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Charlotte was late. Few things bothered her more than arriving late, even if it was just a party. Oh, please, let Mrs. Buchanan be understanding. She’d never met the hostess, an unfamiliarity that added to the headache behind her eyes.
How would she explain that she’d been so engrossed in creating a new recipe for goat cheese quiche that she’d lost track of the time? She’d sound like an irresponsible idiot. Or worse, the kind of person who was so much the center of her own universe that she didn’t care about appointments or expectations or invitations trustingly extended by good friends. Sweat beaded along her hairline, and the sound of her tires rolling on the gravel road echoed her thoughts exactly. Crap, crap, crap, crap.
Hush with all that now. Her mother’s voice filled her head. Charlotte was ten years old again, her mother’s gentle hand stroking back the bangs from her forehead. Everything’s gonna be just fine. It took leaving California and moving across the country to South Carolina to find her mother’s voice again. Charlotte held on tight to every word and relaxed her foot from the gas. Everything’s gonna be just fine.
She neared a circular drive topped by an enormous white-columned mansion. Her mother had spoken so often about her life in the South while she was alive, Charlotte thought she would be prepared for a party in a gigantic antebellum home with the sounds of live classical music coming from the window. But, no. Despite her mother’s thick Southern drawl, her love of Southern foods, country music, and sweet-smelling flowers, Charlotte had no clue what to expect. And no matter how often Charlotte begged, going back to the South, even for a visit, had always been out of the question.
A white-gloved man opened her door and surveyed her torn jeans and Beyoncé concert T-shirt. If she could have moved from that spot, she would have jumped back into her car and sped away. Instead, the valet spoke quietly, “Ma’am, we can both pretend like you were never here.”
Charlotte must’ve looked like a horned owl with her eyes so wide. “I can’t leave. I promised Birdie I’d be here, and I’m already late.” She surveyed the area again, her stomach clenching. “You know, what? It’s all good. I will just text Birdie if you can hold on a minute.”
Another car kicked up gravel as it drove up the driveway. “I’ll just pull your car to the side,” said the valet, climbing in.
“Birdalee Mudge, you are a dead woman,” Charlotte hissed under her breath as she moved off the driveway to text her. In return, she got a phone call.
“Charlotte, seriously, how bad can it be?”
Charlotte began to speak, but Birdie interrupted. “I can’t hear a darned thing. Just get your bony little behind in here.” And she hung up.
Her mother had always impressed upon Charlotte that, no matter how big your heart, what people are going to judge first is what’s on the outside, so you’ve got to make sure you dress appropriately. Which is probably why Charlotte panicked before every date, school dance, and party she’d ever been to, despite having called at least two of her closest friends to find out what they were wearing. The only friend she had in Crickley Creek was Birdie, and she was really Charlotte’s mother’s friend, a Southern woman, drawl and all, with a heart as big as her bosom and a mouth even bigger. But Charlotte didn’t have time to listen to her go on and on about the private lives of other people, so she never made that phone call.
The perfectly symmetrical home loomed in front of her, and people in long dresses and tuxedos milled past a window in a room on the right. It was going to be like walking into a wedding wearing a bikini. Forcing herself to move forward, she muttered, “Damn it, Birdie. This was supposed to be a crab cook. In California, crab cooks are beer-drinking, jean-wiping parties.” She stomped up the front steps. “How could she forget to tell me this was formal? For God’s sake, Birdie can’t keep any detail to herself. Why would she start now?”
The door opened as she raised her hand to knock. A stiff man in a tuxedo answered, “Good evening, ma’am. May I take your items to the coatroom?” His pity was apparent in his expression.
“Oh, thank you,” Charlotte said, handing him her purse and keeping the brightly colored gift bag stuffed with tissue paper. At least she knew enough about Southern customs to bring a hostess gift. She held on to it like it was a sack of money as she made her way across the grand foyer toward the hallway, her old sneakers making squeaking noises on the polished heart-pine floors. To her left was a staircase almost like Scarlett O’Hara’s, and to her right was the parlor full of formally dressed people, all with their heads turned toward her. She smiled at them and, in return, most of them smiled back, but they lacked something. It was the feeling she got when the mean girls in high school smiled at her. She’d inevitably find out later that they’d stolen her lunch or covered her locker in maxi pads.
She renewed her vow to kill Birdie upon sight.
Charlotte looked up to see a tall, imposing older woman in a form-fitting pale blue gown and white chignon walking toward her. What, for a barely discernible second, looked like a stunned expression on the woman’s face turned quickly into a vague, somewhat annoyed smile. “Hello, dear. How may I help you?”
“Hi,” Charlotte sputtered. “Oh, I don’t need any help. I was just—Well, I think I’m supposed to be a guest.”
“Oh, my.” She paused. “I see. Well, then, I am Mrs. Virginia Buchanan, the lady of the house.” Her blue eyes were hazy, almost purple. She looked too old to be one of Charlotte’s mother’s friends. Maybe it was the hair. Or the condescension. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you.”
Charlotte reached for a handshake. “I’m Anna Grace’s daughter, Charlotte Sinclair.” Virginia’s cold hand hesitated before reluctantly meeting hers in the middle. “I’m told you were my mother’s friend in high school.” The woman squinted but said nothing. “It’s nice to meet you.” Charlotte squeezed confidently.
Mrs. Buchanan pulled her hand away and held it a few inches from her side as if making a mental note to wash it immediately.
Judging from the woman’s expression, maybe the friendship wasn’t quite as close as Birdie made it sound. She could hear her mother saying, Kill her with kindness, honey. So she pulled her shoulders back and smiled sweetly. “You have a beautiful home.” Down the hall and through a screened-in porch, she could see a green slope ending at the Atlantic. It truly was beautiful.
“Well, aren’t you just a sweet little thing.” Her singsongy South Carolina twang was not nearly as convincing as her tight, closed-lip sneer. “So, dear, how is it that you have an invitation?”
“Birdalee Mudge invited me.” And I’m gonna break every stinkin’ bone in her body when I see her. Charlotte forced another smile and looked around. A few of the partygoers stopped talking in order to watch. “She thought it’d be a great way for me to meet new people, maybe some of my mom’s old friends.”
Mrs. Buchanan remained silent.
“Birdie told me it was a crab cook.” Charlotte tugged at her T-shirt and smiled apologetically.
Virginia gestured grandly toward a round table piled high with crushed ice, pieces of blue and red cooked crab, and slices of lemon. “Why, bless your heart, this is a crab cook, honey.” A few of the crabs were left whole, one of which was still alive. Charlotte watched as his pinchers moved slowly, half-anesthetized by the cold. Was she expected to eat it while it was still alive? Her heart broke for the poor, cold crab.
“May I help you with your bag?” Mrs. Buchanan drawled.
Charlotte clutched the brightly colored gift bag. “Oh, this is nothing really. Just a little hostess gift,” she said, regretting it immediately.
Virginia extended her arm, palm up. “Oh, how lovely.” It was a bad idea, but Charlotte didn’t have a choice. She handed her the bag. Using only her forefinger and thumb, Virginia pulled out the contents. “Well, now, aren’t you just precious.” The guests were openly watching. “Red plastic crab forks and…what do we have here?” She held up a long, white cotton bib. “Are these…bibs? Why, yes. Yes, I believe they are.” Her voice was raised for the rest of the guests to enjoy the scene. “And what do these bibs say? Let’s see now…” She moved toward the sitting room of people, turning the bib around to show them. “Feeling Crabby. How sweet. They will certainly add to the décor.” A few of the guests giggled. Virginia turned to Charlotte and waved her hand toward the back of the house. “I believe Ms. Mudge may be found in the sunroom.” And with that, thank God, Charlotte was dismissed.
Charlotte found a window-filled sunroom next to the screened-in porch in the back of the house. Scanning the people for Birdie, her eyes landed on a puffy, brown hairdo in the corner. Birdie’s large, pasty-white body was stuffed into a wicker chair, stationed next to a plate of crackers and a half-empty bowl of pimiento cheese.
Charlotte whispered, “Birdalee Mudge, you are in so much trouble. I swear if I had a gun, I’d kill you.”
Birdie’s eyes popped open like two hot pieces of corn. “Gracious, child! What have you done?”
“What have I done? You did it, Birdie!” She looked at the people in the room apologetically. Every last one of them pretended not to notice. “You never said this thing was formal.” Charlotte gestured at her outfit and lifted her foot to show Birdie her grungy old sneakers. “Thanks a lot. I’m feeling good. Feeling real good right now.”
“Sarcasm ain’t necessary, darlin’. Something appropriate to wear is.” Birdie wrestled with the chair to free herself. “Did Ginny let you walk through the house like that?” She appraised Charlotte as if she hadn’t caught the full effect of the outfit the first time. “Durn it all.” Grabbing Charlotte by the elbow, she stuck her neck out the door, checking to see if the coast was clear. “Now, we’ve got ourselves a situation here. I’m gonna have to hide you upstairs.”
Charlotte was hustled up the creaky old stairs in the kitchen typically used for staff, and hidden in none other than Virginia’s own bedroom. A thick, four-poster mahogany bed, with monogrammed pillowcases peeking out from behind shiny apricot-and-beige paisley shams and a mass of at least six coordinated throw pillows, stood in the middle of the wall. People only had beds like that if they had someone else to make them. There was a sitting area next to a pair of French doors leading to a balcony. The chairs positioned around the bookshelf were done in the same shiny fabric as the bed and they looked so delicate, she feared they might rip. So, she stood next to the brick fireplace and studied the oil painting hanging above it. In it was a much younger version of Virginia, a serious man, and a boy who looked to be around twelve years old. None of them were smiling, yet they were an uncommonly good-looking group.
A whiff of lavender made Charlotte turn her head. Standing in the doorway, still as the Doric columns out front, was Virginia, glaring at Charlotte as if her perfectly orchestrated evening had been ruined by the arrival of a petite, brown-haired girl from California.
Birdie walked up from behind, chirping, “Alright, Ginny, let’s find this girl a dress.” She practically shoved Virginia forward and gave Charlotte a wink.
Charlotte didn’t know whether to follow them or stay put, so she held still while the two women walked into a closet nearly the same size as the bedroom. It was easy to hear them whispering.
“Oh, come on. You haven’t worn that since I told you it looked like your meemaw’s couch,” said Birdie. Hangers scraped across metal closet bars, and Birdie’s voice rang out again, “Good Lord, Ginny Buchanan, I can’t believe you still have the dress.”
Virginia answered Birdie in a low murmur. She sounded angry.
“And with the tags still on it, almost thirty years later!” Birdie squawked. “If Anna Grace were alive, she’d tear you to pieces.”
“Give me that,” said Virginia. “Where do you think you’re going with that dress?”
“She’s wearing it,” said Birdie. “This is the dress.”
“You know darn well you only bought this dress so Anna Grace couldn’t wear it. It doesn’t even fit you. I remember.”
There was silence.
Finally, Virginia spoke. “She’s in my house. I’ll give her the dress.”
Birdie walked out first, grinning so widely her bright pink lipstick nearly smeared against her ear. Virginia came out next, holding a gold dress. Charlotte knew from her college fascination with vintage clothing that it was a silk Christian Dior slip dress. It looked like something Jackie Kennedy or Audrey Hepburn would have worn. Without a glance at Charlotte, Virginia threw the dress on the bed.
“Are you sure?” Charlotte asked Virginia’s retreating back. She wanted to give her a way out, an opportunity to say no to lending such an exquisite dress, and in turn, give herself an excuse to slip out the back door and drive home.
Virginia swung around, her squinty eyes belying her fake smile. “Of course, I insist. It wouldn’t do to have you running around here like that, now would it?” She marched from the room.
Birdie picked up the dress and held it in front of Charlotte. “At least she lets us know what she’s made of right up front. Been that way her whole life. Now ignore that old biddy,” said Birdie. “Put this on.”
Charlotte took it from her carefully. “Why’d she keep this from my mother?”
“Those two were a couple of queen bees competing over who had the better stinger. They’d fight over who could roast their friggin’ marshmallow better. ’Course Ginny was more willing to play dirty, which is why she bought this dress after she found out your mama was saving up for it. Now, go ahead and put it on, honey. It’s time.”
Charlotte changed into the dress slowly, stunned by the perfection of it and awed by the fact that the dress was so suited to her own taste.
“Oh my,” Birdie cooed. “Now if you just straighten yourself up, you’ll look like a princess.”
Charlotte turned toward the mirror above the dresser. The dress tapered in at her waist, cut in a way to maximize a woman’s body. The neckline was high and wide, showing no cleavage, only a lovely silhouette. Not bad for an accountant from Santa Monica. The dress might just equal redemption.
Shoes were a problem. Virginia wore a size nine, and Charlotte wore a six. Birdie flopped herself onto one of the silk chairs in mock exasperation, and Charlotte sucked in her breath, anticipating the sound of fabric tearing. Nothing happened.
“No one wants to wear them old heels all night anyway. Painful is what they are.” Birdie removed her own wide, magenta-dyed square-heeled shoes. “If any of those hoity-toities down there has a problem with our goll-danged feet, I dare them to say something. We’re in this together, darlin’.”
Charlotte wiggled her bare toes. Unless she wanted to wear sneakers, there was no other choice.
Birdie looked Charlotte up and down, obviously pleased. “Your mama would have loved you in that dress, except, of course, for the fact that it belongs to Virginia. Anyway, I must say, it makes you look older.”
“Older than twenty-six? What kind of compliment is that?”
“Naw, sugar. It’s just that your face is all lit up, like you’re wise to something, or like you’re just plain comfortable with who you are. I haven’t seen you look this way since you moved here.”
Charlotte smirked. “You’re just digging the hole, Birdie. Making it deeper.”
“Honey, what I mean is that you look like you finally got your feet under you.”
“Yeah, bare feet.” Charlotte giggled as she pulled her dark hair loose from the ponytail and shook it upside down, fluffing it. She checked herself in the mirror again. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it.”
They walked down the grand curved staircase in the front of the house, Birdie looking like an oversized powder puff stuffed into a sequined purple tent dress and Charlotte feeling like she’d just been transported to Civil War Tara. Conversations ended abruptly as the first few guests noticed their arrival. In the window above the front door, Charlotte saw a reflection. It was an angel in soft focus, floating down the stairs, the glow from the chandelier lighting the natural gold strands in the long waves of her dark hair, her creamy skin translucent. She paused for a moment to squint at the image. Lifting her hand, she touched the blazing hair. The angel followed suit.
Birdie leaned over and whispered, “I’d say I’m forgiven for forgetting to tell you to wear a dress.”
Trying to stay near the edge of the sweeping staircase, she held tight to the handrail, the pine floor cold on her feet, Charlotte whispered back, “Keep dreaming.”
When they got to the landing, Birdie said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m in desperate need of a toddy. You stand here and look pretty. I’ll go get us a drink and be right back.” She practically hopped her way toward a tuxedoed man tending the bar.
Charlotte was just beginning to feel awkward again when an elegantly dressed young man approached her. He was dark and attractive, in a grown-up frat-boy sort of way.
“You must be Charlotte Sinclair,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Jack Buchanan.” At the mention of his last name, she recognized him as the boy in the picture upstairs. “I heard you’re here all the way from California.”
“Yes,” she squeaked. Not much else was going to come out of her mouth. There was something powerfully alluring, and disquieting, about this boy who’d clearly been discussing her earlier. Plus, he looked way too much like Virginia for comfort.
“Welcome to the South. I see you survived your first test.” He chuckled.
Test? She may still be standing, but she didn’t feel like she’d passed anything yet.
“Don’t let my mother make you think badly of the rest of us, I think you’ll find we have a lot to offer.” His lilt was masculine, welcoming. His eyes crinkled at the corners.
Charlotte breathed in hope. “Thank you.” She smoothed her hair so that it was behind her shoulders.
Leaning in, he whispered, “Look, I saw her messin’ with you, and the fact is, she can be a bit ornery sometimes, but she’s really not a bad person.” He chuckled again, and Charlotte sensed a glitch in his smile. She tried desperately to think of something to say, outside of how horrible his mother was. Nervously, she fiddled with the fabric on her thigh. “Word has it you just opened a coffeehouse,” he said, expertly filling in the silence like he was accustomed to girls acting nervous and fluttery around him.
“Yes, Tea and Tennyson. It’s downtown. Actually, it’s a tea shop and bookstore, but we sell coffee too.” She was torn about inviting him to visit the store. He might be incredibly attractive, but he was also the son of the witch whose dress she was wearing. Unsure of what to say, she did what she hated most and began babbling. “See, I went to Paris for a semester in high school, and there was a store there and they had brownies and peanut butter, and there was this really nice cat that wandered around, and they had books in English, and I just always thought I’d have a store like that someday.”
She needed to shut up.
An extremely tall man with a long nose, narrow face, and short, ill-fitting suit shuffled over and placed his hand on Charlotte’s arm. “You must be Charlotte,” he, thankfully, interrupted. “I’m Pastor Ashby Crane. I knew your mama when she was a girl. I mean, uh, I was a few years older, but I always knew who she was.” He blushed furiously, and Charlotte wondered where he just came from. “So sorry to hear of her passing. She was a fine lady.” Concern made his face look even longer, and he pulled gently on Charlotte’s arm, as if to lead her somewhere. Somewhere away from Jack. “Didn’t you come here with Birdalee? Let’s go find her. Excuse us, please, Jackson.”
Jackson didn’t put up a fight.
“The girl’s with me, Ashby.” The pastor nearly fell down at the sound of Birdie’s voice. She handed Charlotte a drink and glared at him. He blushed a deep red, released his hold on Charlotte’s arm, mumbled something about trying to find her, and walked away.
Charlotte had never been so happy to see Birdie as in that second. She tried to smile her appreciation, but Birdie was distracted by a beautiful blonde staring at Jack. Jack turned to look too, then sighed deeply. “Well, Jackson,” said Birdie, “if you don’t mind, Miss Charlotte has had herself locked in that store of hers so long, she’s got to catch up on her socializing.” Jack said a quick goodbye and trotted after the thin blonde moving quickly toward the powder room.
Dragging Charlotte around the entire first floor, Birdie introduced her to the who’s who of Crickley Creek. Big-haired women and big-bellied men greeted her kindly. There were no short skirts, no spilling cleavage, and very few stretched faces—the opposite of what she’d find at a party in Los Angeles. Mayor Sonny Compton shook Charlotte’s hand and welcomed her to the great state of South Carolina, even though she’d lived there three months already. John Franklin and Suzanne Egan-Franklin invited her no fewer than four times to join them at church on Sunday which, according to Birdie, was a gutsy move, considering they were the only Catholics in a room full of Baptists.
Jesse Bixler couldn’t take his eyes off her and kept saying over and over that she reminded him of someone. It wasn’t her mother, Anna Grace, but for the life of him, he just couldn’t “figger out” who it was. In her presence, each guest was sweet and welcoming, but Charlotte sensed that once she was out of earshot, plenty was being said about the girl from California who had the audacity to show up to Virginia Buchanan’s party with no shoes. She could see the questions in their faces. What was she doing there? Who were her people?
End of Excerpt