit once the book is through. Their efforts get me off the wall and semi-securely situated on a skinny ledge that may certainly still break off, sending me into the abyss, but for the moment is enough to catch my breath. Enter my beta reader Sherpas. For this book, they were the fabulous authors Becky Monson and Jennifer Peel. Becks and Jen always carve time out of their VERY busy lives to read and advise. When they’re done, I go back to the drawing board for the second run. When I’m sure my book can be no better, I look down, then up, and realize I’m finally closer to the summit of my climb than the valley below, so I keep going. My Sherpa editor, Celia Kennedy, is next. Celia thinks I’m funny/talented but not so much so that she lets me get lazy. No, sir. She’s been known to say things to me like, “What does this even mean?” “Yeah, no, this won’t work at all.” and my personal favorite, “Why are you even writing this book?” But through her tough love and knowledge of the path, she gets me within spitting distance of my goal. I’m often bloodied from this portion, but I’m also invigorated and fully charged to finish. Celia ALWAYS demands my best. She makes me a better writer. When the book is as tight as can be, it goes off to my proofreading Sherpa. Paula Bothwell is the ideal proofreader because she also offers editorial comment, which I greatly value. She’s the first fresh eyes on the best version of my book. Once Paula adds her two cents and I invariably make changes, it’s off to Sandy Penny for the final polish. Once the book is proofed, it goes out for blurbs and editorial reviews. This varies from book to book, but this time around, authors Becky Monson, Jennifer Peel, Sherly Babin, Diana Orgain, Melanie Summers, Kate O'Keeffe, and AJ Book Remarks have my back. Additional fabulous Sherpas on my journey include Tracie Bannister, Annabelle Costa, and Virgina Gray. In the world of editorial reviews, Chick Lit Central’s Sara Stevens always makes sure to read my latest and help get the word out—invaluable and beloved Sherpas, all. My assistant Sherpa Karan Eleni picks up all the crazy slack like getting my newsletters sent out, my website updated etc., so I can keep writing more books. So really, Karan, we all thank you for that! Once all of these steps are complete, my Big Daddy, Hollywood Attorney Sherpa, Scott Schwimer, gets hold of the book. He reads it on vacation in Mexico, then sets out to find the best and smartest movie studios/producers to get my baby up on the Big Screen (either the one in your living room or the movie theater.” Finally, finally, my book gets published and you, my lovely reader Sherpas get your hands on it. All of the previous legs of the journey would be for naught without you. Your reviews, recommendations of my work to your friends, and your lovely emails are what makes me want to climb this mountain again and again, and I thank you with all my heart. Table of Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Chapter Thirty-Nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-One Chapter Forty-Two Chapter Forty-Three Chapter Forty-Four Chapter Forty-Five Chapter Forty-Six Chapter Forty-Seven Chapter Forty-Eight Chapter Forty-Nine Chapter Fifty Chapter Fifty-One Chapter Fifty-Two Chapter Fifty-Three Chapter Fifty-Four Chapter Fifty-Five Chapter Fifty-Six Chapter Fifty-Seven Chapter Fifty-Eight Epilogue About the Author Other Books By Whitney Dineen Excerpt: The Move Excerpt: Relatively Normal Chapter One In my esteemed, but obviously biased opinion, Creek Water, Missouri, population 14,012, is the armpit of the world. Scratch that, it’s a ripe pustulant boil on the butt of the Northern Hemisphere. If it weren’t my hometown, and I weren’t desperate for employment, I’d have never considered moving back. Ever. I just got off the phone with my Uncle Jed—the Beverly Hillbillies reference is not lost on me—and he’s offered to make me manager of a new commercial venture he and my other uncle Jesse (yes, like Full House) are starting up in the old warehouse district. The revitalization of Creek Water continues as my former peers have discovered that it’s cheaper to live at home and not go out into the real world like I did. Problem is, I got myself into a tiny bit of trouble in the real world. I was driven in my formative years to prove that I could make something of myself without any backing from the illustrious Frothingham family, of which I am one. I was sick to death of people thinking everything was handed to me on a silver platter just because of my last name. So, I worked hard to get excellent grades in school, and I earned myself a scholarship to college. After graduation, I moved to New York City, determined to leave my small-town, small-minded roots behind. Things were going great too, until The Event. I worked as head buyer for Silver Spoons Enterprises in Manhattan, an exclusive gourmet/kitchenware boutique chain on the Eastern Seaboard. I was stationed at our flagship location on East Seventy-Third Street. The Event was the corporate dinner dance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where all the bigwigs gathered to pat each other on the back and recognize top-performing employees. I thought I was a shoo-in for the Demitasse Award, honoring the most creative contribution to the company during that fiscal year. I was personally responsible for the whole “Linens for Dinner” campaign, which promoted the idea that both urban and suburban millennials only use cloth napkins to dine, thus not only cutting back our carbon footprint by lessening paper waste, but also adding a touch of elegance to our lives. We sold more linens that year than in the previous ten years combined. It was that successful. So there I sat in my way too expensive dress—I splurged because I knew how important it was to make a good impression on the executives and because it was the perfect little number to accept my honor in—when Jameson Diamante announced the nominees for the Demitasse. There were only three of us—me with my linen campaign, Juliet Smithers from the Southampton store for her “Drink More Wine!” crusade, and Allison Conrad from Atlanta for her “Pretty Please, Y’all” call to reinstate formal invitations on engraved card stock. Why don’t we just kill the planet, Allison, with all the trees we’re going to murder for your cause? I was poised on the edge of my seat ready to throw my hands across my heart and gasp something along the lines of, “What? Me? My word, I’m so surprised!” I’d imagined how I’d get up and show off my six-hundred-dollar understated elegance to the whole room. Jameson announced, “This year’s decision was not an easy one to make, with all three ladies greatly contributing to our brand, but in the end, we chose the contender who was responsible for the most innovative campaign.” Here’s where the chain of events gets a wee bit cloudy. I could have sworn he’d called my name, so I stood up as planned, but my good friend and table-mate Lexi says that isn’t what happened at all. Apparently, old Jameson had called out Allison’s name, and she and I both went up to accept the award. How deforesting the planet is innovative, I do not know. I did hear through the corporate grapevine that Allison had gone to Jameson’s hotel room with him before the ceremony like a Kardashian auditioning her new sugar daddy. But I digress. Back to The Event. I grabbed the silver spoon out my fellow nominee’s hand and proceeded to give my speech. All of it. Which for some reason I was allowed to do. It was a beautiful speech. I thanked my mother for her graciousness and manners, and I thanked my grandmother for teaching me how to fold dinner napkins into swans. I was about to thank Silver Spoons for having the wisdom to hire me, when Allison grabbed the Demitasse out of my hand. I may have chosen that moment to snatch it back and hit her over the head with it—obviously not very hard as she never pressed assault charges, thank God. It’s all conjecture really. All I can say for certain is that I hastily fled the ceremony, trotting down all eight hundred thousand stairs of the Met in four-inch heels, in a cloud of disgrace and disappointment. I took a cab to a nearby bar, where I proceeded to drink my body weight in tequila before waking up in an unknown apartment in Brooklyn. Tequila and I have a sordid past. One incident of over consumption resulted in my belting out my karaoke version of “I Will Always Love You”—the Dolly Parton version, not Whitney Houston’s—so poorly I’m sure ears bled; another found me French kissing a giant stuffed frog before throwing up on it; and the last time, before the Brooklyn incident, was when I urinated in my sorority sister’s shoe because I was so drunk I couldn’t find the bathroom. Now I can add “indiscriminate behavior” to the list. Let me just say, I’m not loose by anyone’s estimation. I believe in using linens at every meal, for Pete’s sake! But the truth is, I spent the night with a stranger and if he wasn’t Armie Hammer from that movie Hotel Mumbai, because that’s who I thought he looked like, then I have no idea who he was. To make matters worse, we apparently didn’t use any protection. I soon discovered that I, Emmaline Anne Frothingham, of Creek Water, Missouri, was going to become a mother at the tender age of twenty-eight. Chapter Two The reason I’m so bitter about my roots is because when I was eight years old my daddy, Reed Frothingham, died, and the whole town of Creek Water—with the exception of our family—acted like Mama and I were leeching off my uncles for our survival. Which is simply not the truth. We were left a decent-sized inheritance, not huge as most of the family money was spent during my grandparents’ generation—we have the sterling-silver snail tongs to prove it—and my uncles didn’t start making good investments until after I’d become a half-orphan. It is by surname alone that we aren’t considered nouveau riche. Mama and I had enough money to keep our house and pay our bills, but she had to go back to work so we could have the extras. She kept the books for the uncles and, in that way, managed to stay part of the family business, which, as I mentioned earlier, has become revitalizing Creek Water. Mama didn’t invest any of our money because she worried that risking it might send us to the poor house. My uncles didn’t have a good track record at the time. I needed that scholarship to Duke as there simply was not enough money to pay for that caliber of education any other way. Yet, no one acknowledged my hard work, and instead, treated me as though I was using money I wasn’t entitled to. Every time Mama and I did something extra, like go shopping in St. Louis, some busybody would inevitably say, “Your uncles are so good to y’all!”—completely negating our ability to take care of ourselves. The uncles tried to set them straight, to no avail. This is why I was determined to get out and make something big out of my life. I was going to prove once and for all that I was more than a charity case. Of course, that was before I’d accepted the gift of a stranger’s swimmers and decided to bring new life into this world. I continued working at Silver Spoons through most of my pregnancy. I worried that after The Event they might try to find a way to let me go. But if I was pregnant, they couldn’t do so without fear of a lawsuit. I told my boss about my situation as soon as I found out. I realize that was a little manipulative on my part, but Gloria Gaynor and I, we’re survivors. When I told Lexi, her response was, “Emmie, how in the world are you going to have this baby? You can’t raise a child alone in New York City.” My response was simple, “I made my bed, now I’ll have to lie in it.” But to tell you the truth, I was nowhere near the martyr I made myself out to be. When I lay with my feet in the stirrups at the doctor’s office and heard a heartbeat coming from inside my body, one that wasn’t my own, it was insta-love. I don’t judge what other women do or do not do with their reproductive systems, but mine was making a person, and I wanted to know everything about who she would become. (I just knew she was a girl.) “You need to go back to that apartment and let that man know he’s going to be a father. He’ll have to pay you child support,” Lexi said very practically. I probably should have, and maybe even would have, had I taken note of his address. The truth is, I was still drunk when I woke up and all I could think to do was hightail it out of there before I had a witness to my walk of shame. I had absolutely no idea how to find the father, so I decided to forget he existed. After going to my doctor to make sure I was disease-free—I’ll never put myself in that situation again—I settled down and tried to enjoy my pregnancy. In my eighth month, Silver Spoons decided to cut my position, claiming they couldn’t afford a senior buyer and two junior buyers, so they offered me six months’ severance to go away. I probably could have sued them for wrongful termination, but I was fat and tired and all I wanted to do was lie on my couch and watch classic romantic comedies until my baby was born. So, that’s exactly what I did. Thank goodness too, as Faye came twenty-six days early. Frothingham babies historically like to show up to the party ahead of schedule. Chapter Three “Who’s the prettiest baby in the whole world?” I hear my mama, Gracie, ask in her soft Southern drawl. She’s making duck faces at Faye, while I unpack my daughter’s things in the spare room. One thing is for certain, Mama loves my precious girl, and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about her lack of a daddy. I’d always dreamed of naming a daughter Faye after my maternal grandma. I certainly didn’t think my last name would still be Frothingham, though. The alliteration alone would have turned me off the idea. But, being a single mother in my hometown, I cannot realistically expect to have any more children. I’m pretty sure they spray painted a scarlet letter on my backside when Faye and I crossed the city limit line, or more accurately, when we crossed the tracks to the right side of town, where the Frothinghams live. Mama carries the baby around while saying, “This here girl is as sweet as shoo-fly pie. I could just eat her up.” “Are you sure you don’t mind watching her while I go meet with the uncles?” I ask. “I might never let you pry her out of my arms!” She snuggles her giggling five-month-old bundle. “Isn’t dat right, little missy?” Faye squeals in delight. I love this tiny person so much I’d cut off my foot and sell it for groceries if I had to. Luckily, I don’t have to. What I do have to do is go meet with my uncles about the job they used to lure me home. While I’m grateful for their kindness, I feel like I’m taking a giant step into the past by considering it. Once they found out about Faye, they said, “Emmie, get back here where you belong! We can’t let you raise a Frothingham in that big city all alone.” As much as I expected the citizens of Creek Water would judge my indiscretion, I knew my family would be nothing but supportive. I am more thankful than I can say. I truly did think of staying in New York City, but the thought of handing off my baby to a total stranger to raise while I worked hellishly long hours to support us did not seem appealing in the least. Not to mention the fact that I saw Armie Hammer lookalikes everywhere I went and couldn’t help but wonder each and every time if he was Faye’s daddy. Don’t worry, I googled the actor’s whereabouts on the night of the conception and discovered he was nowhere near Brooklyn. More’s the pity. So, I lived out the length of my severance and then gave notice on my apartment before shipping my worldly possessions home. ***** Uncle Jed’s wife, Auntie Lee, is the first to greet me when I walk through the door of Frothingham Brothers. She’s sitting at the reception desk addressing notecards when she looks up to see who’s invaded her space. “Emmie!” She jumps up and dances around me like I’m a maypole and she’s vying for queen. “Look at you. Welcome home, honey.” She hugs me so hard she nearly pops the stuffing out of me. Then she holds me at arm’s length and declares, “Will you just look at those boobies?” I’m still breastfeeding Faye, so my regular B-cup has jumped to a D. You’d think I was a walking sideshow the way she’s ogling me. Uncomfortable, I tug up the already modest neckline on my sweater dress and say, “Hey, Auntie Lee.” I give her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m here to see Uncle Jed and Uncle Jesse.” “Honey, they’re waiting for you in the big office. They’re just finishin’ up a meeting with the contractor. You might as well go on in.” I steel myself for this step back in time and wish there were a way to stop my racing heart. I tentatively knock on the door and Uncle Jesse booms, “Get in here.” It sounds like he’s expecting someone else, but I open the door anyway. My uncles nearly tackle me to the ground when they rush me and give me great big hugs. I’m not sure who’s saying what, but there’s a lot of “Girl, look at you!” and “Finally, our Emmie’s home!” and excited sentiments like that. It’s nice to be the recipient of such a warm welcome. Their support combined with my postpartum hormones brings tears to my eyes. But before I can start blubbering, Uncle Jed pulls back and says, “You remember Zachary Grant, dontcha?” I turn to see a tall, shockingly gorgeous man with sparkling green eyes get up off the sofa and walk over to greet me. My god, Armie Hammer lookalikes are everywhere. Ever since the night Faye was conceived, I’ve been bombarded by them. Zach’s metamorphosis is so astonishing I would have never guessed he was the same boy I knew in high school. Of course, a lot can happen to someone in a decade and apparently has in his case. Gone is the gangly teenager with braces and acne. He’s been replaced by a virtual movie star. That Mother Nature sure is a wonder. Zach lets his gaze stray to my bosom before meeting my eyes and saying, “Hey, Emmie.” He smiles shyly, almost expectantly. I flash back to the time he asked me to the spring dance at the club his senior year in high school. I was a sophomore. I said no because, well, it was at the club. Mama and I weren’t members at the time, and I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself. The less those nasty gossips saw of me and Mama, the better. Unfortunately, I never explained that to Zach. “Hi there, Zach,” I say back. I feel like he’s waiting for something more, like maybe an apology for turning him down without an explanation. I know I hurt him because he went out of his way to never speak to me again. Seriously, he’d be walking down the hall at school, lay eyes on me, and turn around and go the other direction just to avoid me. I segue into wondering if apologizing after all this time would even be appropriate. He’d probably think I was pretty stuck on myself to think he even remembered. Uncle Jed explains, “Emmie and Faye have just moved back home and Emmie’s going to work on the new project with us. Isn’t that exciting?” Zach clears his throat and attempts to nod, but looks more like a bird pecking at some crumbs. “Ah, yes? I guess.” He’s not selling his enthusiasm in the least. Then he asks, “Who’s Faye?” “My little girl,” I answer, squaring my shoulders, ready to do battle, even if it is only for a judgmental lift of the eyebrows. I might as well have said my pet giraffe considering how surprised he looks by this news. “You’re married?” Uncle Jesse quickly says, “No, our little Emmie lost her fiancé to friendly fire in the Middle East.” Say what? I look at him in complete shock. My daddy’s brother just puts his arm around me and continues to say, “It’s been what, a year now since Armand died? We’re all still so shaken up by it.” I can’t seem to force any words out of my mouth. First of all, apparently my whole family knows about my infatuation with Armie Hammer. I only ever told my mama, but it seems the news has traveled. And secondly, my what? Uncle Jed reads my mind or my expression and pipes in, “Your auntie Lee has gone ahead and told folks about him, honey. There’s no shame in having a precious baby with your fiancé. It’s not your fault he died before the wedding.” My head starts whirring like the spin-cycle on a washing machine. So that’s how they’re playing it. I should have known they wouldn’t want a Frothingham bringing a bastard child home without an acceptable explanation. As mad as I am, I decide to perpetuate the lie, at least temporarily, until I decide how to play this long-term. Plus, I need the job. I smile at Zach as though I’m forcing it through thick layers of sadness. “It was such a tragedy.” “How long were you two together?” he asks. I answer, “Three years,” at the same time Uncle Jed says, “Two years, if you can believe,” while Uncle Jesse contributes, “Just a year, but still it’s so hard.” For crying out loud, if we’re going lie, we should get out stories straight first. I try to make sense of this farce by saying, “We had our first date three years ago, got engaged two years ago, and he’s been gone for a year.” God rest his soul. Zach looks at us in the same way I imagine he’d look at the Three Stooges after one of their ridiculous skits. Then he says, “I guess I’ll see you all at the warehouse tomorrow morning.” I swear he shoots me a dirty look on his way out the door. As soon as he leaves, I turn on my uncles and demand, “What the heck was that all about?” Chapter Four Uncle Jed starts, “Honey, it was your auntie Lee’s idea. She thought it best. You know how the ladies at the club can get when anything out of the ordinary happens.” Those club ladies are a menace. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been intimidated by their judgment. Part of me wishes I could just tattoo a big “Screw You” on my forehead and meet them for tea some afternoon. I could bring my poor fatherless child and discuss the benefits of nipple piercings. Not that mine are, mind you, I’m so boring I only have one hole in each ear, but still, if they’re gonna gossip so much, I might as well give them a reason. “What do those club ladies have on you, Uncle Jed?” I demand. “You got some extra kids of your own out there they know about?” “You watch your tongue, young lady,” Uncle Jed chokes out as Uncle Jesse snickers in the background. Uncle Jed is the oldest brother at fifty-five, my daddy would have been fifty-two, Uncle Jesse is the family surprise at only forty-two. Uncle Jed explains, “There’s just certain ways things are done here, and folks expect the ring before the baby, otherwise they assume you’re trash.” I arch an eyebrow, and he continues, “Not that we think you’re trash, honey. Good lord, it’s not like any of us waited until we got married, we just didn’t have any accidents.” Uncle Jesse jokes, “Or if we did, we took care of them.” “This is not a conversation I wish to be having with either one of you,” I say primly, or as primly as an unwed mother can. “I’m here to talk about your job offer, not to hear any proselytizing about my personal life.” “Who’s preaching?” Uncle Jesse asks. “Jed here was just explaining that the people of Creek Water live by certain rules, is all. Sure, they’re archaic and dried up, but being that we rely on this town for our income, we think it’s best if we play along and don’t stir the pot.” “About the job …” I prompt. “Right, about the job,” Uncle Jed helps change the topic. “We bought the old sewing machine factory down by the river a few months ago and we’ve got some big plans for it. We’re going to turn the ground floor into a restaurant, coffee place, gourmet food shop, and the like.” Uncle Jesse says, “That’s how we got the idea to hire you. We thought with your experience in New York City, you’d bring some real class to the operation.” “Are you planning to own all these businesses?” I ask, hoping the answer is no. If my uncles were to open a restaurant, they’d probably only serve fried pickles and jalapeno poppers. “No, no, no,” Uncle Jed says. “We’re going to rent the space out to other businesses, but we thought we’d go ahead and own the gourmet shop, what with your expertise and all. What do you think?” “Uncle Jed,” I start to say, but he waves me off with, “Girl, I feel like Buddy Ebsen every time you say that. Can we just disperse with the uncle nonsense already?” “Who’s Buddy Ebsen?” I ask. “Uncle Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies.” Uncle Jesse adds, “And I’m not that much older than you, so you best start calling me Jesse.” “I suppose if we’re going to be business partners that would be okay.” Jed says, “Who said anything about partners? We just wanted to hire you on as our employee.” “No, sir,” I say. “I’ve spent most of my life with this town thinking I was some kind of piglet sucking off the family tit. I’m not going to be anything less than your business partner on this venture.” “On the whole building?” Jesse wants to know. “If I’m managing the whole building, then yes.” “But, girl,” Jed says, “you didn’t put up any of the capital.” “But Jed,” I respond using his Christian name for the first time, “I’m the one with the know-how. Now do we have a deal or not?” Jed looks at his brother and says, “This here girl’s done grown into her britches in the Big City.” Jesse nods his head. “I’m okay with giving her ten percent.” Then he looks at me and says, “But that means you don’t get any money until we start making a profit on the project.” “Fine by me,” I answer. “I’m going to live with Mama, and I have enough savings to cover Faye’s and my expenses for several months.” And let’s face it, living rent free, I might even be able to swing longer. I didn’t want to be unemployed in New York or I would have blown through my savings in a fraction of the time. We shake on it and Uncle Jed declares, “Your daddy would be right proud of you, Emmie. I’m pretty proud of you myself.” “Thank you,” I say. “Now, I need to get out of here ’cause I’m starting to leak all over my dress.” Both of my uncles jump to their feet and don’t so much as look at me. They’re craning their heads upwards, pretending fascination with the tin ceiling. I think I’m going to enjoy being around them again. I just had to make sure I came home on equal footing. I’m not going to have any of the gossipy biddies in this town accusing me being a charity case, again. Heaven knows they’ll find enough to say about me without giving them that, too. Chapter Five “Do you know what Auntie Lee told the ladies at the club about Faye’s other parent?” I’m loath to call him her daddy because he’s no such thing. He’s merely an anonymous donor of genetic material. But that sounds so cold, and from my limited memory, that night was anything but cold. “I know, Emmie, but I support her one hundred percent. There’s no sense bringing this precious child home only to have certain folks make her feel unwelcome.” I roll my eyes so hard I think I just got a peek at the back of my skull. “By ‘certain folks,’ you mean Cootie Wilcox and her gang.” “Of course. Who else would I mean? That Cootie was a pistol in high school and she’s still going strong. Only now she has more power than ever.” “Who gives her this power?” I demand. “Seems to me that if folks would just dethrone her already, they wouldn’t have to walk around on eggshells. They’d be much happier.” “You know how it is in small towns, honey. Folks get bored and if there isn’t any drama, they create it. It’s human nature, I suppose.” I pick up Faye and inhale her fresh baby scent. It has an immediate soothing effect on my frayed nerves. “Mama, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they have this thing called Netflix now, and if you need drama, you can get as much as you want for a very reasonable monthly rate.” She comes over and wraps her arms around me and the baby. “If it was only that simple, sweetie.” Then she sets us free and starts tidying up the baby toys in the living room. “I invited the family over for dinner to meet Faye, so why don’t you get the table set for me?” “Who’s all coming?” I ask. “Jed, Lee, Amelia, Beau, Davis, and Jesse, of course.” All three of my cousins settled right here in Creek Water. Amelia was two years ahead of me in school, Beau and I were in the same grade, and Davis was a year younger. “Is Uncle Jesse dating anyone?” Mama laughs. “You know him. He courts like it’s his profession, but doesn’t seem to be interested in settling down.” “Breaking hearts as he goes, I suppose.” “I believe that men have more wild oats to sew that we gals do. It’s better he gets it all out of his system now,” she says. “I love your antiquated notions that men are somehow hornier than women. Who do you think they’re sewing their wild oats with? Sheep?” She shoots me a look that suggests I shouldn’t be using such a word, before giggling, “Well, there’s still Otis Gunther.” Otis is a sheep farmer on the outskirts of town. He’s been a dedicated bachelor his whole sixty some years, but word is he always has a special animal friend. I can’t even let my mind go there, so I don’t. “How about the cousins? They have anyone serious?” “Amelia was dating a nice lawyer who lives in St. Louis, but things have cooled off a bit lately.” At my questioning look, she explains, “He wanted her to move up there and she wasn’t having any of it. She’s got her bead shop in town and says she has no intention of relocating.” Amelia has always been the artistic one. “You’d think she’d want to move it to the city. She’d get a lot more business that way.” “I don’t think she cares so much about that. She’s always loved Creek Water and she wants to stay put. Plus, she’s made a darling home for herself above her store. It overlooks the river.” “What about the boys?” I ask. “Beau was dating Shelby Wilcox, but she broke up with him on the grounds that he didn’t take her seriously enough. Davis can’t be bothered. He spends all his time carving and claims to be perfectly content.” Davis makes the most beautiful furniture I’ve ever seen. He uses a variety of wood, but his aesthetic is always clean masculine lines. Folks come from all over the state to order from his showroom. Faye lets out a little sigh in her sleep like a party balloon with a slow leak. I look down at my beautiful girl and I thank the good Lord for my indiscretion. Had I won that Demitasse Award I’d still be in the Big Apple instead of in the bosom of my family. It might just be time for Creek Water and me to make our peace. Chapter Six Auntie Lee is the first through the front door with her arms stretched out like she’s welcoming a stadium full of fans. “Where’s my baby?” she demands. Handing over Faye, I know I probably won’t lay hands on her again until she’s hungry. Auntie Lee kisses her all over before ordering, “Davis, bring me a sweet tea and gin. I’ll just be over here on the davenport where I’ll be loving on my great-niece.” Davis stops to give me a hug on his way to the kitchen to assemble his mama’s beverage of choice. Beau is next to arrive. I say to him, “Shelby Wilcox, huh?” He shrugs. “She’s not so bad if she’d stop letting that mother of hers boss her around so much.” Jed and Jesse come in all smiles with their arms loaded down with pretty little packages wrapped in pink paper adorned with white grosgrain ribbons. Jed says, “Lee’s been shopping for the baby.” He hands his load over to me and asks Mama, “You got any beer in the house, Gracie?” “I think there’s some left from the last time you were here. Check the fridge in the garage.” Unlike Cootie and her gang, who stopped giving her the time of day when Daddy died, my daddy’s brothers have been very attentive to Mama over the years, treating her like she was their very own sister. When Mama was a Frothingham, with a live husband around, Cootie and company couldn’t have sucked up more. But once she was widowed, she lost all value in their eyes. Davis hands Auntie Lee her sweet tea and says, “Aunt Grace, I’m not going to be able to mow your lawn on Saturday, so I’m going to do it Friday afternoon, if that’s okay.” “You’re a good boy to keep helping me like you do, Davis.” “Well, shoot, you live right next door to my folks, so it’s no trouble to just keep mowing a bit more once I get started.” He doesn’t even live with his parents, but he’s their groundskeeper, too. Amelia says, “Emmie, I want you to come down to the shop as soon as you get settled, so I can show you all the changes I’ve made. I’ve got the cutest little beading area where I give classes now.” “I can’t wait,” I assure her. “I might be able to come over tomorrow sometime after I meet your daddy and Jesse at the warehouse.” The next two hours are spent catching me up on the family business. The uncles have snatched up four other buildings in the warehouse district and have plans to renovate them: everything from a new grocery store to loft-style condominiums. “The town’s population is booming with kids in their twenties and thirties moving into the area. At least half who didn’t even grow up here,” Jed says. “What in the world are they doing to pay the bills in a town like Creek Water?” I ask. “Their bills aren’t nearly so high here as they were in Kansas City and St. Louis, which is where they seem to be coming from. Plus, a bunch of them work remotely on the computer. There’s even a cyber office downtown where people rent out workspace.” “What does the old guard think of all these changes?” I ask. Auntie Lee, who hasn’t stopped making silly faces at Faye since she came in, says, “Oh, honey, they’re all for it. More bodies mean a thriving economy. Look at us, we wouldn’t be revitalizing old downtown without all these kids moving in. They’re bringing money.” Beau adds, “The median housing price has gone up five grand in the last year alone.” He owns his own real-estate company downtown. “I guess I’d better look into buying something before too much more time goes by then,” I say. I haven’t had a chance to think about my own place yet, but once I get settled, I’m going to need to regain my independence. “No, ma’am, you’re gonna stay right here with me,” Mama says. “I can’t stay here forever, Mama.” My God, talk about going backwards. “I don’t know why not. I don’t need this much house and if you don’t stay, I might just sell it and buy myself something smaller in town.” “We have time to talk about it,” I tell her. “In the meantime, fill me in on what’s going on at the club.” The Creek Water Country Club was a second home to me during my early childhood. My folks used to golf and play tennis there, and I learned how to swim and make armpit farts in the pool. All-in-all, I have nice memories of it. That is, until Daddy died. After that, Mama and I didn’t go so often. A single mother doesn’t hold the kind of clout that a married lady does, and some of the gals started to act like they didn’t even know Mama. So, she gave up her membership and started to meet her friends in town for lunch instead of at the Players Grille. Auntie Lee talked Mama into joining up again after I went to college, and now the two of them have their own clique. I smile at the thought of the Frothingham gang and Cootie’s gang dancing it out in a West Side Story kind of rumble. It would be worth the price of the ticket, that’s for sure. Auntie Lee says to me, “We’re having a tea for you there on Friday.” My eyes bug out at the news. I would rather lick the pavement after a dog parade than be subjected to an afternoon with those women. “Now before you go getting all hot under the collar,” Auntie Lee adds, “your mama and I thought it’d be best to face everyone head-on. If you shrink away from them, they’ll assume you’re ashamed and they’ll feed on that.” Mama adds, “You need to show up on their playing field with your head high. Stare them in the eye and don’t back down.” This is the part of coming home I dreaded. How is it that well into the two-thousands grown women are still acting like it’s nineteen fifty? It baffles the mind. Chapter Seven Mama takes Faye with her when she goes out for coffee with her friends while I meet the uncles at the old sewing machine factory. I’m wearing a sweet little Lily Pulitzer dress that buttons up the front, but I realize I need to pump before I can close it properly, which means I will have only two hours before I fill up again and bust out of the thing. I change into a skirt and twinset, so I won’t be held hostage by my lactating bosom. I briefly admire myself in the mirror and realize that with the exception of my gigantic boobs, I look just like I did before having Faye. Five feet, eight inches, and back into my size 8s. That pregnancy myth about your hair growing thicker and being shinier is true—I have to admit I’ve been fixated on my shoulder-length blonde bob and have kept taking the prenatal vitamins to maintain its luster. I look damn fine, if I do say so myself. I happily climb into my daddy’s old 1988 red Mustang convertible with the black racing stripes—Mama assures me it’s all tuned up and ready to drive—and I throw my purse on the backseat. When I fire it up, Depeche Mode’s “People are People” blares out of the speakers. Mama left all of Daddy’s music in the car so whenever anyone drives it, they feel like they’re spending a little time with him. “Hi, Daddy, you ready to hit it?” A big ol’ smile is plastered on my face. I don’t have a lot of organic memories left of him, but I have pictures galore, and I have his brothers. The uncles talk about Daddy all the time, telling stories of how Ol’ Reed used to play tricks on them by hiding their keys in the toilet tank, and filling the sugar canister with salt. They keep him alive for me as surely as if that stinkin’ cancer never got him. I pull out onto Pecan Grove Trail Road and observe the wide-open rolling green landscapes interspersed with watermelon and pea farms and feel great delight. I have a real fondness for this terrain, and even though I loved my years in New York City, it never fed my soul the way my home state does. Had it not been for Cootie Wilcox and her gossipy cronies, I might have stayed here like my cousins did. Instead, the club ladies’ actions made such a negative impact on me that it tainted my perception and drove me away. As I pull into town, I feel a wave of pure nostalgia rush over me. I adore the old brick buildings running the length of Main Street with their original store names still painted on the side—Whisper Willy’s Chocolatier, Daisy May’s Notions, and the Loyal Family Five and Dime. Of course, all of these buildings have changed hands at least a dozen times since then, but it’s a constant reminder of the rich history of our town. I’ve always loved the old warehouse district of Creek Water. Back at the turn of the last century, the area was humming with commerce. The boats would dock on the river and unload all their supplies right into the warehouses’ cavernous depths. Now that everything comes in by truck or train or Amazon express, there’s no need to store six months of grain and the like. So, they gradually became deserted. I park next to Jed’s giant truck. Seriously, I don’t know how he gets into it without a stool. Auntie Lee tells him people are gonna think he’s compensating for some deficiency or another, but he’s doesn’t care. I stop and look around and imagine this area as the heart of Creek Water before too much longer. The streets are still brick, and the streetlights have been replaced with those reminiscent of gas lanterns. The potential takes my breath away. A smart-looking sports coupe pulls up next, and Zachary Grant gets out. He starts walking my way, but as soon as he spots me, he slows his pace. “Hey, Zach!” “Emmie.” But he doesn’t speed up, he stops moving altogether. So, I go back and get him. He looks spooked. I always thought Zach was a bit shy which made me feel even worse about not explaining why I turned down his invitation to the dance at the club. I know it took a lot of courage for him to ask me out. While we never knew each other well, Zach and I do have one thing in common, we both grew up without daddies. Mine died and his ran away with his secretary, as cliché as that sounds. His daddy moved to somewhere out west and started another family, plumb forgetting about the one he already had. Zach’s mama did okay though. She never remarried, but the money she had came from her family and not her husband. She didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from, so she threw herself into being both mama and daddy for her child. I remember my mama telling me that Sarah Jane never went after her husband for child support. She’d said, “A real man will take care of what’s his. If Richard won’t do it on his own, then I don’t want him role-modeling for my son.” Zach finally falls into step beside me, so I endeavor to make small talk. “So, you’re my uncle’s contractor, huh?” “Yes, ma’am,” he says looking down at his shoes with as much enthusiasm as if he was on his way to the gallows. Oh, for Pete’s sake, what does a girl have to do to have a conversation with this man? I figure, being that we’re gonna be working together, we should at least be friendly. So, I try again, “Have you lived in town since high school?” “Nope.” Crickets. “Well, where’ve ya been?” I demand none too graciously. He stops walking and stares at me like I’m a moron or something. Then he looks at his watch and says, “We’d best hurry, I’ve got plumbers coming right after we talk to Jed and Jesse.” I can’t see how small-talking with me, while we walk across the street to the warehouse, is going to make him late, but whatever. Not everyone was born with manners. I’m practically chasing him down the street now, and he doesn’t even bother to hold the door for me when he walks into the building. What is wrong with this man? Chapter Eight I get chills when I see the inside of the factory. The ceiling must be at least thirty feet high, if not more. All the exposed piping is visible, which makes it scream industrial chic. “I love it!” Uncle Jed hands us hard hats that we have to put on, so nothing comes crashing down on us. He explains, “Each of the three floors has fifteen-thousand square feet. We’re looking at Filene’s coming in over in that corner.” He points in the opposite side of the factory. “Filene’s Steakhouse?” I interrupt. “How did you get them to move over here?” They currently have a prime location right on the riverfront with outdoor seating and everything. Jesse says, “They’re opening another restaurant here that will cater to a more modest crowd. With the second floor full of office space and the third-floor condominiums, they’re bound to increase their monthly sales dramatically, being the only restaurant on-site and all.” They show me where they’re going to put the coffee shop. They’ll only serve muffins and cookies and the like, so they won’t take business away from Filene’s. “There’s going to be a full-service spa, so the gals have a place to get their hair and nails done,” Jed continues, while leading the way to a wall of windows overlooking the river. “Over here’s where our gourmet market is going to go.” I’m beyond impressed by how cohesive their plan is. “Tell me about the second floor,” I say to anyone who will answer. Jed says, “We’re sectioning it off into six separate spaces. Beau has already signed up to take one. He’s going move his real-estate business over here. He’ll get the listings for the condominiums and be responsible for leasing out the rest of the second floor.” My family is super into nepotism and seeing as though they’re giving me a job, I’m perfectly okay with that. “And the condominiums?” “Let’s go up there and have a look-see, why don’t we?” Jed says, leading us to the old freight elevator that looks so rickety it must be original to the building. “How safe is this thing?” I ask. “I’d like to see Faye grow up and this looks like a pretty dicey operation.” “We’ve brought it up to code,” Zach says. “We’ll get to the cosmetics and make it look respectable after we’re done hauling all the building materials.” The ride up is very smooth, lending credence to its safety. Wait, why did he just put emphasis on the word “respectable”? If I didn’t know better, I’d think Zachary Grant was making some kind of statement. When we step out onto the third floor, Jed points up. “The ceilings are lower on the second floor, but we’re back up to thirty feet here, so we can build sleeping lofts giving each unit a partial second floor. This’ll increase the square footage, while keeping the two-story ceiling in the common living area. The corner units will be the largest at twenty-two-hundred square feet, and the others will vary between nine-and fourteen-hundred square feet.” I realize my mouth is hanging wide open when I gush, “This is quite an operation you have here.” Jesse nudges me, “And you own yourself ten percent of it, so you’d better be prepared to work, girl.” I totally am, too. As long as Mama can cover Faye, I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to get this place up and running. Zach says, “I need to meet with the plumbers, so if you’ll excuse me.” Why did that man even come up here with us? Just so he could give me condescending looks and make judgmental comments? My blood is boiling at the thought. “Take Emmie with you. She needs to know all the ins and outs of this operation. She might as well start with the plumbing,” Jed says. “I’m not opposed, but don’t you think it’s a better use of my time to talk with you about the gourmet shop?” I don’t want the uncles to know how annoyed I am at their contractor, so I’m trying to appear like a team player. Even though I’m as amenable to their idea as Mama is to white shoes after Labor Day. Jesse answers, “Jed and I have another meeting at the office. We’ll be back in about an hour. Just hang with Zach and learn as much as you can.” They walk away, giving me no choice, and leave me with a man that apparently doesn’t want to be within ten feet of me. Zach doesn’t say, “Come on,” or “Follow me.” He just walks away and goes about his business while I trail after him like some pesky bug. I spend the next forty minutes listening to him talk to the plumber about urinals and floor drains. I couldn’t be less interested. When they finally get down to talking about fixtures, my eyes light up. “Have Jed and Jesse picked anything out yet?” I ask. “They told me to put in whatever was the most economical, so that’s what I’m getting,” Zach says. My eyes open in horror. Fixtures can make or break a space. “I worked in a top decor store in New York City. My job was to order door pulls, lighting features, and faucet handles for Silver Spoons. You’ve got to trust me, economical won’t do at all.” “Let me get right on that,” he mumbles sarcastically. Then louder, he says, “Look, Emmie, I’ve got my orders and I’m not going to get behind schedule because you want to change something that’s already been decided on.” “You don’t have to get behind schedule at all,” I tell him. “Just do something else while I hammer out the particulars with my uncles. Seriously, Zach, bathrooms can be memorable. I remember all the great public restrooms I’ve used in my life.” He glares at me like I’m a wad of chewing gum he’s stepped in on a hot day. I don’t know what his problem is, but I’m gonna find out. I pull him by the arm to a less “plumber-filled” location and demand, “What’s your problem?” “You can’t be serious?” “I’m dead serious! You’ve barely acknowledged me and when you do, you’re downright rude. Didn’t your mama teach you better manners than that?” “I don’t think you should be questioning how my mama raised me. I think you ought to focus on where your mama went wrong with you.” “My mama didn’t go wrong with me. What kind of thing is that to say?” I’m standing with my hands on my hips, my chest heaving like I’m trying to breathe fire or something, when I notice him staring at my girls. My top is quickly becoming soaked. Drat. I’m leaking again. Boobs ought to come with on and off handles. He gives me a look somewhere between fascination and disgust before he turns and walks off. That’s when it hits me. Of all the low down, rotten, holier than thou things. Zach Grant is judging me for having a baby out of wedlock! How dare he? Surely Mr. Hot Stuff has had a few worries in his past. There’s no way he can walk around looking like that without having his choice of women ready to jump into the sack with him. Chapter Nine I’m so spittin’ mad I want to punch Zach right in the eye. But more urgently, I need to find a private place where I can pump my breast milk. I figure I’ll just button up my cardigan to cover the dampness of my camisole once I’m done. Then I can carry on with the morning without having to go home to change. Darn these boobs of mine. I’m making enough milk to feed a small third-world country. I’m not particularly adept at expressing breast milk yet. For the most part, I’ve been able to nurse when the baby is hungry. But knowing that I’ll be away from her during feeding times, I bought a hand pump I’ve been practicing on to keep the girls drained. I check my extra-large purse to make sure it’s still there—along with the cooler bags I use to keep the milk fresh—then make my way to the unfinished ladies’ room. Luckily the stalls are in place, so I head for the biggest one. I sit down on the commode and assume the position, fastening the suction cup thingy over my left boob before endeavoring to get the rhythm of the thing. Unfortunately, I’ve waited longer than I should and it plumb hurts when I start pumping. I let out a squeal that sounds borderline like I’m being stabbed. I eventually groan in sweet relief. After that, the only sound that fills the air is the suck and release of the pump and my occasional murmurings of, “That’s right, fill it up, baby,” and “I’m on fire today!” I like to give myself little motivational talks as I go. Single motherhood, while rewarding, is not easy, so I cheer myself on where I can. Once I’m done and get myself all situated, I remember my desire to give Zachary Grant a piece of my mind. But when I leave the stall, I run smack into Amelia instead. “What are you doing here?” I ask. “I thought I’d stop by to see if I could lure you away for a coffee or something,” she says. The look on her face is one of pure amusement. “Are you laughing at me?” I demand. She nods her head. “You could say that.” “Why?” I ask, wondering what I’ve done that’s so funny. “There were three construction workers standing outside the door when I arrived.” “What were they doing there?” I mean, how creepy. “They were concerned about what was going on in here,” my cousin says. “I was pumpin’ breast milk for Faye.” I’m totally confused until Amelia says, “Ah, well. I guess that’s not exactly what it sounded like to them.” My face turns beet red as the fiery flames of embarrassment explode through to my epidermis. “Of all the perverted, privacy-infringing things!” I nearly yell. “I’m gonna go give those boys a tongue-lashin’.” Amelia shakes her head. “Let it go. You’ll just be more embarrassed trying to explain why you were saying things like, ‘We’re pumpin’ for glory, here!” Dear sweet, ever-lovin’ Lord, I silently pray. Be with me now at the hour of my need in the bosom of nosy, small-minded townsfolk. “I came by to see if you wanted to get a cup of tea with me,” Amelia says. “I’d love to, but it’s my first day on the job. I’d best hang around. Plus, I need to talk to your daddy and Jesse as soon as they get back. They’ve gone and ordered the cheapest fixtures around for these bathrooms.” She nods. “Of all of Daddy’s qualities, his frugality is not one of the better ones.” As we walk out of the ladies’ my cousin’s eyes stray to the left. “What do you think of that Zach Grant? He sure is something to look at, isn’t he?” “No worse than any other man, I s’pose.” I don’t bother looking in his direction. I have his condescending face etched onto my brain like a canker sore. “Why, Emmeline Frothingham, have you gone blind? That man is hotter than buttermilk biscuits straight out of the oven!” “If you say so,” I respond noncommittally. What I’m thinking is, no man who is that rude could ever be called good-looking. Mama taught me that beauty comes from actions, not looks. If that’s the case, Zach is one of the ugliest men I’ve ever seen. “He asked about you,” Amelia says, giving me a conspiratorial look that we girls used to have while hiding behind our lockers whispering about boys. “What are you talking about?” I ran into him a few weeks ago and he said, “I hear Emmie’s coming home. That’ll be nice, won’t it?” “That’s not asking about me,” I declare. “That’s called small talk, which in and of itself, I’m surprised he’s capable of.” Amelia laughs. “Girl, are you on your period or something?” I gasp out loud. “That question is a breach of the sisterhood!” It’s understood that women are to never accuse one another of a hormonal imbalance. It’s just not done. “I’ll have you know, I haven’t gotten my period back, yet. I’m still nursing. It’s quite possible I won’t get it until I’m done.” She rolls her eyes. “You’re still pretty tetchy.” “I’m not interested in dating right now, Amelia. I have a job to do and a baby girl to raise. Men aren’t even on my radar.” “I’m not saying you should marry him,” she declares. “Just enjoy the view. I was in the same class with that boy for thirteen years and let me tell you, I never thought he’d turn out looking like that!” I roll my eyes. “How ’bout you?” I ask. “Mama says there’s a lawyer in St. Louis pining away for you and you won’t give him the time of day.” “Aiden Quinn is not pining for me. Sure, we’ve dated, but he’s more interested in having an ornament on his arm than he is in having a relationship. Last time we went out, we had dinner with one of the partners of his firm, and do you know what that man had the nerve to say to me?” she demands. “I do not. Why don’t you tell me?” “He said, ‘You look very pretty on my arm.’ Can you believe that?” “Amelia, that’s called a compliment. Why in the world would you be insulted by it?” “Because he didn’t say I looked pretty on my own. He said I looked pretty hanging off him, like he was a Christmas tree and it was my job to make him look better.” “That’s what you got out of that?” I ask. Then just to get even, I say, “Maybe you were on your period.” She smacks me on the arm and laughs. “Touché. Anyhoo, tell Daddy ‘hi’ for me and remind him that he’s meeting me for lunch at the Broken Yolk.” “Sure will.” When she walks away, I turn around to find Zach, but he’s deep in conversation with one of the workers. As much as he needs his hide tanned, and as much as I’d like to do the tanning, I force myself to be professional. I’m going to comport myself in such a way that I don’t give anyone anything to gossip about. No sense in painting a target on myself—bigger than the one that’s already there. Chapter Ten “The gals at the market were cooing all over Faye like she’s the prettiest baby they ever saw.” I stare down at my little girl and ask, “Mama, what in the world is she wearing?” She’s got a bow on top of her head so big you can barely see any of the pretty brown hair she got from her sperm donor. It’s so beautiful, it’s like mahogany-grained wood in a sunset. Her hand-smocked romper is sweet too, but the monogram is so big it’s nearly blinding. “Isn’t it darling?” Mama asks. “Why’s the monogram so big?” “It’s all the rage now. I went ahead and bought a machine so I can add her initials to all her clothes.” “Why?” “Cause it’s cute,” she says. “But no one else will ever be able to wear those clothes if you do that.” “So what? They’re her clothes.” “Mama, I’m not going to keep all her things, and if I can’t pass them down, then I’m being wasteful. There’s enough need in this world that I’d like to do my part and donate some of Faye’s stuff to someone who could make more use of it.” Mama shrugs her shoulders. “I’m still doin’ it.” “Could you at least make the monograms smaller and maybe put them in a less obvious place?” She changes the subject entirely, which means she’s going to do whatever she wants. “What are you going to wear to the tea at the club tomorrow?” “I can’t go,” I tell her. “I have to work.” “No, ma’am, you’re going. Auntie Lee already squared it with Jed. She explained how important it is to make your reentry into Creek Water’s social scene as seamlessly as possible and he agrees.” I roll my eyes. “I don’t care what I wear, then. I suppose I should dig out a baggy sweater or something, so I don’t cause a stir with my pornographic-sized breasts.” Mama says, “I bought you the cutest dress this afternoon.” She pulls it out of a cabbage rose-covered shopping bag. I actually take a step back when I see what’s inside, it’s that awful. “No way! I’d look like some poor mail-order bride out of the Old West if I wore that.” It’s mid-calf length with a small navy calico pattern, but that’s not the worst part. It’s got a gigantic white lace collar that nearly hits the waist and a matching trim on the hemline. “It’s perfect,” Mama says. “Everyone will think this baby is the product of immaculate conception.” “That’s the whole point, honey. We want to make Faye’s start in this world look as asexual as possible. If you wear this, Cootie won’t dwell on the reality of the situation.” “Mama, there was nothing dirty about Faye’s conception. It was just good, old-fashioned sex.” It was nothing of the kind. It was hot and sweaty and totally animalistic. There was an overstuffed leather couch, and I may have been bent over it … I stop to fan myself. Lordy, that was a fun night. Mama says, “I bet old Harold had to pry Cootie’s legs apart with a crowbar to get a baby in her, so anything less is going to be interpreted as raunchy.” “Fine, I’ll wear it, but I’m letting you know right here and now, I am not going to spend my days in Creek Water kowtowing to that woman like the rest of you do. I’ve got more important things to do with my time.” Mama says, “We don’t kowtow. It’s more like a game of chess. We anticipate Cootie’s every move so she doesn’t get close enough to knock us off the board.” I shake my head. “I think you’re all nuts, Mama.” “I only want the best for you and Faye, honey. You need to trust me. You don’t want to make a powerful enemy your first week home.” “Why in the world would she even care enough about me to bother?” I demand. Then Mama tells me something shocking, “’Cause Cootie had her eye on your daddy. She was determined to become a Frothingham, and she’s never forgiven me for Reed falling in love with me instead of her.” “But daddy is gone, and her husband is still alive, so she must have forgiven you by now.” “Not hardly. I think she’d be just as happy if Harold wasn’t around. She treats that man like dirt. Of course, to be honest, he’s a bit of a lech. He’s got a wandering eye.” “Mama, this has to be the worst soap opera ever written. Why do you even go to that club if you have to contend with all this drama?” “’Cause my friends are there and I like to play tennis. It all works out fine as long as I stay out of Cootie’s way.” I have no idea how I’m going to manage tomorrow’s tea without telling that woman what I really think of her, but I suppose for Mama’s and Faye’s sakes, I’ll have to do my best. I’m just not sure that’ll be good enough. Chapter Eleven I look like I’m on my way to confession in Victorian times. Mama says I have to wear stockings because bare legs will be interpreted as loose. I’m seriously considering moving back to New York City so I can live a nice boring life where no one cares about the state of my legs or the father of my child. Maybe I could even lose out on another award and give Faye a sibling. Mama takes one look at me and claps her hands together like I just pulled a rabbit out of my hat. “You look perfect.” Then she hands me a little shopping bag. I open it up and find a matching dress for the baby—full on with her initials emblazoned across the front like a neon sign. “My goodness, mama and daughter dresses!” I want to say I love it, but I don’t. Although the style is much more suited to a baby than a grown woman. Mama reads my mind and smacks my arm playfully. “Don’t wear any perfume, okay?” “Why? Because only harlots and French whores wear perfume?” She gives me a look that says I should mind my tongue. “Because Cootie wears enough for all of us and I don’t need a headache today, that’s why.” I sigh mightily. “Fine. But just so you know, I’m going to have to feed the baby sometime while we’re there and I’m going to have to practically strip naked for her to get to her lunch.” “You can use one of the changing stalls in the locker room.” She hands me my purse, “Now, change the baby and let’s go. I want to get there before everyone else so we can strategize the best place to sit.” I would rather have all four of my wisdom teeth carved out of my head with a grapefruit spoon than to go to this tea. I don’t think I’ve dreaded anything so much since my first swim meet during my period. I used a tampon for the first time, and I didn’t bother to read how to insert it properly. I wound up sticking the applicator up there along with the tampon and I think I lost my virginity to it. It was horrible. To make matters worse, Faye is cranky. At five and a half months, she's teething and isn’t at all pleased to have little bits of bone popping through her tender gums. We get into Mama’s SUV and she says, “Now remember, Tillie Smytheton is just as big a gossip as Cootie. She’ll try to cuddle up to you and get you to trust her, but it’s just so she can get your secrets. Don’t fall for it.” “Mama, is there anyone that’s going to be there that isn’t out to get me?” I feel as vulnerable as George Washington walking into enemy camp in his underwear. “Honey, Auntie Lee and I will be there, and you can rest assured that our friends will be your friends, so don’t worry yourself none.” The club is just as I remember—big and imposing, but more than a little over the top. It’s designed to look like a Southern plantation, with gigantic columns and a huge wraparound porch. The whole place is crawling with women in tennis whites and men wearing god-awful pastel plaid pants and polo shirts. All I can think of is, These are the people who are judging me? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would have a field day here. The valet takes Mama’s keys and says, “The other Mrs. Frothingham is already here. She says to hurry on in and don’t forget the ketchup.” Mama’s eyes pop wide open as she pushes the button to open the back hatch. “Thank you, Christopher. I surely would have forgotten had you not mentioned it.” She gets out of the driver’s side and fetches something out of the back that she secrets away in her purse. I collect Faye from her car seat and grab the diaper bag. I stop a moment to inhale her sweet baby smell—if ever I did need that antidote to calm my frazzled nerves, it’s now—then I hurry to catch up with Mama. “What does, ‘don’t forget the ketchup’ mean? Is that some kind of battle cry, like ‘Remember the Alamo!’?” “Nope. It’s just a little something Lee and I have been working on. Don’t you worry about it.” I can’t do anything but worry, now. If Mama and Auntie Lee are plotting, there are bound to be casualties. It’s not that they couldn’t be very instrumental in winning a war, but they aren’t the ones you’d want masterminding the battle plan. As we ascend the stairway leading to the entry, I half expect Scarlet O’Hara to sweep past in a giant hoop skirt. Instead, we run into Harold Wilcox. He’s probably sixty and appears to have a fake tan so dark his ethnicity could be challenged. He stops and takes my mama’s hand and croons, “Why, Grace, don’t you look lovely today.” He leers at her like she’s one of those cocktail wienies wrapped in biscuit dough. Mama removes her hand, and with a tone so cold you’d think we were suddenly standing at the North Pole, says, “Thank you, Harold. I don’t suppose Cootie came with you?” “Yes, ma’am. She’s in the dining room helping Lee set up for your tea.” Mama looks like she wants to punch something, or more accurately, someone. “Lovely, we’ll just go catch up with her then.” She pulls me along and says, “That does it, that woman is going down!” Chapter Twelve Compared to Mama and Auntie Lee, Cootie looks likes Sideshow Bob from that old Simpsons cartoon. The Frothingham women are lovely and slim. They look more like they’re entering their forties than fifties. If you Googled feminine pulchritude, I’m pretty sure their pictures would pop up. Cootie, on the other hand, has not aged well at all. The sands of time seem to have all settled in her bottom half, and her hair is teased so big it looks like she’s trying to signal outer space. She has on more makeup than the entire cast of the musical Cats, has been Botoxed within an inch of her life, and her lips are three times the size of those of normal humans. She’s plain hideous. “Lookee who’s heeeeeeere!” she says with a sinister sounding drawl that sends shivers crawling right up my spine into the fear center of my brain. “Warning, warning, incoming danger!” it seems to say. Mama steps in front of me as though she’s holding the garlic and we’ve just encountered Dracula himself. “Cootie, what are you doing here so soon? Tea doesn’t start for another hour.” “I was just sure you and Lee would want my help,” she says. “After all, your hands are pretty full lately.” She tries to pointedly look behind Mama at Faye and me. But Mama stays between us like a mother bear protecting her young from a rabid cougar. Do cougars even get rabid? I’m not sure, but you get my point. My earlier annoyance has moved straight into dread. This woman is downright terrifying. Mama says, “You don’t need to worry yourself, Cootie. Lee and I are just fine. So, you run along and come back later.” “I wouldn’t hear of it,” Cootie declares. Then she says, “I could hold the baby, while y’all get everything set up.” Glancing over at the table, she adds, “Which looks like it’ll take you awhile.” I would no sooner let this woman hold Faye than I’d let a shark give her swimming lessons. My motherly instincts kick in and I say, “Why, aren’t you the sweetest, Mrs. Wilcox, but I was just going to take Faye off to the locker room to feed her.” “I’ll show you the way.” She’s at my side before I have a chance to make the sign of the cross. I briefly try to remember the best way to protect myself from a vampire attack. I’m almost certain it requires a stake to the heart. Either that or a silver bullet, but I’m currently not packing any heat, more’s the pity. Mama says, “What a wonderful idea, Cootie.” I cannot believe she’s leaving me in the hands of this woman. I take a deep breath for courage and follow along. Cootie says, “We were just sick to hear about your fiancé.” “It was a terrible tragedy,” I concur. “But at least we had Faye. It’s such a comfort.” She looks down at the baby. “It’s too bad she didn’t get his last name, though. That would have been such a nice tribute to him, don’t you think?” My god, this woman is relentless. I smile as though it’s painful to do so—which, really, it kind of is—and say, “Armie made me promise that if anything ever happened to him I’d give Faye my name. He didn’t want to hold me back from marrying again someday and thought the baby should have my husband’s name.” “So, he knew you were knocked up?” she asks none too kindly. I mean, who says “knocked up” anymore? What an insulting term. “Of course. We were going to be married during his next leave, but well …” I try to force tears to my eyes—I’m afraid it looks more like I’m constipated though—and say, “I truly can’t talk about it. I’m sure you understand, Mrs. Wilcox.” “What was his last name?” she asks. I blurt out “Hammer,” before I can stop myself. “Armie Hammer, like that actor?” “What are the odds, huh?” Why did I say Hammer? This woman has totally knocked me off my game. In fact, I’ve got no game. I’m straight improv right now, and fear crackles in my nervous system like water on hot bacon grease. “Where are his people from?” she asks relentlessly. “Toledo.” OMG, Toledo? Why didn’t I say Beverly Hills or Chicago or something impressive sounding? “Toledo? Where’s that, Indiana or something?” “Ohio,” I answer. “Never been there,” she says. “How ’bout his folks? They must be thrilled to have a granddaughter.” “They’ve both passed,” I say, wishing the ground would open up and swallow me. But with my luck it would just spit me back out. “Hmmmmmm. That’s too bad,” she says, clearly trying to figure out what question in her arsenal she should ask next. She settles on, “I guess you done got yourself a nice chunk of money from the government for the baby, though.” She must have spent days concocting this interrogation. “Mrs. Wilcox, I’d love to chat, but I really need to see to Faye. If you’ll excuse me.” I try to walk away slowly, as though I’m not being pursued by a Cerberus, but I’m not very successful. How in the world am I going to get through this afternoon? Chapter Thirteen Alone in the locker room, my dress, which buttons up the back, proves even more challenging than I expected. After serious contorting and a few unintentional yoga poses, I manage to get enough buttons undone to shimmy out of the top half of this archaic excuse for fashion. After all that, Faye isn’t even hungry. She still latches on but only to use my nipple as a chew toy to help her cut her teeth. Contact of a sharp edge of a tooth to tender flesh causes me to flinch and pull away. I admonish, “No, baby!” She reacts to my stern tone by bursting into tears. Dear Lord, if you’re gonna send me into a nest of vipers, please, the least you can do is keep my baby happy, so I can have my wits about me. Faye settles down after a few moments of my reassuring her. Once I compose myself, I try to formulate a plan to get back into my clothes. I look around the locker room, but darn it, I’m all alone. Irritated at my mother and her need to throw me this party, I want to cry. But that’s not going to change the fact that I need help. I peek out the door in time to see Harold Wilcox exit the men’s locker room. There’s no way on earth I’d ever ask his assistance, so I go back into the fluffing room with all the mirrors and hairdryers and wait. Every two minutes I look out to see if anyone walks by that can be prevailed upon to rescue me. Nobody. Twenty-eight minutes, and fourteen checks later, I realize I’m in jeopardy of being late for my own tea party. That’s when I spy Zachary Grant coming down the hall. I have no choice but to try to flag him down. “Zach!” I whisper/yell. “Can you help me?” He appears shocked to see me, and then looks around to make sure I’m really talking to him. “Are you calling me?” Unfortunately, yes. But I don’t say that. “Could you please help me for a sec?” He walks over and spies Faye. Then asks, “Whose baby?” “Mine,” I answer protectively, holding her closer to my bosom. “This is Faye.” He looks spooked again, which is apparently one of the two looks he’s capable of in my company. The other is anger. “How old is she?” he demands. “Just over five months.” He looks like he’s trying to solve a calculus equation in his head, but I don’t have any time to figure out what his problem is now. “Listen,” I say, “I’m in a bit of a pickle. I can’t button my dress back up by myself and my mama’s waiting for me in the dining room.” I forge ahead and ask, “I don’t suppose you could lend a hand?” “Why are your buttons undone?” he asks cluelessly. “I was feeding the baby.” Duh. “Why did you wear a dress that you can’t button up by yourself?” he demands as though he can’t believe I’d be so stupid to be caught in the position I’m currently in. I lose all use of my manners and instead of explaining, demand, “Are you gonna help me or not?” I belatedly worry that if he doesn’t, I could be stuck here for another hour waiting for someone to come to my rescue. “Turn around,” he grumbles. “Not out here! What if someone comes by and sees you?” “Emmie, I’m not allowed in the ladies’ locker room, so this is pretty much your only option,” he says. I put Faye on my hip and grab his arm with my free hand. “No one’s been in here in eons. Please?” I beg. He hesitantly follows me in, and I point the way to a changing stall. “Over there, so if someone does come in, they won’t see you.” Once we’re secreted away, I turn around and present my back. “You can see how tiny the buttons are. I couldn’t manage them on my own.” But Zach doesn’t say anything. Instead, he very lightly traces the tip of his finger from the base of my skull down to the first fastened button, which is nearly at my waist. Shivers of delight erupt all over my body. What in the world is he doing? I want to say something, but my mouth has suddenly gone bone dry. Heaven knows how long we stand there not talking when he leans in and runs the tip of his nose along the side of my neck. I know what you’re thinking, and I one hundred percent agree with you. No single mother should be standing half-dressed in a locker room—holding her baby even!—while a near stranger sniffs her neck. What are we, animals? But lordy, I cannot seem to put an end to it. Not only am I at this man’s mercy, but I seem to have forgotten the English language. His hot breath moves to the back of my neck and my innards drop like I’ve just done a triple sow cow off the Empire State Building. I have not felt anything remotely this titillating since the night Faye was conceived. I’m about to turn around and throw myself into his arms, when the door opens. We both freeze and hold our breath. “Emmeline, are you still in here, girl?” It’s Cootie! I urgently point to the bench next to us and indicate that Zach step up on it lickety-split before Cootie sees his feet under the curtain. He hurries to follow my silent directive. “I’m in here, Mrs. Wilcox. I’ll be out in just a sec.” “I’ll wait for you,” she announces. Of course, she will. Crap and croutons, what do I do now? I turn to look at Zach, but with him on that bench, my eyes are in direct alignment with the fly on his trousers, not his eyes. Oh, my! He seems to be as affected by whatever just went on here as I am. I feel a delicious heat nearly overcome me. I’d probably swoon if Cootie wasn’t out there waiting for me. I inhale deeply, turn around, and force myself to scurry out from behind the curtain, carefully closing it behind me. I head toward the fluffing room where I heard Cootie’s call originate. “I don’t suppose you’d mind giving me a hand with my buttons?” I ask sweetly. She says, “Is that why you were in here for so long?” Then she eyes me closely, “Why are you so flushed?” “I seem to have underestimated my ability to redress myself after feeding the baby. I struggled a bit.” She doesn’t look convinced, but says, “You really ought to stop that nonsense now that she’s old enough for solid food.” She points at my boobs. “Actually, my pediatrician says it’s best to nurse her exclusively for six months before introducing anything else.” “That’s ridiculous,” she says. “Why, Shelby only fed for three months. Then that was enough of that.” I’m surprised Cootie let her nurse at all. Actually, I’m more surprised Shelby didn’t turn to a block of ice or starve to death while suckling Cruella de Vil, here. I try to regain control of the conversation and ask again, “Could you help me with my buttons?” As she comes closer, I’m engulfed in a cloud of heavy floral perfume. Mama’s right, she must bathe in the stuff. Once I’m all fastened, I readjust Faye and say, “We’d best get back to the dining room. Mama’s going to wonder what happened to me.” Just as we’re walking out the door, we hear a very masculine sounding sneeze come from the changing area. Cootie demands, “What was that?” “I didn’t hear anything,” I say. Playing dumb is my only option. I cringe at the thought of what would happen if Cootie finds a man in the ladies’ room with me. My reputation is already questionable, but it will be in shreds if that happens. “I heard a man sneeze,” she declares. I point to the men’s locker room right in front of us. “It must have come from in there.” She looks back in the ladies, and I see her checking the stalls for feet. When she doesn’t find any, she turns back to me and says, “I guess so.” But she doesn’t look convinced. As we head to the tea party, I wonder what just transpired between me and Zach. I take a moment to thank my lucky stars that whatever it was, Cootie doesn’t know about it. Chapter Fourteen Our little corner of the dining room is chock-a-block full of ladies in chiffon dresses and pearls. They look like they just sashayed out of 1960. I wonder how it’s possible these gals haven’t progressed with the times. Most of them have never had a career, they just come to the club every day and concoct enough drama to keep themselves entertained. At least Mama and Auntie Lee work with the uncles. Sarah Jane Grant is the first to greet me. “Emmie, welcome home! Zach told us you were back in town. I’m just tickled for your whole family.” Just the mention of his name makes me feel all tingly again. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m happy to be here, as well.” “Can I take that adorable baby off your hands? I would just love to have one of these of my own, but my son is determined not to give me a grandchild.” I happily hand Faye over. Sarah Jane has always been a friend to our family, especially after Daddy died. She steadfastly stood by Mama’s side when a good number of her other friends lost interest. Sarah Jane knew firsthand how cruel the club ladies could be to a single gal in their midst, although her situation had to be a world harder as her husband ran out on her. I turn to greet the rest of the guests and immediately discern the two camps in attendance. Mama and Auntie Lee’s group are all smiles and truly look delighted to be here. Cootie’s gang looks like they’ve been sucking on a bucket of lemons—sour doesn’t begin to cover it. Cootie announces, “Emmaline was stuck in the ladies’ unable to get her dress back on.” Tillie Smytheton demands, “What was she doing with her dress off?” She glares at me as if to suggest something untoward was going on. Which of course, it nearly was. Thank goodness it didn’t get that far. “She says she was feeding the baby.” Cootie lets innuendo hang in the air like a cloud of mustard gas. I point to Faye and explain, “She was hungry.” Driving the point home, I twirl around, “Silly me, my dress buttons up the back,” and then I give Mama a pointed look. She quickly changes the focus, “Ladies, may I please have your attention?” The gathering of twenty or so turn to look at her. “I’m so pleased you could join us today in welcoming Emmie and Faye home. The Frothingham family is finally all together.” I love how she throws in the family name to reinforce who they’re dealing with. My great-grandparents four times over were the founders of Creek Water. There’s a Frothingham Lane, a Frothingham Court, and even a Frothingham Park. Mama’s making sure her assemblage doesn’t lose sight of the fact that we are, in fact, central to this town’s existence. She continues, “If you’ll all just find a place to sit, we can start.” She points for me to take the place at her right and then says, “Cootie, dear, why don’t you sit on my other side?” Best to keep your enemies close. The table is beautifully laid out with blush-colored peonies in silver Revere bowls running down the center, and pink baby confetti sprinkled on the white linens, and of course, the napkins have been folded into swans. It looks picture-perfect, like a spread in a magazine. Mama’s friends all sit on the same side of the table as me, facing Cootie and her cohorts, who’ve chosen to sit on her side of the table. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys country club-style. Mama stands at the head of the table and signals the waiters to begin. They bring out three-tiered trays of watercress and cucumber sandwiches along with egg salad, and smoked salmon with fresh dill. They’re all very delicate with the crusts off. I didn’t have breakfast, due to a nervous stomach, so right now I’m hungry enough I could eat ten or twenty of these tiny bites. I start with four to keep the tongues from wagging. Auntie Lee proudly brags, “Emmie was the head buyer up at Silver Spoons in Manhattan.” Bitsy Buford, from the other side of the table says, “Too bad she doesn’t have a man to take care of her. I think it’s a shame when a mother has to go to work.” I nearly spit my egg salad out. “Mrs. Buford, I went to Duke University and got a business degree. I assure you I did that so I could have a career of my own.” Mama raises her left eyebrow to caution me, don’t step into their trap, Emmie. But I just can’t help myself. Bitsy says, “I know you went to Duke, dear. My sweet Ashley went to Duke, also, but she found herself a nice medical student to marry.” I want to ask what kind of degree you get when your major is husband-hunting, but Auntie Lee shoots me a warning look. I fill my mouth with sandwiches instead. Mama drops something on the floor. I lean over to pick it up, but she’s beat me to it. I watch in shock as she grabs something from her purse and nearly dives under the table. When she emerges, she laughs and says, “That little sandwich got away from me.” No one pays her any mind. After I consume my fill of sandwiches, an assortment of sweets is served. Shortbread, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and tiny tartlets abound. I eat until I’m about to pop. Not only is the food divine, but eating helps keeps my mouth full, so there’s no room for my foot—which is a godsend. As I listen to the catty comments, I want nothing more than to speak up for the poor folks some of these ladies are lambasting. One of them declares that her gardener is walking a thin line because he’s been pruning her bushes with a diagonal cut instead of a straight cut. “Everybody knows that’s just asking for trouble.” Kill me now. After Cootie’s crew seemingly empties their store of nastiness, one of the ladies announces that her son is recently engaged to one of the Hamelstocks of St. Louis. When no seems to understand the significance of the name until she explains, “The non-dairy creamer folks?” At that, there are smiles and congratulations. Non-dairy creamer isn’t exactly banking or oil wells, but money is money to these gals. Once the dishes are cleared and the pink champagne poured, Mama says, “Emmie, why don’t you open up your gifts?” I hadn’t expected this to be a baby shower, but apparently, I was the only one, because the gift table is loaded down. After settling in on a chair with Faye happily cooing beside me in her carrier, I open a small bag first. Inside is a Tiffany-blue box with a sterling silver rattle in it. It weighs so much Faye might give herself a concussion if she accidentally hits herself on the head with it. There are more darling dresses than I can bother counting. Each has the baby’s giant initials embroidered across the front. The whole club must have gotten the memo about monograms being back in style. There’s a diaper bag, a silver baby cup, and even a clothes hamper in the shape of an elephant. I wind up opening Cootie’s gift last. It’s a rather large oblong box that weighs too much to be a baby blanket. Once I unwrap it and take the lid off, I’m positively speechless. Cootie Wilcox bought me a wooden shelf with three little canvas drawers. They say “Coupons, More Coupons, and Bills.” What in the actual hell? When I look at her for clarification, she explains, “Being that you’re the head of your own household, I figured this would come in handy.” Before I can throw the thing at her, Faye squawks, and Mama stands to signal that the party is over. “Why, ladies, thank you so much for helping us celebrate today. I’m sure you’ll understand that we need to head home to get Faye down for her nap.” As the other guests stand to leave, I notice Cootie’s dress. It has bright red zig-zagging streak running down the bottom half. Mama looks too, and declares loud enough for everyone to hear, “Good heavens, Cootie, I think your time of month has arrived!” Now I know what Mama was doing under the table. The Ketchup War has begun. Chapter Fifteen Mama and Auntie Lee nearly bust a gut laughing after Cootie runs out of the room followed by her posse. Mama says, “You know she’s gonna try to get even now.” “I think she already did,” Auntie Lee says. “Did you see that horrible gift she gave Emmie? Of all the nerve!” “At least the other ladies brought nice things,” I say, trying not to add fuel to their fire. “Good thing, too,” Auntie Lee says. “Otherwise we’d have had to declare war on them, too.” I look between my two relatives and accuse, “You two are enjoying this, aren’t you?” Mama answers, “Damn straight. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to bring that woman down a peg or two. And just so you know, I’m ready for whatever she does to retaliate.” “You and me both, sister,” Auntie Lee says, and gives Mama a high five followed by a little shimmy and a fist bump. It’s a move they’ve definitely executed before. One that required rehearsal. I look around and ask, “How in the world are we going to get all this stuff out to the car? I guess if you’ll sit in here with Faye, I can start running it out.” They’re more than happy to let me as they’re already hard at work hatching their next plot. I fold up all the dresses and put them in the elephant hamper. Then I tuck a few picture frames and other knickknacks around the sides, before hoisting my load. It was a nice tea for the most part, and Faye made out like a bandit. The hamper is so cumbersome, I stagger out of the dining room into the foyer. I shift my load a bit, so it doesn’t slip out of my arms. As I do so, I lose sight of where I’m walking and wind up veering into the path of oncoming traffic. I run smack into Zach Grant and lose control of the hamper. He reaches out to help me catch it before everything flies out willy-nilly. He’s not quite fast enough. Instead of catching it, he rescues me. I fall into his arms instead of on the ground where gravity was sending me, and my-oh-my does it feel nice. I get a whiff of his spicy scent and I suddenly feel like a badger in heat. I’m about to lean into him, and maybe even climb him like a tree, when I hear someone clearing their throat next to us. A decidedly female voice says, “I’m pretty sure you can stand on your own now, Emmeline.” I look up straight into the eyes of Shelby Wilcox. She’s a pretty version of her mother, but she still has Cootie’s nasty look about her. I push myself away from Zach and say, “Why, Shelby, look at you.” Which is about the most non-confrontational thing you can say to a person. “Yes, look at me,” she says. “Would you please remove yourself from Zach’s arms?” I’m actually trying to, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in letting me go. Finally, I look up at him and say, “Thank you, but I think I can stand now.” He reluctantly releases me. Shelby grabs his arm and winds herself around it like she’s making one of those hot pads we loomed as kids. It’s a sign of pure ownership. “He’s with me.” Then she looks up at him and bats her eyes, “Didn’t he turn out to be something else?” Zach stares at his feet and refuses to meet my eye. “He’s sure somethin’,” I say. Then I add, “Thank you for rescuing me, Zach.” I bend over to collect Faye’s new loot. “That’s right, you have a baby!” Shelby says like I’ve just adopted a puppy from the pound. “That must be so hard all by yourself.” Her lack of sincerity is as thick as fresh tar. Zach comes to my defense and says, “Her fiancé. died, Shelby.” But he glares at me when he says it. What did I do now? “Yes,” I say. “Poor Armand died while serving our country.” “I heard it was friendly fire,” Shelby says. “It’s not like he was actually protecting anyone.” “You bitch!” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop it. “All that matters is that he gave his life in the pursuit of our freedom. He was training for battle and now he’s gone. How dare you make light of his sacrifice?” I’m about to lunge at her when I remind myself he’s not even real. Zach kindly says, “You must have loved him very much.” “Of course, I did. He was going to be my husband. We have a baby.” I actually feel myself tear up. Obviously not because of the loss of the fictitious Armand, but because I don’t even know who Faye’s daddy is. I wonder how many years will go by before I convince myself he really was my knight in shining armor, tragically taken from me in his prime, not some stranger I picked up in a bar. Shelby pulls Zach away and I hear her say, “She shouldn’t have let herself get into trouble like that.” Zach says, “I don’t think she had a say in it, Shelby.” What in the world is he talking about? Of course, I had a say in it. As far as my foggy memory goes, I said something along the lines of, “Oh, my God, yes! Right there! More!” I need to stop thinking about that night. Clearly, this town has made its decision about me and I’m going to have to be on my best behavior. I’m probably only saying that because Zach seems to already be spoken for. Although, if that’s so, why in the world was he toying with me in the locker room? I shudder at the thought that he thinks I’m a woman of loose morals and thinks he can take advantage of that for his own pleasure. Chapter Sixteen I take extra pains with my appearance this morning. It’s not like I’m consciously dressing for Zach, but if I am being honest, I’m sure there’s an element of that. Whatever almost happened between us at the club has played over and over in my mind, like that movie Ground Hog Day. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I imagined his interest. Is that possible? Could I be that desperate for male attention? Quite honestly, with the baby and all, I didn’t realize I was even missing it. When I walk into the kitchen, Mama says, “You look nice.” “I’m gonna burn the dress you bought me for the shower,” I tell her. “That’s fine. We just had to make the right first impression. You can dress like yourself again.” “Thank you,” I tell her. I sweep a hand over the clothes I’m wearing, “I’d planned to. Can you imagine me wearing that to work?” Then I ask, “So what’s going on with Shelby Wilcox and Zach Grant? I ran into them at the club yesterday.” Mama rolls her eyes. “That Shelby is busy trying to make your cousin Beau jealous. I’m afraid Zach doesn’t mean a thing to her.” “That’s not how she was acting yesterday,” I say. “She acted like I was trying to steal him away from her just by breathing the same air.” Mama looks up from measuring her coffee grounds and suspiciously asks, “Are you interested in Zachary Grant?” “What? No! Good lord, Mama. I have enough going on without complicating my already messed-up life. For Pete’s sake, as if!” I feel like I’m protesting too much and decide I’d better simmer down before she suspects differently. She lets it drop and says, “Cootie thinks your cousin should have asked Shelby to be exclusive and advised her to dump him.” “Who else has Beau been seeing? I ask. “No one that I know of,” Mama says. “He just isn’t ready to commit himself to one gal.” “Well, if he’s not seeing anyone else, then wasn’t he already exclusive with Shelby?” Mama says, “She wanted some sort of declaration of the fact and she pushed it. She figured that being they’d already been out on three dates, that he should take himself off the market.” I can kind of see where she’s coming from. I mean if Beau didn’t know that he liked her enough to date her exclusively after three dates, then it’s clear he’s not that into her. I don’t tell Mama that, though. She’s from the school of thought that a person needs to know what their options are before fully committing themselves. I don’t disagree with her; we just have different timetables. “What about you, Mama? Are you seeing anybody?” “My word, no. Who would I date in a town like Creek Water?” “I don’t know. There has to be somebody. Maybe a nice divorced man or widower or something.” She shakes her head. “I’m not interested. I’ve got a nice house, a job I enjoy, and my baby and grandbaby are home. I’m full up, honey.” I almost say that she’d have more room if she’d get rid of some of Daddy’s things. It’s been twenty years since he died and she has not once, that I know of, given her romantic life a second thought. Yet her closet is still half-filled with his clothes. I’m gonna have to keep my eye open for her. I grab a muffin off the counter and give Faye a big smooch on top of the head. “I’m off. Can you bring the baby down to the warehouse at eleven when she’s ready to eat again?” I could pump, but I hate to go that long without holding her. Babies are full-blown addictive to their mamas. It’s a mystical bond that goes beyond mere hormones. The kind of love where you’d lay down your life for the other person is nothing short of a gift from God. And I want to spend as much time with my gift as humanly possible. Also, I’m kind of afraid to pump at work now. “Sure thing, honey. We’ll bring you lunch, too. Shall we?” “Sounds good, Mama, thanks.” I give her a hug and then walk out to the garage. A year and a half ago my life was very different. I was a single, career girl living her dream in New York City. Now, I can barely remember who that person was. Quite honestly, now that I’m back, I’m not sure I’ll ever leave Creek Water again, even if it means battling it out with Cootie Wilcox. Having a baby changes everything. Chapter Seventeen I worked Mondays through Fridays at Silver Spoons. But the construction crew at the warehouse works on Saturdays, too, so I plan on being there. I don’t know what Zach’s hours are, but seeing as he was at the club with Shelby yesterday, which was Friday, I wonder if he’s a hands-off kind of boss. You know, telling his employees what to do while he goes off and plays. I do believe I will lose a good deal of respect for him if that is the case. Not that I currently have that much respect for him. He’s not treated me at all well, and even though my body seems to be attracted to him, my brain is screaming, “Girl, you can do so much better than a rude person who manhandles you in the locker room at the country club.” Both of my uncles are already on site, wearing hardhats and reflective vests, when I show up. I thought I’d beat them to the punch as it’s only eight o’clock, but I guess I underestimated their excitement. I hurry to put on my own hat and run over to meet them. “Morning, Emmie,” Jed says. “We were just trying to figure out how much space we’re gonna need for the gourmet shop. The architect is meeting us here in a couple hours so he can finalize the plans for the glass walls.” “Glass walls?” I ask. “We got to thinking that part of the charm of this space is its size. So, if we only use glass to separate the stores from each other, it’ll keep that charm intact. What do you think?” I think it’s a great idea. Normally, storefronts have some kind of display window, but if the whole wall is a window then the store itself becomes the display. It’ll increase their usable square footage.” “Exactly,” Uncle Jed says. “Now how big do you think Emmeline’s needs to be?” “Emmeline’s?” I ask. “You’re naming the store after me?” “Of course, darlin’. But before you get a big head over it, we’re only doing it because your name sounds classy. If Gracie and Reed had named you something like Sissy Poo or Bobbie Jean, we couldn’t have done it.” “Bobbie Jean Minkler’s name is Bobbie Jean and she’s a lovely lady.” Jesse replies, “Yes, she is. And her name is perfectly suited for the diner she owns. It sounds like a place where you can get some good pie. It just doesn’t sound like a place where you’d drop a hundred bucks on a trinket.” Jed smacks his lips. “Let’s go over to Bobbie Jean’s for some pie when we’re done here.” “Excellent idea,” Jesse replies. “Now, what kind of stuff should we sell at Emmeline’s?” I say, “It depends on who your target market is.” “Our customers will be anyone who’s