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Judith Grover McMonigle thrust the phone away from her ear a good two feet, knocked her coffee mug off the kitchen counter, and booted her cat, Sweetums, into the open cupboard under the sink. At the other end of the line, Oriana Bustamanti Brodie was covering every note of the scale, beseeching Judith to change her mind.
"We're fumigating," Oriana wailed. "Carpenter ants. It smells. It's impossible. And Otto is counting on this weekend with the family!"
A disheveled Sweetums was eyeing Judith with open hostility. His orange fur bore traces of chili beans and apple peel. Any other cat would have ignored revenge for the sake of cleanliness. In Judith's opinion, Sweetums was as unnatural as he was filthy.
"I'm sorry," Judith said, for the third time, bringing the handset up to her mouth while she threw a dish towel onto the spilled coffee and began swirling it about with her foot. "I'm booked, have been since November. "
"But you told me January wasn't a busy month!" Oriana had launched into her full-throated Act Four, Scene Three voice.
"It isn't," Judith agreed as Sweetums put a paw in the coffee, sniffed, and choked up a hairball. "Only two of the four rooms are taken, but you'd need all of them for your ... family, right?" Somehow, "family" wasn't a word she readily associated with Otto and Oriana Brodie; "horde" sprang more easily to mind.
The sigh that heaved over the phone line possessed seismic force. "Otto will be sooooo disappointed." The mezzo-soprano voice that had mesmerized indiscriminating opera lovers in second-rate houses dropped several notches. "We would have paid extra for the short notice."
"Another time, maybe," Judith said pleasantly, if firmly, and replaced the handset as Sweetums slipped out through his cat's door into the back yard. As much as she hated turning guests away, Judith was relieved. The Brodies might be considered by many on Heraldsgate Hill to be prominent personages, given his wealth as a carpetsweeper mogul and her fleeting fame in the music world. But Oriana's demands conveyed a hint of desperation which put Judith off.
Not that she had either the time or the inclination to indulge in speculation on neighborhood eccentricities. Widowed for almost three years, she had hurled herself into establishing the family home as a bed-and-breakfast known as Hillside Manor. At the moment, she barely had time to finish mopping up the mess left by the coffee and Sweetums before her mother came thumping into the kitchen on her walker.
"Where's my Turns?" she demanded, giving the walker an extra whack for emphasis.
"Up your nose," muttered Judith, grateful that Gertrude Grover was nearly deaf as a post. More loudly she said, "Try your housecoat pocket, left-hand side." She checked the Caesar's Palace coffee mug for cracks with -one eye, while watching her mother with the other.
"Damn," breathed Gertrude, "how'd they get there?" The telephone saved Judith from having to answer. It was Dorothy Dalgleish, calling from Pinetop Falls, a small logging community some fifty-five miles to the northeast.
"0h, Mrs. McMonigle, I'm so sorry!' wailed Dorothy Dalgleish. "We're going to have to cancel this weekend. Homer is sick."
"That's a shame," said Judith with feeling, though more for herself than the ailing Homer. "I hope it's nothing serious. "
"It's always serious with Homer," Dorothy responded with a touch of annoyance. "Bronchitis, this time. He will work out in the woods in the worst weather. But that's the life of a gyppo logger. You're on your own, with no big timber company behind you . "
Judith could sympathize, at least with Homer's private initiative. "Tell him to take care. You, too. Mrs. Dalgleish."
"He will. We will," asserted Dorothy. "In fact, put us down for next weekend. If you can . "
Judith could and did, filling Hillside for the first weekend of February. A glance at her reservation book gave her mixed pangs of satisfaction and apprehension. Since opening the B&B in May, she was already discovering a pattern to bookings: Weekends up through October were generally full; so were most weekdays during the summer. Business revived in mid-November, but dropped off dramatically after New Year's. St. Valentine's had been taken since early December, but there were a lot of blank spaces until April. Maybe she should add catering to her repertoire. Or try to book more wedding receptions. Perched as it was on the steep hill on a dead-end street, the big old house was ideal for romantic getaways and for visiting shoppers who didn't want the hassle or expense of a downtown hotel. Tourists, however, had yet to beat down Judith's door. Perhaps that would change if she could get listed in one of the national guidebooks. She'd made various contacts, from AAA to specialty publishing companies, but so far without any payoff. Patience, she told herself; patience -- and the cultivation of a tough hide -- had gotten her through eighteen years of marriage.
"Where's Mike?" Gertrude inquired, her pugnacious jaw thrust out above the gaudy green and red of her housecoat collar.
Judith was somewhat startled by the question. Her mother might be ornery, even absentminded, but she was hardly senile. "Away at school," she replied in a much less certain voice than she usually employed.
"Of course he's away at school," growled Gertrude. "What do you think I am, daffy?" She rummaged in her other pocket and pulled out a package of cigarettes. "I meant, where is he at school? I thought he was off on some half-assed field trip. "
"Oh! " Judith ran a hand through her prematurely graying hair. "Idaho, some place. Priest Lake? " She knew, of course, but momentarily went blank. As a forestry major, her only son had already been on several field trips which seemed to focus on how much...Just Desserts. Copyright © by Mary Daheim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.