Authors: Beth Albright
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance
Meet the Sassy Belles.
They’re strong as a mint julep, sweet as peach cobbler, and
no matter what, they stick together.
There are only two seasons in Tuscaloosa—football and
waiting-for-football. When Lewis Heart, football announcer and voice of the
Crimson Tide, vanishes after an impromptu romp with Vivi Ann McFadden at the
Fountain Mist Motel, Vivi does what any Southern woman would do: call her best
friend, Blake O’Hara Heart, attorney-at-law.
With the town gossip swirling around them, Vivi and Blake are
determined to find out what happened to Lewis and clear Vivi’s reputation.
Because after all, men may come and go, but the Sassy Belles are forever.
fallen in love with such sexy, strong and hilarious Southern women. So grab your
best girlfriends and join these Belles on the first of many joyrides through the
For my mother, Betty, the original Sassy Belle, who pushed me
to keep writing, who believed in me no matter what I was trying to do. A little
piece of you is in every one of these women. They are smart and funny.
Motivating and warm, strong and wise, beautiful and stubborn, they are the heart
of all I admired in you. And you were the heart of my childhood. Not only my
mother, but my very best friend, you loved me into my potential. I am so
grateful. You are the wind beneath my wings. I love you more than any words can
say. This is all for you.
For Brooks and Ted, my universe.
y name is Blake O’Hara Heart and,
boy, do I have a story to tell! It wouldn’t be such a story if Vivi, my best
friend since forever, hadn’t done what she did. You have to understand that
women in the South, women of Southern blood, just don’t partake in scandalous
adventures—and when we do, it’s in a discreet manner. We have reputations to
consider, after all. But since Vivi’s trouble became headline news, our lives
became anything but discreet. I’m an attorney, and even
wasn’t sure I could get her out of this one.
When I met Vivi in the third grade, we were silly
nine-year-olds in ponytails and Catholic school uniforms. She was exciting and
confident. I loved her immediately. I was new to St. Catherine’s, Tuscaloosa’s
Catholic academy, and didn’t know a soul. Vivi made a beeline across the room,
her pale and freckled arm outstretched. “Hi,” she said. “My name is Vivi Ann
McFadden. I’ll take care of you today and make sure you don’t get lost. This is
my fourth year here including kindergarten. So, I’m an expert.” I loved her
self-assurance, outspokenness and all that crazy, wild red hair, which she was
constantly pushing from her face.
She took care of me that day, it’s true. But from eight o’clock
the very next morning I have been taking care of her. I always want to protect
her, but she makes that difficult. Her huge messes are almost always of her own
making. Luckily for both of us, I’ve always known how to get her out of jail, so
to speak. But this particular instance, on this particular day—well, let’s just
say she must think I’m a miracle worker.
See, the problem is, in Alabama, women are most
definitely…women. Vivi—well, some would call her opinionated. Others would say,
“Bless her heart, that girl is just a redneck!” That’s a little secret of the
South: you can say awful and insulting things about anyone, and as long as you
start with “Bless her heart” you’re not really gossiping. Like, “Bless her
heart, that girl looks like a pregnant heifer in that dress.” See? That makes it
look like we’re so sad for her, when you know we really think otherwise. Women
from Alabama are strong—well, stubborn—and, above all, we are beautiful. There’s
nothing in the world a little spackle and Aqua Net won’t fix. We are trained by
way of the beauty pageant system. In the Deep South, pageants aren’t just fun,
they’re a way of life. With the heavy doll makeup applied to perfection, the big
hair jacked up to Jesus and the princess-cut, bedazzled gowns with full
crinoline and sometimes even a hoop skirt underneath—we are brought up to walk
the runway. And a proper Southern girl
strand of pearls around her neck. That way, if anyone ever needs to be
strangled, we have the perfect tool. Just remove and use.
But Vivi never quite fit into the
of it all. Her frizzy, wiry Irish curls and endless sea of
freckles made her a standout for all the wrong reasons. Her skin was so white
she was almost blue. But I thought she was beautiful. She had a wonderfully
infectious smile, straight, pearly white teeth, ruby-red lips that never needed
lipstick and I thought her green eyes were just perfect. Vivi was a real
Southern blue blood, too. She came from sugar cane. Really! An actual plantation
was part of her family history. And that made what Vivi did seem like the end of
the world. Someone from the “uppa crust” wouldn’t dare be involved in such
activities. But Vivi wasn’t quite as “uppa crust” as the rest of her family. I
mean, how could a blue blood be a redneck? That’s exactly what made me love her.
She was different. Unexpected. Surprising. What she did was a surprise, all
right, but not the kind you hope for on Christmas morning….
Harry, my husband and my law partner, was in the lobby of the
old Tutwiler Hotel when the news came. He was waiting to meet me. It was our
tenth anniversary and we were meeting for lunch. We did this every year; same
table, same bourbon-n-peach cobbler. I wasn’t looking as forward to this lunch
as I had been on other anniversaries, though. Harry and I had been having some
problems. Well, unless you don’t consider silence a problem. We had been growing
apart as he grew ever closer to his political dreams. With every step toward his
coveted Senate seat, he stepped farther away from me. My plan was to talk to him
during our lunch, to tell him that I’d had enough of his absentee husband
routine. I spent all morning gearing up to tell him that I was through with
being second to his career and his political dreams—it was time to focus on our
marriage, or I wanted a separation. Of course, I’d been a nervous wreck since
I’d opened my eyes that morning. But, lucky for me, I was saved by the belle…a
belle named Vivi.
I was running late that morning, which was basically on par for
me. I was stuck at the law school in an alumni meeting that was reaching into an
eternity. I was sure Harry stood patiently waiting, checking his pocket watch at
least once every 23 seconds, then glancing into the nearest mirror to check his
gorgeous hair. If there was a mirror within 20 yards, you’d find Harry looking
at himself—usually in admiration—but checking, always checking, for perfection.
Every thick strand of hair in place, gold cuff links hitting just at the hem of
his suit sleeves—down to the last detail, Harry liked to be in control. His cell
phone rang in his vest pocket. It was Vivi.
“Harry, where are you?” she said.
Now, Harry is rock-solid by anyone’s standards, by far the most
patient soul. His emotions are buried deep, like down near the Earth’s core.
But, as even-keeled as he is, Vivi could almost always manage to rattle his
cage. This phone call would shake Harry to his soul.
“I’m in the Tutwiler waiting on Blake,” he answered.
“Shit! I forgot it’s your anniversary,” she said. “Harry,
forgive me for this. I need Blake.”
“She’s at the university, Vivi. You okay?” Harry asked.
“Harry, I’m drivin’ and I don’t have a destination,” Vivi said
in her thick-as-molasses Southern voice. This wasn’t the typical Vivi call for
“Vivi, where are you?” he said.
“I don’t know. I’m just drivin’. When can I talk to Blake? When
will she be there?”
Harry was having trouble making sense of her words between her
frantic nonsense and the god-awful cell reception.
“Vivi, just tell me where you are and Blake and I will meet
you,” Harry said.
There was no response.
“Vivi! Vivi! Can you hear me?” Harry shouted. By this time,
he’d stepped outside onto the courtyard for a little more privacy once he
realized everyone in the lobby was staring at him for all the wrong reasons.
Vivi answered slow and sober. “Harry…I think I’ve just killed
“Harry? Did you hear me? Lewis is layin’ dead in the bed, buck
naked and blue, at the Fountain Mist on I20!” Vivi screamed.
Harry Heart came from a long line of legal counsel—defense
attorneys to be exact. Generations upon generations of Hearts were all
University of Alabama Law School graduates.
All except for Lewis. Lewis was Harry’s younger brother. He was
the wayward son who wound up on the radio. He was the play-by-play announcer for
the University of Alabama Crimson Tide; a partygoer so popular with the women,
he never married—never had to. All of his needs were met nightly by the
groupies, from cheerleaders to professors to coach’s wives. Lewis Heart was at
your service, so to speak.
Harry stood among the gardenia blossoms in the Tutwiler
courtyard, dumbfounded, wanting to utter something, but unable to make a sound.
Finally, he managed to ask, “Vivi, are you talkin’ ’bout
“Yes, dammit, Harry,” Vivi said. “Who the hell else? Oh, my
God, he’s dead. He’s dead, Harry! And I’ve killed him, I know it!”
“Stop, Vivi. Slow down,” Harry said. “Okay. Let me get Blake.
We’ll meet you at Mother’s.”
“I’m sittin’ in front of her house right now, Harry. I didn’t
know where else to go.”
* * *
Meredith Blakely Fletcher is my maternal grandmother and
the matriarch of everything. She is known affectionately as “Mother” to everyone
who knows her. Her house has always been the command center. At one time or
another it had been home to all of us, both friends and family alike. It became
known as “Mother’s” decades before I was even born.
Mother has a real rags-to-riches story. A young woman during
World War Two, she was born in the mud of the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by
money and old plantations, but never quite able to grasp it herself. She was
absolutely gorgeous, a movie-star type of beauty with dark, wavy hair and eyes
as blue-green as the Gulf. She worked at a five-and-dime during the war as a
cosmetic salesperson. One day a handsome young law student by the name of
Frank Fletcher came into the store and approached the lunch counter. Her
Southern beauty caught his Yankee eye and they were together for 41 years, until
his death twenty-one years ago. My New York–born grandfather always
bragged that he found a million-dollar baby in the five- and ten-cent store,
just like the song says.
Frank gave Meridee, as he affectionately called her,
everything: a big Southern home and the exciting life of a wealthy lawyer’s wife
in the late forties and fifties. Frank set up his practice and Meridee gave
birth to three children. She entertained with lavish parties for Frank’s clients
and two maids helped her care for her home and children. Meridee was the epitome
of a Southern blue blood, even though her blood had originally run plain ole
Eventually, after much success on his own, Frank Fletcher and
Hank Heart set up practice together. Yes, Hank is my Harry’s grandfather and,
no, mine was not an arranged marriage. They were affectionately known in
Tuscaloosa as Hank-n-Frank, Attorneys-at-Law. Go ahead and laugh now and get
that out of the way.
I remember as a child, Mother’s house was my favorite place to
be. Her bedroom was so full of the thick scent of perfumes that I can’t think of
her and not recall those fragrances. Her dressing table was a place of pure
fascination to a little girl. The French pink glass bottles and the powder she
had custom mixed to match her delicate skin tone made that table an island of
enchantment to me. And the silver makeup brushes were the wands of magical
transformations. Meridee wore black transparent stockings with seams running up
the back. Her long nails were always perfectly manicured and always matched her
endless array of bloodred lipsticks. I wanted to grow up to be just like
Mother’s was a stone’s throw from the law school, so it made
for a very convenient hangout. Frank was a huge success as an attorney, but on
Saturdays in the fall, you’d find him in the broadcast booth of the Alabama
Crimson Tide. Frank was the play-by-play announcer for the famous football team.
He was so proud of that. Our blood runs perfectly Crimson in
family. Their house was a place for everyone, and
Meridee made sure that all felt welcome. All my life, in any moment of crisis or
excitement, we always wound up at Mother’s. No surprise, it’s where we all wound
up on that day.
* * *
Harry drove like a bat out of hell over to Mother’s. He
later told me he knew it would be bad for his Senatorial run if he had gotten a
speeding ticket, but for once he didn’t think about the political dreams first.
When Harry got to Mother’s, he found Vivi sitting in her car,
gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead in a dazed stupor.
Harry had called me as he was driving to Mother’s. When I found
the ringing cell in my red leather Gucci bag and saw the caller ID announcing it
was Harry, I don’t know why, but I instantly suspected something awful. Harry
never sounds hurried or breathless. He is the consummate lawyer, always in
control. So when I answered the phone and heard his voice, I knew it
“Blake!” Harry sounded like he had been jogging. “Meet me at
“Harry, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Blake, just come now.” A silence. Then, “Lewis might be dead
and Vivi’s involved.”
I’m on my way.” He explained
all the details as I sped through town.
I don’t remember the drive over there. I don’t think I breathed
even once in the five minutes it took me to arrive at the familiar cracked
driveway. You had to angle your car just right to get in and out of it so as not
to bottom out. I wasn’t thinking of any angling as I ripped right in behind
Harry’s Mercedes and Vivi’s powder-blue convertible Thunderbird. Harry was
standing beside her car. The shock of what I’d just heard was stealing my
breath, but I knew they both needed me. I opened my car door and turned and
touched my high heels to the cement.
“Tell me again—what the hell happened?” I heard Harry say to
Vivi. “Go slow this time. I need every detail.”
The consummate lawyer. Even when his own brother could be dead,
Harry was in full lawyer mode.
“For God’s sake, Harry, you aren’t takin’ a freakin’ deposition
are you?” Vivi reacted in pure Vivi form. “Your damn brother, my lover, is dead,
Harry! Dead! Dead! Dead!”
Vivi is a tactless wonder. “I did it, but it was an accident! I
thought he was enjoying it. He was yellin’ and moanin’ and…Harry, he just
stopped,” she said. “I don’t know if I suffocated him or what, but oh, my God,
he’s dead!” She was crying and trembling, pushing the red, wiry frizz away from
By now, Harry was visibly shaken. He pulled off his wire-framed
glasses and dragged his long fingers through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. He
was in his late thirties, but if you keep yourself so bottled up all the time
you go gray before you know it. Harry was bottled
“Vivi,” he said slow and steady, “is Lewis still at the