Spring smote the Delta and fled before the onslaught of May heat. A thick haze of warmth hangs over the fields and the rivers, blanketing the land and the cotton bursting from the ground, green and vibrant. Hope is alive here, where farming is still a way of life.
To my shame, hope has died in me. The loss of my child, my potential son or daughter, has done something to me, and I’m afraid it can’t be repaired. While the cotton is growing and my partner’s husband, Oscar, and Deputy Gordon Walters have both fully recovered from the “plague” that nearly killed them, I have not fared so well. At least not emotionally. Doc says my body is healing fine. No permanent internal injuries, and my broken arm is all but mended. There should be no ill effects.
So what’s wrong with my heart?
Dahlia House, my family home, echoes with loneliness. The familiar rooms are too big and empty in a way I never noticed. Perhaps this malaise of melancholy is hormone induced, as Cece Dee Falcon, my transgender friend who is an authority on the tricky role of endocrine chemistry, tells me. She assures me that my body will balance itself and that time will buffer this loss.
I wish I could trust her words. There are no known Delaney genes for moping, yet I can’t seem to stop. Songwriter Jesse Winchester says it best, it takes “nothing to pity yourself—but it’s dangerous fun.”
Unable to endure the shadows of Dahlia House, I’ve taken myself outdoors into the heat laden with the smell of summer. The scent of this sun-warmed land—the taste of it—is imprinted on my DNA. These fields have been my solace through so many losses, but I find no comfort here now. I walk to the oak grove behind the Delaney Family Cemetery—the place I saw my dead mother in a dream or vision or visit from the spirit world. She assured me I would recover from this miscarriage. I hope she’ll return today to guide me to that path, but I know she won’t. She’s warned me about lingering in the past, and she won’t facilitate my melancholy.
“You’re damn right, she won’t!”
Jitty, the resident haint of Dahlia House, has found me. Jitty has the tracking abilities of a Parchman prison bloodhound and the fashion sense of Jackie Kennedy or, on some days, Carrie Bradshaw. Therefore I’m stunned by her white apron and chef’s hat. Jitty does not “do” domestic, despite the fact she was my great-great-grandmother Alice’s nanny and best friend. What she does do is tap into my private thoughts—a habit I find more than annoying.
“Don’t badger me, Jitty, I’m not in the mood,” I warned her.
“Pull it together, Sarah Booth. Tinkie will be here any minute to pick you up. You’re packed and ready, so quit waffling. This trip will be good for you, and the Richmonds have spared no expense. Tinkie and Oscar are tryin’ to bust you loose from the tar baby of grief. ’Course, instead of lettin’ go, you keep pokin’ in another appendage. Soon enough you won’t be able to let loose.”
“I’m not going to Greenwood.”
“Says me.” My fingers brushed against the rough bark of an oak tree, igniting a tickle of childhood sensation, just a split second of the past. I don’t want a vacation or a stay in a luxury boutique hotel. What I want is to time travel, to go back to a place where my parents are alive and I’m the protected and beloved child.
Jitty is having none of that. “Wrong. Tinkie has gone to a lot of trouble to plan this trip for you. From what I’ve seen, you can sure benefit from some cookin’ classes. Girl, that handsome Graf Milieu is gonna wanna eat sometimes. Even movie stars got to feed the gullet on occasion.”
“Then he can cook.” My tone was reasonable, cloaking the deep sense of loneliness brought on by the mention of Graf’s name. He was my man, and I needed him beside me even though my logical brain knew he could not walk out on a movie. “At the moment, Graf is building his film career, and he doesn’t care if I cook or not. Eating at Millie’s Café makes me happy. She’s a better cook than I’ll ever be.”
Jitty eyed me. “I would be happy—if you’d eat. You go up there and stir the food around on your plate. You look like an abused greyhound.”
“Nothing like a compliment to make a girl feel better.” That she was right only made me more morose. I did look unhealthy. My skin was waxen, and I’d given up shirts that showed my protruding collarbone. I didn’t wear grief well.
“You want some compliments? Then go down to Green-wood and relax with Tinkie. Take your mind off things here. Have some laughs.” Her expression became sly. “You can kill two birds with one stone.”
“What two birds?”
“One, get away from here and start to heal your heart, and two, let your business partner take care of you. She wants to do that, Sarah Booth. It’s selfish not to let her.” Tinkie and I co-owned Delaney Detective Agency, but she was so much more than half own er. She was my closest friend.
She’d planned a vacation getaway for us to the nearby town of Greenwood and the famous Viking Cooking School. While it was a ruse to pull me away from Dahlia House and my depression, it was also, as Jitty pointed out, a chance for Tinkie to care for me. Jitty was right, but the lethargy that tugged at my heart left me unable to move.
“Sarah Booth, only time can help you get by this, and pinin’ away here, alone, is only prolongin’ it.”
Another point on Jitty’s scorecard. I pushed away from the old oak. I had to fight this depression. I couldn’t give in to it. The Delaneys were fighters, not quitters. “Okay.”
The smile that spread across her face carried enough wattage to light up Dahlia House. “That’s my girl.” She fell into step beside me as we walked past the old cemetery shaded by cedars and toward the house. “Now focus your cookin’ lessons on manly foods. None a’ that froufrou stuff that don’t satisfy. And remember, don’t ever eat nothin’ pink and foamy. Those are words to live by.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Pink and foamy? Like what?”
“Like cherries or strawberries mixed with cottage cheese. Or none a’ that pink mousse stuff.” She shuddered. “Nothing crème-filled that’s pink. Just take my advice and stay away from it.”
I’d never known Jitty to have an anti-pink obsession. “There’s more to this story.”
“And I’d tell it, but your ride to vacationland is here.”
Sure enough, I heard the crunch of tires on the shell drive. Though the house blocked my view, I knew my coach and driver had arrived in the form of a brand-new Cadillac with Tinkie behind the wheel.
“Have fun.” Jitty swept off the chef’s hat as she faded into oblivion—a trick I was determined to learn if I ever got stuck between Earth and the Great Beyond.
“Sarah Booth! Sarah Booth!” Tinkie’s little fists beat at the front door as she called my name.
“I’m in the backyard,” I yelled. I put my ass into gear and trotted around the corner of the house to meet my friend.
“Your chariot awaits,” she said, waving at the brand-new tomato red Caddy Oscar had given her as a gift.
“Let me grab my bags.”
A silver bowl of green apples centered the marble registration desk of the Alluvian Hotel. I sampled some iced peach tea in the lobby as Tinkie checked us in. Although I wasn’t P.I.-ing, I did deduce that the Alluvian had a great dental plan—the hotel staff all smiled, displaying handsome teeth.
The lobby was quiet, a reflection of the noon hour, and cool, a tribute to man’s ability to air-condition. A bar and restaurant branched off one side of the lobby, and a series of lounging areas were on the other side. Peeking into a room, I could imagine folks gathered around the grand piano in a far corner.
Across the street was the famed Viking Cooking School. Delta ladies entered and exited with shopping bags full of kitchen spices and the latest in equipment and gadgets. Tinkie and I were scheduled to take classes at the school in a matter of hours.
“Ready?” she asked. A bellman loaded our bags on a cart.
Tinkie offered separate rooms, but I’d opted to share one. After all, the point was to battle the loneliness, not give in to the desire to hide in the dark. The bellman took our luggage to the top floor, where a chilled bottle of champagne and a pitcher of orange juice awaited us in a room that gave a view of downtown Greenwood.
“The hotel staff thinks of everything, don’t they?” Tinkie said, popping the cork with proficiency.
She mixed mimosas in crystal champagne flutes. Indeed, the hotel supplied a polished touch. She kicked off her shoes and climbed into one of the double beds. “So, we have our first class this afternoon. It’s party appetizers. When we get home, Sarah Booth, let’s have a party. We can show off our new entertaining skills.”
“You assume I’ll acquire some.” The mimosa was delicious, and I settled onto my bed. The tension in my shoulders lessened.
“Oh, we’ll both be prepared to dazzle guests when we finish this course.”
From the hallway came a loud thumping and banging. Tinkie and I both started to our feet. What sounded like a scuffle ensued, and someone pounded on the door of our room. Before we could react, the door flew open and two beautiful young women tumbled in. They were almost buried in luggage, which they unceremoniously dumped to the floor.
“Who put us in the same room?” the brunette growled.
“I’m going straight to the desk.” The blonde picked up a huge suitcase and tossed it into the hall where it slammed against something—or someone.
Tinkie calmly put down her drink and picked up the telephone. She punched in the number for the front desk. “Yes, this is Mrs. Oscar Richmond. We have intruders in our room. Please come immediately.” She hung up with a smile.
Both young women finally realized they had an audience. They stood, luggage up to their thighs, and stared at us.
“Who the hell are you?” the brunette asked.
“Tinkie Bellcase Richmond.” She hoisted her drink as ifin a toast. “Don’t bother with your name. You won’t be staying long enough for me to give a damn.” She settled back onto the bed. Tinkie had taken an instant dislike to the women, which was unusual for her.
The brunette rose to the challenge. “Wanna bet? We’ll have those beds stripped and you out on your ass before the flies can settle on you.”
The blonde, petite and wide-eyed, put a restraining hand on the brunette. “Calm down, Karrie.”
Karrie shook her off. “Don’t touch me, you country-fried hick. If this old bat wants a fight, I’ll give it to her.” Karrie, whoever she was, had seriously misjudged Tinkie. While my partner was short, she could kick ass like a Spartan.
Tinkie slid to her feet. She was a good ten inches shorter than Karrie, but she was undaunted. Tinkie and her eight-ounce dustmop dog, Chablis, had more courage and spunk than a busload of gang members. “Who, exactly, are you calling an old bat?” she asked, advancing.
I snapped to, aware that for the last three minutes I hadn’t been depressed at all. “Hold on, Tink,” I said. I fell in beside her. If there was going to be a hair-pulling, Tinkie and I were going in together.
The blonde stepped between Karrie and Tinkie. “Stop it. We obviously have the wrong room.” She pushed Karrie’s bags toward the door. “Let’s go to the desk and get this straight. I want another roommate, anyway.”
Karrie wasn’t ready to back down. She glared at Tinkie. “Do you have a daughter in the contest? You’re too old to cut the competition.”
“I may have a few years on you, honey, but ge ne tics tell all,” Tinkie said. “Your bone structure gives it away—some combination of Snopes and Wicked Witch of the West.”
“What contest?” I couldn’t help myself. I felt like my earlier wish had been partially answered and I’d fallen backward in time to high school. I’d actually been aiming for grammar school, but time travel is hard to predict.
“The Miss Viking beauty contest and spokesperson competition,” the blonde answered with a world-weary roll of her eyes. “The finalists are here this week for the cook-off and the runway talent contests. The winner gets a $200,000 contract to serve as Viking spokesperson and travel the world, not to mention scholarships and potential endorsements of food products worth millions.”
“Fascinating,” Tinkie said.
“I’m Crystal Belle Wadell.” The blonde made it clear the rhyming of her name caused her much grief. “That’s Karrie Kompton.” She pointed at the brunette. “She’s already way ahead in the Bitch on Wheels category and she’s about to win the Most PMS-ing title.”
“I see,” Tinkie said in a droll tone that told me Crystal Belle had amused her.
“Ladies, you obviously have the wrong room. Best to take this up with the desk.” I’d enjoyed the fireworks, but now I was done with it.
And just in time, two hotel staffers appeared in the doorway. In a matter of moments, Karrie and Crystal were assisted down the hallway. A door slammed and loud complaints blasted from both women as the hotel staff did their best to resolve the roommate issue. From what I overheard, the lodging decisions had specifically been made at the request of the contest manager—someone with a wide streak of sadism or who’d perhaps grown weary of the spectacular bitchiness of Karrie Kompton. I felt a brief second of pity for Crystal Belle.
“Surely all the contestants can’t be that awful,” Tinkie said, somewhat echoing my thoughts.
“Might be worth catching the talent competition if it’s being held locally.”
Tinkie’s face lit up. “Excellent idea. I’ll check at the desk for tickets or information. For now, let’s have a facial. The spa across the street has this to-die-for facial. Then we’re on to appetizer school at four o’clock.”
She babbled happily about beauty products I’d never heard of as we refilled our glasses with mimosas and ambled across the street for a full beauty treatment.
Excerpted from Bone Appétit by Carolyn Haines.
Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Haines.
Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.