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It was true. By the day Stone Senterra came to my Georgia hometown to make a movie about my husband, Harp Vance, I was ready to kill him and accept the consequences. I'd become a deadly, determined, Bless Her Heart kind of southern belle. A cracked belle, you could say. Grieving can take over a person's life like a sinister charm, inspiring good causes and noble dedication at the expense of true healing. It's possible to both pity and fear a mourner who's gone just a little bit funny and more than a little bit dangerous. I qualified on both counts. In the South, the dreaded BHH is attached to your name with admiring sympathy but also a dollop of fear. You are no longer a dependably entertaining person and may even stoop to becoming an embarrassment.
Be afraid, Dahlonegans whispered. Be very afraid. Bless Her Heart.
Two years ago, Harp, an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, tracked down a killer the media had dubbed the Turnkey Bomber. After months of cat-and-mouse games through the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, Harp and the serial-killing psychopath faced off on the roof of one of the largest hospitals in Atlanta. And there, on a hot summer morning when the sun rose over the city like an orange eye, my husband stopped the crazy bastard from exploding a bomb that would have killed a lot of people. Harp took six bullets to the chest before he sank a hunting knife into the Turnkey's throat. His police methods had never followed the rules. Neither did his death. The only rules he ever believed in were the ones I imposed on him out of love.
Helicopter cameramen from CNN's Atlanta headquarters and the local TV stations broadcast the death fight with the bomber as it happened, so the whole world watched Harp sacrifice his own life to save the hospital. I watched, too, in horror, from my hostess chair on the set of a silly morning talk show called Atlanta A.M. My husband had been a loner and a damaged soul and an idealist and a cynic and a lover and my best friend since we were kids. I got to the emergency room only in time to cry my heart out and whisper, "It's all right. Don't be afraid of the dark. I'll always be there with you," before he took his last breath.
I had been there, in that darkness, fighting to keep a light burning for him ever since.
So, on a cool May morning, while Stone Senterra cruised up the mountain interstate in his limousine, I planned my ambush. Senterra and his people were scheduled to start on-location filming from an old campground that Senterra Films had leased as a base of operations. I intended to block Stone's way with the one material he respected. Stone.
"Stand back. I'm dropping the whole load on the count of five," I called out the dump truck's window. My grandmother Helen-known to her three children and ten grandchildren not as Grandmother, Grandma, or Granny, but as the elegant and indomitable G. Helen-tucked her pearls inside her cashmere-trimmed denim jacket, fluffed graying auburn hair, then motioned to Harp's teenage niece, Mika DuLane. "Five means four and a promise to your impatient Aunt Grace," G. Helen warned the eighteen-year-old.
Mika nodded. "Let's boogie."
My tall, elegant, Irish-pale grandmother sashayed briskly alongside the short, cute, mocha-skinned Mika, whose idea of fashion was an Army jacket covered in computer-game logos. When she and G. Helen reached the side of the steep road, Mika called back, "Aunt Grace, maybe you should wait while I do some calculations to estimate the area of spillage based on the tonnage and the maximum angle of the dump truck's bed." She reached inside the Army jacket for her Palm Pilot.
"Aim for the center line and let 'er rip," G. Helen called. Then to Mika, "Sweetie pie, sometimes we just have to dump our load and get the hell out of the way."
I pulled a lever. The truck's bed upended and gray dust gushed out as tons of silver-gray gravel spilled onto the asphalt. When I finished, a small mountain of rocks blocked both lanes of the only paved road that led to Stone Senterra's mountain production headquarters. The road's grassy shoulders dropped immediately into deep gulches filled with boulders and laurel. Stone Senterra wouldn't be able to reach his luxury house trailer or his Quonset-hut film-editing lab or his picnic-pavilion-turned-personal-gym. He'd have to deal with me.
I climbed atop my barricade of metaphorically crushed Stone Senterra, pulled Harp's favorite leather-brimmed hat low over my forehead, laid G. Helen's antique shotgun across my updrawn knees, and set a magnificent wild orchid beside me in her moss-stained clay pot. A pink, pouch-shaped bloom, as delicate as a ballet slipper, hung from the orchid's slender stem. It had bloomed that morning as if it knew Harp and I needed its support. There was no way past me, the shotgun, and the native ladyslipper orchid Harp had named Dancer.
The morning grew quiet as the deep shush of settling rock faded away. Ridges of pines and greening hardwoods marched toward a horizon of rounded, fog-gray mountains and deep, mystic hollows. Deer and bear sniffed the air as if sensing the impending aroma of city slickers.
"I'm set," I called to G. Helen and Mika. "Go home and call that list of media contacts I gave you, all right? Dancer and I'll take care of the situation here. Don't worry about me. A grand jury of Lumpkin County folk will vote a no-bill on the attempted homicide charge so fast they'll be home for the lunchtime reruns of Matlock."
"If you do shoot," G. Helen said, "at least don't aim for Senterra's head."
I nodded. "It wouldn't do any good. He has no brain."
G. Helen rolled her eyes. Mika stared at me, her eyes dark with amazement. She came from the very rich, very elegant DuLanes of Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit, tasteful people didn't shoot at movie stars. They also didn't name their orchids and talk to them. "I'll visit you in prison," she called.
G. Helen and Mika left in G. Helen's dark-blue Lincoln. My hands sweated on the stock of the shotgun, where a silver plate was engraved with words that summed up everything G. Helen had taught me about life.
Always fight back. And aim higher than you need to.
I bent my head and prayed. Harp, I'll never stop defending you. Please let me know that I'm doing it the right way. Please let me know that Dancer bloomed this morning as a sign to keep fighting.
Silence. Harp was whispering to me less and less lately. Plus he'd never had a way with words and never believed in telling other people, or wild orchids, how to live their lives, as long as they hurt no one but themselves. Waiting for Harp to come back to life was no use. Of course I knew that. But I had no idea he was about to send me a stranger named Boone Noleene with his answer. Or that maybe Boone was the answer.
Poor, brave man.
Bless His Heart.
ASK GRACE "WHO'S BOONE Noleene and what job does he do for Stone Senterra?" and she'd have given you one of her solemn, beauty-queen-being-polite-in-the-interview looks while she thought it over.
What would I do to achieve world peace? I'd spread more love, everywhere!
Who is Boone Noleene and what job does he do for Stone Senterra?
"I believe I read in People magazine that he walks Stone's pig," she'd have said.
And she'd have been right.
His name-the pig's-was Shrek. He'd been named by Stone's little girls, who doted on the swaybacked, Vietnamese, pork-belly snot-snout.
"What's Shrek's Cajun name, Boonie?" the girls asked me all the time, just to hear my answer in French. Sweet little darlin's, just six and eight. They called me Boonie, Boo, the Boo-man. They didn't understand the fading tattoos, the busted nose, the bullet and blade scars from New Orleans street fights. I was just Boonie, the tall man Papa trusted to guard them. Stone knew I'd take a fist in the gut for their sakes. For his sake, too. For his nice-kid teenage son, Leo. For his smart-tough-classy wife, Kanda.
Stone, who liked to brag that he'd played more lawmen than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood combined, had picked me out of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary three years ago to be his little rehabilitate-a-paroled-con project. It looked good for his image, he said. Stone never liked to come across as sentimental. But let me tell you what he did for me, and why I respected him.
I walked out of Angola without a penny to my name and nothing but denim blues on my back. There he was, Mr. Superstar, waiting for me in a limo. Him and Kanda. I guess he didn't want me to think he was hittin' on me. Anyway, a limo. And his wife. A man doesn't just present any old so-and-so to his wife. Stone introduced me like I was a regular somebody, and then Kanda, who's a combination of Jewish Wisconsin farm girl, Hollywood businesswoman, and soccer mom, hugged me. Hugged me-a paroled con she'd just met.
"First we're going to fly to L.A.," he said, "and then when we get there, the next thing, we're going shopping. You need some threads, mister. Then, once we get you spiffed up, you and me are going to a private mass in honor of your new life."
"And then I'm taking you to meet my rabbi," Kanda added. "If you don't mind."
I was dazed, drunk on fresh air and freedom, stunned by the turn my life had taken. All I remember saying to Kanda was, "I got nothing against going to mass or visitin' rabbis. But I'd appreciate it y'all would have your priest and your rabbi call my brother, Armand, and give him a good word or two, I'd appreciate it, merci bien. I kind of hate leaving him here in prison, alone."
She looked at me kindly. "Of course."
Stone planted a big, movie-star hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry about Armand. The day he walks out of here, I'll be waiting for him, too."
I kept trying to say thank-you-why-are-you-doing-this, but he brushed me off. He launched into a long, rambling story about how his old man deserted their family when he was a kid, just like mine and Armand's had, but how he couldn't complain because at least his mother hadn't died when he was a kid like ours had, no, she'd remarried and kept a roof over the family's head, although the man she married was a big, mean dockworking bastard, so Stone had grown up fighting the steppapa for everything plus defending a baby half sister, Diamond, from him.
"See?" Stone finished. "You and me, Noleene, we're both survivors. We're tough guys. We're simpatico." He paused. "By the way, if you screw up this chance I'm giving you? I'll kill you."
"I won't screw up," I said.
Even now, three years later, I still didn't know why Stone Senterra, a wealthy, famous stranger, felt the need to treat me like his new best friend and tell me his personal story, other than the fact that we'd both been deserted by our papas as kids, and we both came from good Catholic mamas. Once we got past those basics, he was a movie star born in New Jersey, and I was an ex-criminal born in New Orleans. Not much else in common.
But I knew this much: He'd given me a future. More than that, he'd given me a family-and by association, my bro, Armand, too. Armand would be out of Angola by fall, paroled a year early thanks to Stone's attorneys. A family. One worth honoring, serving, and protecting.
What's Shrek's Cajun name, Boonie?
"Le Snout du Oink, mes petites chères."
They laughed every time.
But if you asked Stone, the pig's name changed depending on who the Stone Man's box-office competition was that season. Lately the pig had been Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, and the Rock, but most of all, more than anyone else, forever-and-ever-amen, the pig was Mel Gibson.
"Mel Gibson took a dump on the Turkish rug again today," Stone liked to say. Or, "The maid caught Mel Gibson eating out of the kitchen garbage again this morning."
Stone envied Gibson the way cheese envies cream. It was a mark of distinction to be Stone's pig. It meant you were a threat. Mel was the ultimate pig threat; the others were only satellites in Mel's pig-threat orbit. Arnold Schwarzenegger called once and asked when the hell he was going to be the pig again.
Stone told him to get in line.
"I FEEL LIKE A fool, Noleene. This ambush of Grace Vance had better work."
Beside me, squatting in the Dahlonega woods on the heels of Burmese snakeskin cowboy boots, Stone was muttering. He'd been muttering for an hour. Let's just describe the Stone Man this way: Picture John Wayne playing Vito Corleone on a hike wearing an Armani suit.
When ten of your films have made 300 million dollars-that's each, not total-you tend to start thinking you deserve anything you want, including the right to film the life story of a dead GBI agent you admire, even if the agent's widow keeps threatening to kill you. So the Stone Man was not happy to be hiding in the bushes like a wuss, waiting for an introduction.
"The hell with this. I'm just going up there and talk to her. She wants to like me. She wants to be happy that I'm here to make a movie about her husband. I know she does. What's not to like?"
I shook my head. "Boss, you agreed to let me handle the introductions. You promised Kanda, too. For her and the kids. Besides, if you go up there and Grace Vance shoots you, it'll make me look bad. I might have to give up my parking spot at the bodyguard union hall."
Stone glared at me the way gorillas do when they're about to rip a banana off a tree, but he knew I was right. I'd done a good job taking care of his and his family's safety at home, on movie sets in jungles and on mountaintops, and even at the Oscars (he was afraid of Joan Rivers, so I had to body-block her while he walked up the red carpet). Finally, he sighed and nodded. "All right, but this better work. I'm getting an itch in my hair plugs. You get up there and sweet-talk Grace Vance. Get the gun away from her, then I'll pop out of the woods and make nice. Go."
I got up and began climbing through the laurel. Inside orthopedic Hush Puppies, my left foot ached like a hangover. A beady-eyed parish cop had shot me in the foot when I was twelve. The bullet broke the joint of my big toe and it never healed right. Armand had cried over it. Ah, the glamour of the criminal life. Twenty-three years later, my foot throbbed its Hail Marys.
When I reached the edge of the road, I stopped in awe. Grace Vance. My first unhindered look at her.
Excerpted from Charming Grace by Deborah Smith Copyright © 2004 by Deborah Smith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 4, 2003
As the widow of a real hero, Grace Vance just wants to live her life and Harper Vance¿s death in privacy, but Hollywood Hero, Stone Senterra wants to make a movie about Harp and while he wants Grace¿s approval, legally he doesn¿t need it. Stone comes crashing into town with his entourage which includes Cajun ex-con Boone Noleene. Boone is against this project from the word go and does his best to stand firm in the middle. But how can he when Grace is the woman he has been looking for all his life? How can he be loyal to Stone and still do right by Grace? Charming Grace is a wonderful emotional roller coaster ride. Full of Southern flavor, Charming Grace will have you laughing and crying and hungry for more after the last page is turned. Boone is a man full of mysteries and a Cajun charm that will melt you. Grace is strong and a true Steel Magnolia. Together they are magic. Ms. Smith brings this small Georgia community to life with wonderful characters and snappy dialogue with twists and turns that will delight and surprise. The story shifts from Boone¿s to Grace¿s first person viewpoints and adds another layer of charm to this fluid read. This is a one-sitting venture that you will feel honored to place on your keeper shelf.
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Posted October 4, 2011
This Deborah Smith story is lighter in tone and emotion than Sweet Hush and A Place to Call Home, two of my favorites. It is a quick read with the great characters expected in her books, along with some humor, some surprises and a few cheesy tricks near the end. An enjoyable read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.