Read The Wedding Circle Online

Authors: Ashton Lee

The Wedding Circle

Praise for
The Cherry Cola Book Club
“If Fannie Flagg and Jan Karon's Mitford were to come together, the end result might very well be Cherico, Mississippi. Ashton Lee has created a magical town with characters who will inspire readers and bring them back to a simpler time and place. With both humor and moving passages, Lee has captured the quirkiness and warm-hearted people of the small-town south to a ‘T.' Fix yourself a cherry Coke and savor this fun and moving book.”
—Michael Morris, author of
Man in the Blue Moon
and
A Place Called Wiregrass
“Down-home and delicious,
The Cherry Cola Book Club
combines everything we love about Southern cuisine, small-town grit and the transformative power of books.”
—Beth Harbison,
New York Times
best-selling author
“Lee's buoyant David-versus-Goliath tale zestfully illuminates a real problem confronting libraries and cities of all sizes.”
—
Booklist
 
Praise for
The Reading Circle
 
“Charm, wit and a cast of characters so real they could be your next-door neighbors make
The Reading Circle
a surefire winner. Ashton Lee's authentic Southern voice shines in the latest addition to the Cherry Cola Book Club.”
—Peggy Webb,
USA Today
best-selling author
“Lee has crafted another pleasurable and diverting tale.”
—
RT Book Reviews
 
And praise for
The Wedding Circle
 

The Wedding Circle
is the perfect completion of librarian Maura Beth's adventures. I have loved immersing myself in the charm of Cherico's small town doings and feel as if all the characters are people I know well. What a happy read!”
—Gloria Loring, singer, actress and author
Books by Ashton Lee
THE CHERRY COLA BOOK CLUB
 
THE READING CIRCLE
 
THE WEDDING CIRCLE
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
The Wedding Circle
ASHTON LEE
KENSINGTON BOOKS
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
In loving memory of my cousin
Ann Hampton Coleman
1947–2014
Acknowledgments
This series continues to be a pleasure to create. The cast of characters who assist me in New York is phenomenal. My agents, Christina Hogrebe and Meg Ruley, constantly help me fine-tune my drafts and give me superb literary advice. My editor at Kensington Books, John Scognamiglio, has been an inspiration to me from the time we signed the contract. The support he and his staff give me keeps me focused on producing the most polished manuscripts possible. I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the foreign rights division of The Jane Rotrosen Agency for placing the series in Poland and Turkey. I get the biggest kick out of knowing that Europeans are sitting down and reading about the adventures of my Deep South characters. Also: Thanks to my cousin Bruce Kuehnle, Jr. for clarifying several legal points that have arisen in the series. To my sister-in-law, Nancy Carhart, for her crafts input. And to Gail Healy, Lucianne Wood, and Sissy Eidt: May I express my sincere gratitude for your delicious Southern recipes at the back of this novel. These ladies define Southern hospitality. Finally, to all the librarians around the country who have connected with me so positively about my heroine, Maura Beth Mayhew, cheering for her throughout every installment: I can assure you that Maura Beth loves you right back.
1
Baby Bumps and Wedding Woes
M
aura Beth Mayhew was not going to let it happen again. Not a single member of The Cherry Cola Book Club would deter her from her mission this time. After all, it was beyond inexcusable to keep a literary giant like Eudora Welty on the backburner any longer—waiting in the wings like an unproven ingénue with only a few lines to make an impression on her opening-night audience. The standing ovation notices had been in for ages.
“No, ladies and gentlemen,” Maura Beth continued playfully, lifting her chin and shaking her auburn curls for extra emphasis as she stood behind the podium in The Cherico Library, “the time has come to tackle
The Robber Bridegroom
. We've honored Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee, among our female legends. It's only fitting that we now pay homage to an icon like Miss Welty. So, let's open our doors wide for Eudora, shall we?”
There was plenty of gentle laughter and head nodding among all those in attendance, followed by unanimous approval of the previous proposal to make
The Robber Bridegroom
the club's next classic Southern read. Maura Beth was pleased that all the regulars had shown up for this midsummer meeting in her cramped little library still smelling of fresh paint from the recent spring storm damage repairs. Most importantly, the big hole that a direct lightning strike had ripped open in the roof had been patched, even if some of the thoroughly soaked children's books had yet to be replaced. But at least the musty odors and the unsightly stains had been vanquished, and some semblance of normalcy had been restored to the outdated facility tucked away at 12 Shadow Alley.
Maura Beth took a cleansing breath and happily surveyed the audience sitting before her in the makeshift semicircle of folding chairs. Then she began making her mental notes.
Miss Voncille Nettles and her widower beau, Locke Linwood, had recently announced their wedding plans and were still holding hands like smitten teenagers, even though they were both on the verge of entering their seventies. There was no mistaking their fondness for each other, nor the extent to which the prickly, but still handsome, Miss Voncille had thawed and mellowed in the face of Locke's gentlemanly ardor. Ah, the transformative power of love!
Maura Beth's folksy girlfriend and owner of The Twinkle Twinkle Café, Periwinkle Lattimore, seemed to have recovered nicely from her ill-fated, second-chance dalliance with her manipulative ex-husband, Harlan; furthermore, she and her accomplished pastry chef, Mr. Parker Place—who had not come with her, however—had been spotted shopping and running other errands together around town. No one had yet perceived them as an “item” exactly, but it was obvious that they had become very friendly coworkers at the town's most popular restaurant. Rumor had it that he had even begun sharing cooking duties with Periwinkle to lighten her load in the kitchen, and no one thought she would ever delegate an enormous responsibility like that. Not where her fantastically successful Twinkle was concerned!
Maura Beth had now reserved a special corner in her temple of gratitude for wealthy retirees Connie and Douglas McShay, who were sitting directly in front of her. It was they who had generously donated part of their extensive acreage on Lake Cherico for the construction of the brand-new, state-of-the-art library that Maura Beth and Nora Duddney had managed to wangle out of the always scheming Councilman Durden Sparks. Only the three of them would ever know the truth behind his decision to pony up for the much-needed upgrade. As far as the general public was concerned, Councilman Sparks was the genuine hero in the proposition, donating the funds out of the civic-minded goodness of his heart. What wonders a little holding of feet to the fire over misappropriated funds had wrought!
Then Maura Beth turned her attention to Becca and Justin Brachle, respectively, the town's local radio show chef and real-estate tycoon. By now everyone in Cherico knew that they were expecting their first child. Imagine that—Becca “Broccoli” Brachle and her “Stout Fella,” as she had nicknamed him, were going to become parents after ten years of wedded but childless bliss! That is, minus his “too-young-to-have-one” heart attack episode as a frightening reminder that life was indeed short.
And suddenly it dawned on Maura Beth why everyone had been so eager to approve the club read for the August meeting and get all the other official club matters resolved so quickly. That fawning cluster surrounding the Brachles the moment they had entered the library—including the wealthy spinster Crumpton sisters, Mamie and Marydell—was all about soliciting updates on Becca's pregnancy. Among the favored topics in small towns like Cherico, Mississippi, which women were expecting and how they were doing with their morning sickness and weight gain surely fascinated the greatest number of people. So, best not to keep them all waiting any longer. Time to retire to the long buffet table groaning with gumbo, chicken spaghetti, tomato aspic, baked custard, and chocolate cherry cola sheet cake, followed by the effortless socializing that had become the trademark of The Cherry Cola Book Club. True to form, it did not take long for the genteel inquisition to begin.
“I see you're not showing yet, dear,” Mamie Crumpton said, in between bites of jalapeño cornbread. As usual, Mamie was overdressed for the occasion—her significant cleavage stuffed into an iridescent gown far better suited to an evening at Theater Memphis. Always trying to be the center of attention was, of course, her signature character trait. “You must be one of those lucky women who just don't put on a lot of weight. I had a first cousin like that. Why, the day Marcella Louise was about to pop, you wouldn't have even guessed it. As I recall, she didn't even have to wear maternity clothes. Must have saved a fortune!”
“Oh, it's a bit too soon for me, Miz Crumpton,” Becca said, her petite figure still truly intact. “I'm not even out of my first trimester yet. But I'm looking forward to my baby bump all the same. After all this time, it's well worth the wait.”
“Otherwise we're doin' just fine,” Justin added, towering over her with his big frame and smiling the way expectant fathers do. Then he gestured in her general direction with his thumb and firmly set his jaw. “At least she is.”
Becca gave him an exasperated glance and shook her pretty blond head. “Please, Justin. Enough about your feet!”
The kibitzing Maura Beth was intrigued and moved closer with a smile. “What's this?”
Becca pointed her plastic fork at him accusingly before resting it on her paper plate. “Oh, he keeps claiming his feet feel like a thousand bees are stinging him all the time. I'm willing to bet it's those snakeskin cowboy boots he wears night and day. That's got to be what's doing it. The snakes are getting their revenge!”
Justin looked unconvinced as he glanced down quickly. “Then how come when I take them off, my feet feel even worse? You know I've even been having trouble sleeping because of it.”
Becca shrugged, flicking her wrist dismissively. “Okay, then we'll ask Dr. Healy about it when I go for my next visit.”
“Now, what does your obstetrician know about feet?” he continued. “Unless they're tiny baby feet that show up in a sonogram. Seems like I was born wearin' a clunky size fourteen.”
The group that had gathered around the Brachles was chuckling, and Becca said, “He's paying the price for all that line dancing he did all those years out at the Marina Bar and Grill with the boys.”
Justin immediately did a passable imitation of taking offense. “Hey, there's nothin' wrong with a little boot-scootin' boogie now and then!”
With one question from Periwinkle, however, the focus of the gathering changed from the Brachles to Maura Beth herself. “That cute Jeremy of yours couldn't make it down tonight, honey?”
“Afraid not,” she explained, barely able to disguise her disappointment. “He's up in Nashville packing for the big move in a few days. He's also getting rid of a lot of his bachelor guy things right and left. I pretty much told him he had to. For instance, he's hung this actual airplane propeller on the wall over his bed. Don't ask me where he got it. Anyway, he explained—and these were his exact words—that it was symbolic of his ability to rev up his engine. I told him straight out, ‘I can vouch for the fact you definitely don't need that anymore, big boy!' and we both had a good laugh. But the truth is, until we move into a bigger place after the wedding, all the space we've got is inside that little efficiency of mine on Clover Street, and believe me, that's about as cramped as it gets.”
“Couldn't y'all have timed things a little better?” Periwinkle continued.
“His lease expired, and we haven't been able to find anything suitable down here yet. So my place will have to do for the time being.”
Then Periwinkle gave her a sideways, skeptical glance and folded her arms. “And how are your parents down there in Louisiana taking this early move in part? Or have you even told 'em about it?”
“I did tell them, and maybe I shouldn't have,” Maura Beth said. “They're still giving me lots of flak about everything.”
It was hard to imagine her socialite parents, William and Cara Lynn Mayhew, being less thrilled about her announced forthcoming wedding to Jeremy McShay. Actually, it was her imperious mother who had kept up the disdain in phone call after phone call once she had learned about the engagement: “Maura Beth, here you are making next to nothing as a librarian in that redneck town in the middle of nowhere, and you're going to compound that mistake by marrying a high-school English teacher? They make even less than you do. I can see it now—your father and I will have to send you money all the time so you can make ends meet. Of course, we'll be glad to do it, but is that the kind of future you really want? All of this is so far beneath you.”
“Thanks for that huge bouquet of support, Mama,” Maura Beth had stated as evenly as possible. She knew it was useless to do anything more than serve up a huge helping of sarcasm, but she would have given anything for a sunnier exchange every once in a while.
Then there was the issue of Connie and Douglas McShay, Jeremy's generous aunt and uncle, hosting the wedding at their lodge on Lake Cherico. Cara Lynn had immediately recoiled in horror at the prospect of her only daughter not reciting her vows at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church down in New Orleans, followed by the proper, seated gourmet dinner and reception at the terribly exclusive, live oak–shaded Three-Hundred Club.
Here, Cara Lynn Mayhew had risen up like a cobra about to strike, practically hissing through the phone: “Really, Maura Beth! Your father and I thought this rebellious phase of yours would peter out eventually—this wanting to be a drab little librarian to amuse yourself by shelving books and shushing other people's children. But we fully expected you to come back to us for your birthright. You're a Mayhew—a New Orleans Mayhew, one of the finest Uptown names. Not to mention my family, the State Street Danforths. I'm just glad your grandparents aren't alive for this. You deserve better than standing among those strangers at some tacky fishing lodge for that special moment in your life!”
Somehow, Maura Beth had managed to hold her temper and had even offered an olive branch. “Mama, they're not strangers. They're all my friends. And the McShays' home on the water is just lovely. Just think of Lake Cherico as a little Lake Pontchartrain without the sailboats. But Jeremy and I have discussed it, and we're willing to postpone the wedding until you've had a chance to come up here to Cherico and meet him and his family. They're all very nice, cultured, educated people, I can assure you. Besides, you've never once bothered to actually come and see what my life is like up here. Will you at least do that much for me?”
Maura Beth came out of her reverie, revealing to Periwinkle and all the other members of The Cherry Cola Book Club the outcome of that particular conversation. “I don't know how I did it, but I convinced my parents to come to
The Robber Bridegroom
review and meet all of you. After that, God willing, we'll be able to finalize our wedding plans, and I will have made peace with my family.”
Connie McShay did not appear to be taking these latest revelations very well, the worry clearly showing in the lines around her eyes. “Oh, Maura Beth, Douglas and I don't want to be the cause of friction between yourself and your parents. You know we'll be happy to withdraw our offer to host your wedding in an instant. Just say the word.”
“That's very understanding of you, but it won't solve the real problem here,” Maura Beth returned, sounding fiercely determined. “I've got to face my parents once and for all about the choices I've made for my life. They've got to understand that I don't necessarily value the same things that they do. It seems we've been at odds with each other for the longest time, and whenever I want to see them, I have to go down there. Maybe we can't resolve anything after it's all said and done, but I've got to give it at least one last try.”
Miss Voncille offered up an odd little chuckle as she leaned into Locke Linwood and gave him an affectionate glance. “If it's not the parents causing all the trouble, it's the children.”
Locke slowly shook his head of thick gray hair, looking suddenly forlorn. “What Voncille is referring to are my two very opinionated, grown children. At first we thought we had their blessing for our wedding, but everything seems to have fallen apart these last couple of weeks. First, my daughter, Carla, has had second thoughts. My son, Locke, Jr., in particular, is getting all bent out of shape about my getting married so soon after his mother's death. I told him, ‘Son, it's been over two years, and whether you believe it or not, this is something your mother would want for me. I told him I wasn't going to argue any further and that Voncille and I intended to get married with or without his approval. He's making noises like he and his wife won't even be attending the wedding. Can you imagine that—after all I've done for him— sending him to law school and giving them the down payment for their big house over there in the Delta?”

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