Authors: Gail Oust
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Lightning can strike twice.
Jessica Faust and Anne Brewer,
you're the best!
It takes a village, or in this case a publishing house, to turn a manuscript into the finished product. To all the talented people who work behind the scenesâeditor, copy editor, production editor, publicist, compositor, and sales teamâmy sincere thanks for all you do on my behalf. Lea Shaw, thank you for speaking brisket to me when
Kill 'Em with Cayenne
was still a mustard seed of an idea. To the hosts of the Savannah Point Pig Roast, thanks for introducing me to Southern cuisine and the notion of a butt rubbin' party. Most of all my humble gratitude to my readers, old and new, who have taken the time from their busy lives to tell me they enjoy my stories. I appreciate each and every one of you. Last, but not least, thanks to my husband, Bob, who enriches my life in so many ways.
HANGE IS A
good thing, right?”
I wasn't quite sure how to respond to my BFF's question. Sometimes change wasn't either good or bad, it was just change. And I ought to know. Ask anyone in Brandywine Creek, Georgia, and they'll tell you Piper Prescott was the Queen of Change. Not only had I divorced the low-down lying skunk I'd been married to for over twenty years, but I traded being a country club wife for proprietress of a fledging business, Spice It Up!, in a building older than Methuselah. Since a certain cute veterinarian arrived on the scene, I'd also abandoned all thoughts of entering a convent in order to avoid further contact with the opposite sex. When it came to change, I could write a book.
“Well, girl, don't just stand there; say somethin'?” Reba Mae pirouetted in front of me. “Do you like my new do or don't you?”
I set aside the yogurt I'd been eating before Reba Mae burst through the door. Reba Mae owned and operated the Klassy Kut. “The best little ol' beauty shop in the South,” as she liked to tell folks. One of her favorite pastimes was changing hair color. “It's s-soÂ â¦ soÂ â¦ black,” I stammered.
She smoothed her fringe of bangs. “The box called it Bewitched.”
Canting my head, I studied the transformation more closely. Yesterday she'd sported magenta locks. Today her hair was dark as a raven's wing. Regardless of her adventures in Crayola-land, Reba Mae Johnson is a striking woman. At five foot seven, she towered over my petite five foot two even without the high heels she favors. Platforms, wedges, stilettos, bring 'em on.
“Bewitched, eh? If I meet up with Dracula, I'll tell him where to find you.”
“Seriously, hon, is it too much?” she asked.
“No, no,” I said. “It's edgyÂ â¦ striking.” The style with its shaggy bangs, cheek-hugging wisps, and mold to the nape was sort of punk-meets-pixie.
“I was aimin' for sophisticated.”
Sophisticated? You could cut my tongue out before I'd tell her she'd missed her target by a country mile. Reba Mae, bless her heart, was about as “sophisticated” as Minnie Pearl. She'd once confessed over margaritas that the only time she'd ever left Georgia was to attend a stylist convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Call me a snob, but family vacations on pristine beaches aside, I have trouble equating a place that hosts a biannual Bike Week with cosmopolitan. Harley-Davidson gear is hardly my notion of haute couture.
“It's just going to take some getting used to, is all.”
“Reba Mae? That you?” We turned to see Maybelle Humphries, manager of the Brandywine Creek Chamber of Commerce, push through the door. “Why, I didn't recognize you,” Maybelle gushed. “That new look of yours puts me in mind of a gypsy.”
“Gypsyâ¦?” Reba Mae looked crestfallen. “I thought it made me look chic.”
“âChic,' that's the word I wanted,” Maybelle hurriedly corrected herself as I tried to hide a smile. “I always admire your sense of style, Reba Mae. You're never afraid to experiment. Take me for instance. I've worn my hair this way since high school.”
In Maybelle's case, change might be just the ticket. Her salt-and-pepper bob looked like a do-it-yourself scissor job over a bathroom sink. Maybelle was sweet as they come but outwardly as plain as vanilla pudding.
“Fess up, Piper,” Reba Mae said. “Aren't you even a teensy bit tempted to try a new look? With your fair skin and green eyes, you'd make a fabulous blonde.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” I tucked a wayward red curl behind one ear and changed the subject. “What brings you here, Maybelle?”
“These are hot off the press.” She plunked a pile of brochures on the counter next to my antique cash register. “It's that time of year againâthe Annual Brandywine Creek Barbecue Festival. Mayor Hemmings wants all you merchants to pass out flyers to customers.”
Picking one up, I read it out loud, “âBlues concert, street dance, fireworks, shag contest.'”
Reba Mae's eyes lit up. “Shag contest?”
Maybelle nodded. “The mayor persuaded the town council to approve funds for a shag club in Myrtle Beach to come and show us how it's done.”
“Sign me up,” I said. “I've always wanted to learn how to dance the shag.”
Reba Mae perched on the counter and swung one long leg over the other. “The shag's considered the official dance of South Carolina. I learned the basic steps years ago, but could stand a refresher course.”
“According to the brochure the group sent, it's a cross between swing dancing and the jitterbug,” Maybelle said.
Reaching for the half-finished yogurt, I scooped up a spoonful. I felt proud of myself for adding crystallized ginger to the granola topping I concocted. It added a sweet, citrusy note. “Are you entering the cook-off this year?” I asked Maybelle.
“The Chamber's kept me so busy, I haven't had time to perfect a decent Cajun-style rub.”
“As long you're here, Maybelle, take a look around. I got a new shipment of chili powders that might inspire you. Feel free to browse.”
“I'll do just that.” She took one of the little wicker baskets I kept on the counter for customers' use and wandered off.
Reba Mae glanced at the regulator clock on the wall. “Wish I had time to browse, but I got highlights waitin' on me.”
She'd no sooner left when two gentlemen I'd never seen before strolled into Spice It Up! The pair paused just inside the door. They stood there, unsmiling, for such a protracted moment that I began to feel jittery. Who were they? The board of health? Had someone reported me for keeping a dog on the premises? I darted a look over my shoulder and sighed with relief. Casey, the little mutt I'd rescued, snoozed peacefully behind the baby gate erected across the storeroom. Casey's bladder was worse than his bite. His most serious offense thus far was peeing on a customer's very expensive Ferragamo sandal. In my humble opinion, it couldn't have happened to a more deserving person.
At last, the taller of the men strode forward and stuck out his hand. “Tex Mahoney.”
I set my now empty yogurt carton on the counter. Before returning the handshake, I swiped my hands down the sides of my sunny yellow apron with “Spice It Up!” embroidered over a red chili pepper. “Piper Prescott.”
“Nice place you have, ma'am.” The man's deep voice had a definite twang that suited his rough-and-tumble appearance. He was tall, rawboned, with a weather-beaten face and mop of brown hair gone mostly gray. The elaborate silver belt buckle he wore was befitting a rodeo champ. Only things missing to complete his Western ensemble were spurs and a six-shooter.
“Thank you, Mr. Mahoney,” I said. “Are you in town for the barbecue festival?”
“Yes, ma'am, I am. And, please, everyone calls me Tex.”
“Are you looking for anything in particular, Tex? You'll see that I carry a wide range of spices. Everything from
The second man stepped closer. “Zâ¦?”
for zedoary, also called white turmeric,” I said to Mr. Fancy Dresser. “In its powdered form, zedoary is a common addition to curries.”
“I'm impressed,” he said with a thin-lipped smile. “The lady knows her spices.” The complete opposite of his companion, this man was a natty dresser in a striped short-sleeved button-down dress shirt with a horsey logo and dark pants with a razor-sharp crease. He had a sturdy, compact build, eyes the color of mud, and a gleaming bald head.
“My livelihood depends on it, Mr.â¦” He reminded me of an actor, but I couldn't recall a name to go with the face. Maybe Yul Brynner, the star of one of my favorite musicals,
The King and I
? No, I decided with a shake of the head, not Yul. The name would come to meÂ â¦ eventually.
“Porter.” He extended his hand. “Wally Porter, certified master barbecue judge.”
We shook hands. I noticed his were smooth, callus-free, the nails buffed. “Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Did I hear someone say âbarbecue judge'?” Maybelle asked, coming out from behind a row of freestanding shelves. Shame on me, I'd forgotten Maybelle was in the shop browsing. Not to be be mean, but the woman had that kind of effect on people.
“Yes, you did,” Wally said, turning to Maybelle.
Tex gave her a warm smile and, taking her basket, peeked at the contents. “I reckon you must be a mighty fine cook judging by your choice of spices.”
Maybelle looked flustered in the machismo-charged atmosphere, so I proceeded with the introductions. “Maybelle not only runs the Chamber of Commerce with the precision of a Swiss clock, but she's one of the finest cooks in the county.”
Embarrassment turned Maybelle's usually sallow complexion into a becoming shade of pink. “Piper's too kind,” she said, dismissing the compliment with a wave of her hand. “I take it you two gentlemen are well acquainted?”
“Our paths cross from time to time on the circuit,” Wally explained.
“Are you one of the judges, too?” Maybelle asked Tex.
“No, ma'am. I'd druther be on the cookin' end than the judgin'. I'm always experimentin' with various rubs and sauces. Tryin' to find the perfect combination of spices.”