Authors: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women
Ruling out Ginger Rogers’s cloche.
Meg tried again. “The earrings really aren’t castoffs. They’re valuable pieces of antiquity.”
“Can you pay your bill or not, Miz Koranda?”
Meg tried to come up with a response but couldn’t.
“I guess that answers the question.” Ted gestured toward the desk phone. “Is there somebody you can call? I sure would hate to have to take you across the street.”
She didn’t believe him for a moment. He’d love nothing more than to book her himself. He’d probably even volunteer to do the strip search.
Bend over, Miz Koranda.
She shivered, and Ted offered up that slow smile, as if he’d read her mind.
Birdie displayed her first show of enthusiasm. “I have an idea. I’d be more than happy to talk to your father for you. Explain the situation.”
I’ll just bet you would.
“Unfortunately, my father is out of reach right now.”
“Maybe Miz Koranda could work it off,” Ted said. “Didn’t I hear you were short a maid?”
“A maid?” Birdie said. “Oh, she’s way too
to clean hotel rooms.”
Meg swallowed hard. “I’d be . . . happy to help you out here.”
“You’d better think this through,” Ted said. “What are you paying, Birdie? Seven—seven-fifty an hour? Once Uncle Sam gets his share—and assuming she works a full shift—that’s a couple weeks’ work. I doubt Miz Koranda could handle cleaning bathrooms for that long.”
“You have no idea what Miz Koranda can handle,” Meg said, trying to look much tougher than she felt. “I’ve been on a cattle drive in Australia and hiked the Annapurna circuit in Nepal.” Only ten miles of it, but still . . .
Birdie lifted her penciled eyebrows and exchanged a look with Ted that they both seemed to understand. “Well . . . I do need a maid,” Birdie said. “But if you think you can work off your bill by loafing around, you’re in for an unhappy surprise.”
“I don’t think that at all.”
“All right, then. Do your job, and I won’t press charges. But if you try to skip out, you’ll find yourself in the Wynette City Jail.”
“Fair enough,” Ted said. “I only wish all disputes could be solved so peacefully. It’d be a better world, now wouldn’t it?”
“It sure would,” Birdie said. She turned her attention back to Meg and pointed toward the door behind the desk. “I’ll take you to meet Arlis Hoover, our head housekeeper. You’ll be working for her.”
“Arlis Hoover?” Ted said. “Damn, I forgot about that.”
“She was here when I took over the place,” Birdie said. “How could you forget?”
“I don’t know.” Ted dug a set of car keys from the pocket of his jeans. “I guess she’s just one of those people I try to put out of my mind.”
“Tell me about it,” Birdie muttered.
And with those ominous words, she led Meg from the lobby into the bowels of the hospitality industry.
mma traveler loved the creamy limestone ranch house she and Kenny shared with their three children. In the pasture beyond the live oaks, the horses grazed in contentment, and a mockingbird called from its perch on the newly whitewashed fence. Before long, the first peaches in their orchard would be ready for picking.
All but one member of the Wynette Public Library Rebuilding Committee had gathered around the pool for their Saturday afternoon meeting. Kenny had taken the children into town so the committee could conduct business without any interruptions, although Emma knew from long experience that no business could ever be conducted until each member, whose ages ranged from thirty-two to her own ancient forty, had finished discussing whatever happened to be on her mind.
“I’ve been saving for years to afford college for Haley, and now she doesn’t want to go.” Birdie Kittle tugged on her new Tommy Bahama suit, with its diagonal ruching to help camouflage her middle. Her daughter had graduated from Wynette High a few weeks earlier with straight As. Birdie couldn’t accept Haley’s insistence on attending the county community college in the fall instead of the University of Texas, just as she couldn’t accept her looming fortieth birthday. “I was hopin’ you could talk some sense into her, Lady Emma.”
As the only child of the long-deceased fifth Earl of Woodbourne, Emma was entitled to the honorific “Lady” but never used it. That, however, hadn’t stopped the entire population of Wynette—minus Emma’s children and Francesca—from addressing her as “Lady” no matter how many times she’d pleaded with them not to. Even her own husband did it. Unless, of course, they were in bed, in which case . . .
Emma struggled not to drift into an X-rated reverie. She was a former teacher, a longtime member of the board of education, the town’s cultural director, and president of the Friends of the Wynette Public Library, so she was accustomed to questions about other people’s children. “Haley is quite bright, Birdie. You’ll have to trust her.”
“I don’t know where she got her brains because it sure wasn’t from her ex-father or me.” Birdie polished off one of the lemon bars that Patrick, the Travelers’ longtime housekeeper, had put out for the group.
Shelby Traveler, who was both Emma’s friend and, at thirty-seven, her very young mother-in-law, slipped a floppy sun hat over her ex-sorority girl’s blond bob. “Look on the bright side. She wants to keep living at home. I couldn’t wait to get away from my mother.”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Birdie swiped at the crumbs on her bathing suit. “If Kyle Bascom was going to U.T. instead of County Community, Haley’d be packing her suitcases for Austin right now. And he doesn’t even know she’s alive. I can’t stand the idea of one more Kittle woman throwing away her future for a man. I tried to get Ted to talk to her—you know how much she respects him—but he said she’s old enough to make her own decisions, which she’s not.”
They looked up as Kayla Garvin hurried around the corner of the house, the top of her two-piece swimsuit generously displaying the implants her father had bought her several years ago in hopes she could lure Ted into joining the Garvin family. “Sorry I’m late. New arrivals at the shop.” She wrinkled her nose, showing her distaste for the clothing resale shop she ran part-time to keep herself busy, but her expression brightened when she saw that Torie hadn’t shown up. Even though Torie was a close friend, Kayla didn’t like being around anyone whose body was as good as her own, not when she was wearing a swimsuit.
Today, Kayla had piled her blond hair into a fashionably unkempt knot on top of her head and wrapped a white lace sarong low on her hips. As usual, she wore full makeup and her new pavé diamond star necklace. She settled on the chaise next to Emma. “I swear, if one more woman tries to pawn off another old lady Christmas sweater on me, I’m going to lock up that resale shop and go to work for you, Birdie.”
“Thanks again for helping me out last week. That’s the second time this month Mary Alice has called in sick.” Birdie moved her freckled legs out of the sun. “Even though I need the business, I’m glad the press has finally left town. They were like a bunch of crows, poking around in our business and making fun of the town. They dogged Ted everywhere.”
Kayla reached for her favorite MAC lip gloss. “I should be thankin’ you for letting me help out that day. I wish y’all had been there when Miss Hollywood started scrambling to pay her bill. ‘Do you know who I am?’ she says, like I’m supposed to start bowing.” Kayla slicked the wand over her lips.
“She’s got more attitude than anybody I’ve ever met.” Zoey Daniels wore a conservative one-piece nut brown bathing suit a few shades darker than her skin. Believing that African American women needed to be just as vigilant against sun damage as their pale sisters, she’d chosen to sit under one of the striped umbrellas.
At thirty-two, Zoey and Kayla were the youngest members of the group. Despite their differences—one was a fashion-obsessed blond beauty queen; the other the studious young principal of Sybil Chandler Elementary School—they’d been best friends since childhood. Barely five feet tall and slender, Zoey had short, natural hair, large golden-brown eyes, and an air of worry that had become more pronounced as class sizes had grown and budgets had been cut.
She tugged on a brightly colored stretchy bracelet strung with what seemed to be lumps of dried Play-Doh. “Just the sight of that girl depresses me. I can’t wait for her to leave town. Poor Ted.”
Shelby Traveler rubbed sunblock on the tops of her feet. “He’s being so brave about what happened. It just about breaks my heart.”
Ted was special to each of them. Birdie adored him, and he’d been in and out of Shelby’s house ever since she’d married Kenny’s father, Warren. Kayla and Zoey had both been in love with him, a serious test of their friendship. All Kayla would say about it these days was that those were the best six months of her life. Zoey just sighed and got depressed, so they’d stopped talking about it.
“Maybe it was jealousy that made her do it.” Zoey retrieved a copy of
Social Studies in Elementary School
that had fallen out of her book bag and stuffed it back in. “Either she didn’t want Lucy to have him, or she took one look at him and wanted him for herself.”
“We all know women who’ve gotten more than a little obsessive about Ted.” Shelby didn’t look at either Zoey or Kayla, but she didn’t have to. “I sure would like to know what she said to Lucy to convince her to call off the wedding.”
Kayla fiddled with her star necklace. “Y’all know how Ted is. Sweet to everybody. But not to Miss I’ve-Got-Famous-Parents.” Kayla shivered. “Who knew Ted Beaudine had a dark side.”
“It only makes him hotter.” Zoey gave another of her poignant sighs.
Birdie smirked. “Jake Koranda’s daughter is scrubbin’ my toilets . . .”
Emma pulled on her sun hat, a perky straw number. “It’s difficult for me to understand why her parents aren’t helping her.”
“They’ve cut her off,” Kayla said firmly. “And it’s not hard to figure out why. Meg Koranda is on drugs.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Zoey said.
“You always want to think the best of everybody,” Kayla retorted. “But it’s clear as anything. I’ll bet her family finally decided they’d had enough.”
This was exactly the kind of gossip Emma most disliked. “Best not to start rumors we can’t prove,” she said, even though she knew she was wasting her breath.
Kayla readjusted her bikini top. “Make sure your cash drawer is locked up tight, Birdie. Drug addicts will steal you blind.”
“I’m not worried,” Birdie said smugly. “Arlis Hoover’s keeping an eye on her.”
Shelby made the sign of the cross, and they all laughed.
“Perhaps you’ll get lucky and Arlis will take a job at the new golf resort.”
Emma had meant to be funny, but a silence fell over the group as each of them pondered how the proposed golf resort and condo complex could change her life for the better. Birdie would have her tearoom and bookstore, Kayla would be able to open the upscale fashion boutique she dreamed of, and the school system would get the extra revenue Zoey yearned for.
Emma exchanged a look with Shelby. Her young mother-in-law would no longer have to watch her husband deal with the stress of being the only large employer in a town where too many were jobless. As for Emma herself . . . She and Kenny had enough money to live comfortably, regardless of what happened with the golf resort, but so many of the people they cared about didn’t, and the well-being of their hometown meant everything to them.
Emma, however, didn’t believe in moping. “Golf resort or not,” she said briskly, “we need to discuss how we’re going to find the money to get our library repaired and back in operation. Even with the insurance check, we’re still miserably short of what we need.”
Kayla refastened her blond topknot. “I can’t stand having another stupid bake sale. Zoey and I did enough of that in junior high.”
“Or a silent auction,” Shelby said.
“Or a car wash or a raffle.” Zoey swatted at a fly.
“We need something big,” Birdie said. “Something that will attract everybody’s attention.”
They talked for another hour, but no one could come up with a single idea about what that might be.
Arlis Hoover pointed a stubby finger toward the bathtub Meg had just scrubbed for the second time. “You call that clean, Miss Movie Star? I don’t call that clean.”
Meg no longer bothered pointing out she wasn’t a movie star. Arlis knew that very well. Exactly why she kept repeating it.
Arlis had dyed black hair and a body like gnawed gristle. She fed off a permanent sense of injustice, certain that only bad luck separated her from wealth, beauty, and opportunity. She listened to wacko radio shows as she worked, shows that proved Hillary Clinton had once eaten the flesh of a newborn child and that PBS was entirely funded by left-wing movie stars bent on giving homosexuals control of the world. Like they’d really want it.
Arlis was so mean that Meg suspected even Birdie was a little afraid of her, although Arlis did her best to curb her more psychotic impulses when she was around her employer. But she saved Birdie money by getting the most out of a tiny housekeeping staff, so Birdie left her alone.