Sweet Home Carolina: Sample

Sweet Home Carolina by Patricia Riceby Patricia Rice

One

“Take that, Dr. Evil!” Amy Warren pointed a wooden spoon at the currently offending appliance–her toaster oven. A small gray cloud of smoke swirled upward from its frying innards, filling her stainless steel kitchen with the acrid stench of burnt bread.

The microwave was already erratically blinking error messages, and the clock on the stove had permanently hovered on twelve since the day Evan had driven off with his tall, slender and gorgeous boss. But she didn’t need either appliance to bake her special croutons.

“I’ll zap your sorry behind into the ether and back again,” she muttered, referring to her uncanny ability to royally screw up electrical appliances.

But it was really Evan she’d like to zap into infinity. How predictable–the machine didn’t respond to her dire warnings any better than the man. The toaster oven still smoked.

“If I could fix anything, I’d fix my damned life.” With disgust, Amy used the wooden spoon to yank the oven’s cord out of the socket.

The wall phone rang and Amy grabbed it, praying it was her Dr. Evil-Ex telling her he would be early and had time to pick up a new toaster on the way up the mountain.

“Ames, sorry, but I–”

No wonder she couldn’t fix anything. She lived in la-la land if she still thought Evan would come through. She crossed her eyes and looked down her nose at the overflowing sink, hunting for a frying pan amid the clutter. “I trust you’re calling to say you’re picking up ice cream, and you’ll be here on time. Josh has been waiting for you all week.”

“I’m still at the office.” Losing his apologetic tone, Evan quickly went on the defensive. “It’s a new job. I’ve got to show them that I’m willing to do what it takes.”

“Evan, I have to be at the café in an hour. It’s Labor Day weekend, our last big moneymaker. There has to be food available for tourists to fling their plastic at.”

“My job is far more important than your sister’s little café. Leave the kids with your mother if you have to.”

“The kids can see Mom any day. They need to see you.” Using a pot holder, Amy yanked the charred croutons from the dead toaster oven. “How soon can you get here?” Propping the phone on her shoulder and waving a towel, she attempted to clear the air, literally if not metaphorically.

“I’ve got a dinner meeting this evening with some bigwigs who want me to attend a charity golf tournament in the morning. Tell the kids I’m sorry, and I’ll try again next weekend.”

Amy knew enough by now to recognize the lie in his voice. There had been a time when she’d meekly told herself she must be imagining his shallow selfishness. She no longer had to pretend that was true. “Tell me another, Big Boy. Hot Mama have tickets for a theater opening tonight?”

“Dammit, Ames, I have a life down here! Just because you want to hole up in the boondocks doesn’t mean I have to anymore.”

“Oh, and it’s my fault you had two kids and got stuck with this monster McMansion and had a job that paid well and meant something to the community when all you really wanted was to be a drone in the city, uh-huh.”

They’d had this argument so many times she could probably recite it backward. Come to think of it, it probably was her fault that Evan had made something of himself. On his own, he would still be droning his way up the corporate ladder, instead of possessing an executive office. She dumped the ruined croutons in the trash.

“You’re getting bitchy, Ames,” he warned. “You’re letting yourself go and reverting to your half-baked hippie days. Learn to play golf, fix yourself up, and you’ll find another man to pay your rent. Don’t take your frustration out on me.” He hung up.

Amy shoved an overlong lock of ash brown hair out of her eyes and scowled. A year ago, Evan’s comment would have cut her to the quick. She would have run to the mirror and stared at her flour-studded hair with dismay and wept her heart out.

Today, she saw her ex’s mean streak for the ego trip that it was. So, hooray for her side. She’d finally learned she’d spent too damned much of her life caring what Evan thought. Why bother explaining that perms, highlighting, and salon cuts cost more than two weeks’ groceries?

She despised perms and highlighting anyway, and she no longer had to care what he wanted.

She glanced around for a working timepiece and heard the grandfather clock in the foyer strike four. Sugar, shoot, dirty word.

Refraining from cursing for the kids’ sake hadn’t broadened her vocabulary, just made it more creative.

The phone rang again. She almost ignored the insistent clamor, but years of worrying about her mother’s health had her grabbing the receiver.

“Good news!” Marcy, the real estate agent, chirped. “I have a terrific prospect who loves your location. I’m bringing them out tonight.”

Amy slumped against the counter. She had all but forgotten the FOR SALE sign that had been in the front yard all summer. It had been weeks since anyone had even looked at the house. She’d given up chewing her fingernails at the thought of losing her beautiful home and started chewing her thumb in fear of bankruptcy. She ought to be jumping for joy, but panic took first place as she glanced around the chaos of the kitchen.

“What time are you coming?” she asked, turning on the hot water in the sink and searching for the scrubbing pad.

“I’ll wait until you’ve left for the Stardust. Probably around six. Make sure you leave all the interior lights on. I have a good feeling about this one.”

Amy tried not to wince as she hung up the receiver, but her stomach had just attempted a triple axel and plummeted to the ice. In an effort to de-stress, she punched the under-cabinet CD player to pop in her sister’s latest recording. The player opened, then immediately slammed shut before she could insert the disc.

“Dammit, my next house will run on kerosene!”

She already had her next house picked out, a wonderful cottage with character, not like this shiny mausoleum dedicated to a dead marriage. She simply needed to persuade the mill’s bankruptcy judge to take nada for it, and find a job that paid enough for her to fix it up.

Rolling her eyes at the fantasy, she resisted pounding her head against the polished cherry cabinet and dialed her mother to make arrangements for the children.

“Mommy, Josh is coloring on the walls!” Three-year-old Louisa bounced in from the family room, where she was supposed to be watching a video with her six-year-old brother.

Chunky and golden-haired like her father, Louisa reached up for a hug, and Amy’s heart nearly split in two. Frustrated, she wanted to stomp her feet and throw a tantrum. Instead, she reached down to give her girl a hug.

“Are we being a telltale?” she scolded gently, carrying her baby into the family room, where, sure enough, newly rebellious Josh had drawn stick figures in indelible red crayon on the apricot walls.

Reining in a cry of dismay, Amy closed her eyes and tried to put herself into his child-size nines. He was smart enough to know his father was skipping their visit–again. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn of the only home he’d ever known. And his mother was losing her mind. She was certain that Josh, somewhere in his very bright brain, had a reason for personalizing the walls.

When she opened her eyes again, he was scowling at her mutinously.

“Is that your daddy?” she asked.

“No, it’s Tommy, and I’m going to punch him.” Which he proceeded to do, intelligently wearing the boxing gloves Evan had given him.

“Tommy’s sad and acting out, just like you are.” She needed to pick up toys, clear smoke out of the kitchen, and boil cinnamon to add a welcoming scent to fool visitors into thinking this was a happy home. Maybe she should light a cinnamon candle, burn the house down, and save herself the effort of moving all these things that would never fit anywhere she could afford.

Of course, if not fitting in was the criteria, she’d have to go up in flames as well.

Amy stuck her tongue out at the oil painting over the mantel, where Evan’s golden image taunted her with its confident smirk. Perhaps the painting ought to be the first thing to go up in smoke. That woman sitting beside him, with the carefully highlighted, styled hair, the glossy lipstick, matching manicure, and pearls, wasn’t her any longer. She didn’t know who that woman was.

But the portrait of bright-eyed Josh and giggling baby Louisa was too precious to destroy. She was such a sap for babies.

“You’ll have to clean off that wall before we go,” she said with a sigh, giving up images of leaping flames.

She set Louisa down and patted her on her bottom, pushing her toward the sticker dolls scattered across the hand-loomed rug. “Pick up your toys so you can take them to Nana’s.”

Finding the strongest cleaning spray she dared let Josh use, she handed the bottle and a scrubbing sponge to her son. It wouldn’t clean crayon, but he had to be taught a lesson. She’d have to push the chair in front of the wall later until she could fix it. Miserably, he took the bottle, refusing to look at her.

Drawing on her experience as the kids’ short-order cook, she returned to the kitchen and threw bread cubes into the frying pan, dousing them with butter and basil.

So, what did it matter if she’d spent years of her life carefully choosing paints and sewing draperies for this bloody McMansion, locating the perfect antique pieces that she’d damned well refinished herself so she could stay within her budget. They were just things.

Evan and the house weren’t the real problems here. She was the one she blamed. She’d wasted a third of her life being the perfect wife and mother and housekeeper and had nothing practical to show potential employers. She could point at her two beautiful children and her lovely home, but how did that look on a résumé?

Losing her fight with tears, she wiped her eyes with the back of her arm. She knew her anger had nothing to do with the loss of a house, and everything to do with the loss of the self she’d thought she was.

Amy tossed the croutons, turned off the burner, and pulled the chickens from the oven. The smoke alarm screeched in panic.

* * *

Stomach still churning over an hour later at the café, Amy yanked the stuffed mushroom caps from the dead microwave and shoved the pan in the oven with the warming chickens. “Fine, tough toadstools it will be.”

“Tough toadstools is the story of our life,” Amy’s sister, Joella, half owner of the Stardust, said philosophically, tying on her Star of the Stardust Café apron over her flashy red hostess gown. “You’d think someday, one of those toadstools would have a pot of gold under it.”

As tall, blond, and flamboyant as Amy was petite, brown, and wholesome, Joella studied the pots and pans simmering on the stove, and clucked in disapproval. “No wonder you’re frying appliances. I know it’s Saturday, but how many customers do you realistically think we’ll have?”

Amy spun a pot lid on her finger before dropping it on the pot of creamed peas. “Not as many as you need to make a profit. Even I can see the writing on the wall.”

Jo tsked sympathetically. “Evan didn’t send the support payments yet?”

“Evan deserted the kids again this weekend.” Amy reached for an onion and whacked it with her butcher knife. “I hate being a cliché.” Onions gave her an excuse for tears, but she’d had her cry. Now she just wanted to whack things.

“He was never there when you were married. The kids won’t notice. It’s you I’m worried about. You walk around with a big black cloud over your head. I don’t suppose you’ve talked to a therapist.” Jo slipped a flask from her apron pocket, glanced furtively over her shoulder at their few early-bird customers, and twirled the cap.

“No, I have not.” Amy checked the rolls browning in the bottom oven. “I can’t afford a therapist. Evan’s job doesn’t supply medical insurance for ex-wives. Besides, I don’t need a therapist to tell me I’m stressed out and so angry I could spit.”

“Do what Jo does when she gets mad, throw dishes.” Jo’s husband and the other co-owner of the Stardust, Flint Clinton, emerged from his office to sniff the mouthwatering aromas. Taller than Jo, his craggy face more striking than handsome, Flint examined the roasted chickens. “What is this, Thanksgiving?”

“Can you fix microwaves, O Great Wise One?” Setting aside the flask, Jo steered her husband toward the broken appliance and out of Amy’s line of fire.

Not that Flint was in any danger from her, Amy thought. Jo was the plate-throwing diva in the family. As appealing as throwing things sounded, Amy was too practical to waste the energy of throwing crockery she’d only have to clean up afterward.

Amy had always been the responsible member of their irresponsible family. The sensible one who’d slaved hard to earn a scholarship and put herself through school. She’d been rewarded for her efforts by marrying an ambitious man who worked as hard as she did–and she worked harder still helping him up the ladder to success. All she’d accomplished was to make Evan look good to the kind of wealthy socialite he should have married in the first place.

Jo filled three glasses from her flask and shoved one into Amy’s hand, hiding it from their customers. “Until Flint persuades the town to go wet, this will have to do. It’s just lemonade with a little extra,” she said when Amy hesitated. “Call it an intervention. You need a break. Your pot is about to boil over.”

Grabbing the pot of peas from the stove, Amy set it to one side, then sipped Jo’s weird cocktail. She was perfectly aware Joella wasn’t referring to the peas. She grimaced as the sour punch hit her tongue.

Jo dipped the spoon in the dressing and offered a sample to Flint, who moaned appreciatively while investigating the insides of the microwave. “Mom and her quilting friends just took a big order. If they finish before Christmas, there will be money to spare and carols sung throughout the hills.”

Christmas. A hollow opened in Amy’s middle that would never be filled. She took another sip of the spiked lemonade, but she might as well have thrown alcohol on a fire. How would she pay for Christmas? She didn’t even know where they’d be living then.

“If we could get the mill back in production by Christmas, there would be reason for caroling,” Amy declared fervently. A real job would solve half her problems, anyway.

“Other than the Music Barn, those old mill buildings are useless if the bankruptcy court decides to sell off the machinery instead of letting the town buy it,” Flint commented, completing his repairs now that the coffee was simmering. “We can’t put people to work in empty buildings.”

“And the tourist business is dead after this weekend.” Amy slid the browned mushrooms from the oven, trying not to think of the stack of bills on her desk. “There go your biggest-spending customers.”

Flint leaned against the counter, crossing his arms while brandishing a screwdriver. “We can pay you to stay on, but we may have to go back to being a coffee shop instead of a restaurant.”

“Only if you want to hand out free soup,” Amy predicted.

Returning his screwdriver to a drawer, Flint grabbed a hot mushroom. Throwing it from hand to hand, he retreated toward his office. “We’ll do what we have to do,” he called over his shoulder before he disappeared back into his world.

“We know you’ve been handing out free meals,” Jo said with a shrug, taking a bite of a mushroom and humming in pleasure. “It’s okay by us. Flint’s so tickled with the Music Barn you helped him get that he’d knock heads for you.”

“And endanger his guitar-playing hand?” Amy joked. Fighting wasn’t a solution to this problem. Besides, his hand had just recovered from surgery.

“The Barn brought in tourists all summer,” Jo reminded her. “The whole town knows you talk sense. The judge ought to just let you have the mill so you can set people to working again.”

“Oh, that’s so going to happen.” Amy whacked a bell pepper. “If I were Queen of the World, I’d make a lot of changes around here, starting with ordering all men to line up for common sense tests.”

“If you don’t watch out, you’re going to cut off a finger. Have another drink.” Jo grabbed the knife and nudged Amy back to the stove with her hip. “Is this about losing the house?”

Flipping off a burner, Amy lifted the heavy frying pan and poured the gravy into a waiting gravy boat. “I can’t look for a new house until I know where I’ll be working.”

“You’re working here,” Jo said firmly. “We can’t replace you.”

Amy slapped the pan back on the burner, put her hands on her hips, and glared at her younger–taller–sister. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You cannot pay me on what this restaurant is making. I’m facing facts. You and Flint are the ones with your heads in the clouds.”

As if on cue, the cordless phone Flint had installed by the counter rang. Amy snatched the receiver before Jo could. “Stardust.”

“Amy, this is Mayor Blodgett.”

Amy took another swig of Jo’s spiked lemonade to calm her suddenly shaky nerves. “Is there a problem?”

“That depends on how you look at it,” the mayor enunciated slowly. “Another interested party has asked to look at the mill. As I understand it, the company is European and cash heavy. It could be just the investment we’re hoping for.”

“A foreign company won’t want to hire our workers,” Amy warned the mayor. “The whole point of our buying the mill is to keep Northfork residents employed.”

“You don’t think they’d bring in illegal immigrants, do you?” the mayor asked in alarm.

Amy rolled her eyes, handed the receiver to Jo, and opened the bottom oven to check on the rolls. If she were Queen of the World, men would be relegated to hard labor. They were obviously not meant to think. Parallel parking maybe, they could do that. Make them chauffeurs. Hole diggers. Brick layers. But not politicians responsible for the lives and welfare of entire communities of women and children.

While Jo chitchatted and applied her charm to the mayor, Amy removed the rolls and began buttering their tops. She glanced at the clock. She never wore watches. She was tired of replacing them. But the clock wasn’t working either, so she checked the mullioned windows to see if the sunlight had faded. After the first of September, the sun dipped behind the mountain around five. It should be almost time for the early dinner arrivals.

As she watched, a sexy, dark maroon sports car rolled to a stop, parking half on and half off the sidewalk in front of the café. The low-slung front end halted inches from the snout of the concrete purple pig adorning the café’s corner. The narrow mountain highway had no shoulder room for parking. The shiny car would end up as a hood ornament on the next semi coming around the curve too fast.

No one in town owned a car like that. Had ever seen a car like that. Which meant it was European. After the mayor’s call, Amy had a very, very bad feeling about that car.

She turned from the window and tossed back the cup of spiked lemonade, superstitiously deciding if she didn’t look, the car might disappear.

Jo hung up and turned to see what had Amy tossing back alcohol. “Oh, my. That’s one of the new Porsches,” she said with reverence.

“That will soon be a flattened Porsche,” Amy replied.

The low rumble of another powerful vehicle forced her to glance out the window again. A shiny black Hummer sporting satellite antennas drew up behind the sports car. Amy mused, how far would a Porsche travel after being slammed into by a Hummer propelled by a semi?

Deciding bad news could wait, she checked the various pots on the stove and missed seeing how the Porsche owner squeezed out of the low front seat into traffic. Jo’s chuckles as she exchanged observations with the locals sipping coffee at the counter were sufficient commentary for amusement.

The café’s red door swung open. Amy unconsciously waited for a biting What a dump! from the owner of a car that cost more than her house.

“Catarina, look!” a smoky baritone with a sexy accent Amy couldn’t quite place called to someone outside. “Did you see the brilliant pig on the corner?”

She couldn’t resist. Just like everyone else, she checked out the new arrivals.

The speaker was a lean, elegantly dressed gentleman propping open the door to let in an entourage of characters as out of place as their vehicles. Given the amount of animal-skin fabrics, feathered collars, and leather worn by the gentleman’s exotic entourage, they looked like escapees from a zoo in this land of denim and polyester. But the gentleman holding the door looked as if he’d been born to wear a top hat and tux.

“Do you think he’s the ringmaster?” Jo murmured in amusement, echoing Amy’s thought.

At that instant, the object of their fascination whipped off his designer shades and winked in their direction. Amy almost dropped the mushrooms. The stranger’s scorching gaze paused on her and triggered her hormones like neglected hand grenades. She could have sworn he actually saw her, except no man who looked like that ever noticed her when she stood next to Jo.

He could have just walked off the pages of a fashion ad, one of those where the male models had six-pack abs and deliberately mussed hairstyles that cost a fortune to achieve. Straight-cut brown hair brushed his nape and fell Hugh Grant-style across his wide brow. A black ribbed polo shirt pulled taut over his admirable chest, and the camel sports jacket topping it was probably Armani and tailored to emphasize his square shoulders.

The likes of Hugh Grant didn’t appear around here without reason, and after the mayor’s call, she had a sinking feeling that she knew the reason.

The visitors milled about the nearly empty café, gazing at the unconventional décor as if hoping a real restaurant would pop out from under the eccentric tablecloths.

“Are we too early for dinner, my fair lady?” the stranger asked playfully.

It took Jo’s elbow in her ribs before Amy realized he was talking to her and not to her beautiful, blond baby sister. Jo was already peeling off her apron in preparation for acting as hostess. The foreign gentleman watched Amy expectantly, making her nervous.

“Dinner’s on,” she agreed with assumed nonchalance. “Take seats anywhere.”

“You are a lifesaver,” he purred in a wickedly sexy voice that had every woman in the café panting. “We’ve just driven up from the airport in Charlotte, and there wasn’t a decent eatery in sight.”

“There’s a Cracker Barrel on the interstate,” Jo said with amusement, gathering napkins and silverware.

“What’s a Cracker Barrel? It sounds appalling.” The gentleman sauntered–Amy swore that was the only word that could describe the way he caught his hand in his pants pocket and gracefully dodged tables and chairs without looking at them–to the counter.

He smelled even better than he looked. The subtle scents of musk and pine woods intertwined with the aroma of her cooking, and her mouth nearly watered as he took one of the seats at the counter, putting his boyishly tousled hair within reach. Dark eyes watched her with impish laughter. She poured another swallow of Jo’s lemonade.

Not wishing to see shiny cars smashed into grease slicks, Amy nodded toward the door. “There’s no parking allowed on the street. The police don’t tow cars because they’re usually scrap metal before tow trucks can reach them. There are parking lots coming into and on the way out of town.”

Before the European hunk could respond, a lithe, towering beauty swayed up to brush her breasts against his shoulder, drape her tousled mane of tawny-streaked hair down his front, and whisper in his ear.

Amy recognized the Italian accent. Although she couldn’t translate the words, she maliciously translated body language to What are we doing in this hole, sweetikins, let’s go somewhere fabulously expensive and sip champagne and make beautiful love.

James Bond turned on his stool to wrap an understanding arm around the lioness. He patted her hip and responded reassuringly in Italian; then to Amy’s amazement, he gently nudged Blondie away and turned the intensity of his focus back to her.

Amy’s wariness shield shot into full alert.

“You will pardon my friends? I was so eager to arrive I did not think of their needs. They deserve a lovely resort, do they not? Can you recommend such a thing?”

“An hour back down the road in Asheville. Would you like coffee, tea?” Amy lifted the coffee carafe in an age-old gesture of hospitality that she couldn’t neglect despite all suspicion.

“Tea, if you would be so kind.” He smiled in delight, and his eyes crinkled in the corners. He turned and spoke more unfamiliar words to his audience.

The blonde in the slinky leopard-print skirt sulked, and a tall man with an Asian cast to his eyes replied in a bored French drawl.

Not knowing whether to provide sweet or unsweetened iced tea, Amy poured unsweetened and pushed the sugar packets in the gentleman’s direction, then took another sip of her spiked lemonade.

She began filling cups and glasses to Jo’s hand signals and sighed in relief when Janey, their teenage waitress, shoved open the door, followed by the first of the local curiosity seekers. The Porsche was better than a neon sign. Word spread fast in a town like this, and the visitors were better than any entertainment they’d had since the last country music show at the Barn. Well-heeled foreigners didn’t often find the less-traveled paths through these mountains.

At least the café would have one last profitable evening.

After a brief exchange, the tall Asian-looking man and a lanky, pony-tailed twenty-something went outside to move the cars.

With his lackeys doing their jobs, the gentleman turned back to Amy and stared at the sweating glass of ice and tea with raised eyebrows. “What is this?”

“Tea. I have sweet tea if you prefer.” She slid him a small plate of the mushroom appetizers thinking it wouldn’t hurt to butter up the man paying the bill.

“Tea.” He studied the glass with curiosity. “My mother warned me about this country, but I didn’t listen.” He lifted the glass and sipped cautiously. “Strong. Not bad.”

He looked up at Amy with a thousand-watt smile and extended his hand. “Hello, I am Jacques Saint-Etienne…and I have come to look at your antique mill.”

 


Sweet Home Carolina by Patricia Riceby Patricia Rice
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-149-6

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