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"Do these jeans make my butt look fat?" Mary Stuart "Maizie" Walker realized she was asking a no-win question. And she knew she was being unfairhonestly she didbut the devil on her shoulder kept poking her.
Clay, her husband of twenty-two years, glanced up from the paper. The expression on his was face was classic "deer in the headlights." It was so typical it was almost humorous, and that partially explained why Maizie was going out of her way to shake up their "we've been married forever" life. She was determined to inject some rockin' and rollin' into their intimacy.
Intellectually she recognized she was in the middle of an empty-nest crisis. Hannah, her baby, was a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta. And although the school was only fifty miles from Magnolia Bluffs, she was missing her daughter like crazy. Okay, she wasn't being rational, but who could blame her?
"Uh, well, uh." Clay threw up his hands. "What do you want me to say? Lately, I can't seem to get it right. I feel like I've walked into the middle of a pop quiz and I didn't even know I was in school."
Poor Clay. Maizie had loved him her entire adult life, and a good portion of her adolescence. That love hadn't changed, so why was she being such a shrew? Lord love a duck, was she going into early menopause? Or was she merely losing her mind? For months there had been this pervasive sense of dissatisfaction that she couldn't seem to shake.
Stop it right this minute! She had a wonderful life and it was time to get a grip.
"No answer?" Clay asked before giving her the same sexy wink she'd fallen for in the sixth grade.
"No," Maizie admitted. She sat on his lap and put her armsaround his neck. "I'm sorry. I'm just feeling funky."
Clay nestled her against his chest. "I know, baby. I know."
And he probably did. Over the years they'd achieved a Spocklike mind meld. Besides completing each other's sentences, they were also able to communicate without saying a word.
Clay nuzzled her neck, paying special attention to her favorite erogenous zone behind her ear. When he did that Maizie couldn't help but melt into a puddle of lust.
He was a laid-back kind of guy with a quirky sense of humor, which was only one of the many things she loved about him. Clay had the same twinkly blue eyes and shaggy blond hair that had caught Maizie's attention in elementary school. Way back when he thought a spit wad attack was foreplay. Thank goodness his technique had improved since then.
"I don't have to be at the shop until ten." Maizie tried her best flirtatious smile. "Do you think you could stick around for a while?"
Clay gave her neck one last nibble. "Oh, honey, I wish I could. Honest to God I do. But I have an important meeting with the Department of Transportation people." Clay and his partner, Harvey, owned Magnolia Bluff's premier engineering firm. "I can't miss it." He kissed the end of her nose. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"No big deal," Maizie said as she jumped up and sashayed out of the room.
Clay watched Maizie walk away. Despite what she said, he knew it was a big deal. He was a smart guy and he'd been married long enough to recognize high dudgeon when he saw it. Lately he seemed to be screwing up all the time. Everything he tried blew up in his face, especially when it came to his wife, the sexiest, funniest, most appealing woman he'd ever met.
Maizie reminded him of a 1950s movie stara cross between Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, sans surgical enhancements. She griped about the few pounds she'd gained, but as far as Clay was concerned her curves were perfect.
Straying had never entered his mind. His theory was why go out for chicken nuggets when you had cordon bleu at home, but lately, whew! The trouble had started when Hannah left for college and the situation was rapidly going downhill.
Maizie was the owner/operator of Miss Scarlett's Boudoir. Her boutique was the emporium of all things girly in Magnolia Bluffs, Georgia, and it truly was the happening place. So if boredom wasn't the problem, what was itother than missing her baby?
Then Clay froze as a horrible thought struck him. Was his wife getting tired of him? Maizie and Hannah were his entire world. He didn't think he could survive without them.
God, he didn't need this right now, not on top of the trouble at work. Thinking about the debacle at the office made him want to beat his head against the wall.
Then Clay had a brilliant idea. Even he could admit it was time to call in an expert and who better than her fraternal twin, Liza. They were about as simpatico as two people could be.
Add in their cousin Kenni Whittaker and you had the Three Musketeers. Yep, Liza and Kenni would know what to do.
Pleased that he had a game plan, Clay grabbed his car keys and headed off to work. He'd call Liza when he had a spare minutenot that he had many of those.
It had been a lousy morning. Maizie hated fighting with Clay, but sometimes it felt like a black mood hijacked her brain. And when that happened, dealing with it was worse than getting rid of a bad case of fleas.
Maizie was doing some deep breathing exercises in the back room of the Boudoir, getting ready to put on her happy face, when she heard a screech followed by a crash. Then someone growled, "Let's go outside and settle this." That was something you'd hear at the Honky-Tonk Inn, not at Miss Scarlett's.
Enough was enough. Damn it all! Maizie threw her half-eaten Godiva bar in the cabinet and stomped out into the shop. A quick look revealed there wasn't much to worry about. The combatants were two middle-aged women armed with nothing more lethal than their razor-sharp tongues. Her employees, PJ and Bambi, stood by helplessly.
"What in the Sam Hill do you two think you're doing?" Maizie demanded, slamming her hands on her hips for emphasis. She had at least a seven-inch height advantage on both women and she wasn't afraid to use it. "This isn't a junior high cafeteria."
Sue Belle Pennington and Lucy Albright had been mortal enemies since cheerleading tryouts in the eighth grade. Add the unfortunate fact that neither had the sense God gave a turnipand voilàthey were an incident waiting to happen.
Maizie tapped her toe. If they weren't going to behave they could get out of her store. "I'm waiting for an explanation, and it had better be good."
"She, she " Sue Belle pointed a bony finger at her archenemy. "She thinks she's smart enough to run the Girl Scout cookie sale. God knows she came out of the shallow end of the gene pool." The commentary was bad enough, but her wicked-witch cackle was the icing on the cake.
Lucy lunged for Sue Belle, ready to draw blood, but Maizie grabbed her in midflight.
"You're having a catfight, in my store, over who's going to be the cookie mama?" Maizie would've slammed their heads together if she'd thought it would do any good.
Sue Belle raised her hand in preparation for a rude gesture, but obviously reconsidered when Maizie shot her a lethal glare.
Lucy, however, didn't know when to quit. "Her mama stole the Brownie money when we were in third grade. And everyone knows the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." She accompanied her snarky remark with a smirk.
Oops! The ass whoopin' was about to commence.
"Grab Sue Belle," Maizie yelled to PJ, praying that her assistant manager would be able to restrain the enraged woman. Considering Sue Belle outweighed PJ by at least seventy-five pounds there wasn't much hope of that.
"Call my brother-in-law." Maizie tossed the cordless phone to Bambi, her after-school clerk. "Tell him to send someone over immediately."
Zack Maynard, Liza's husband, was the county sheriff. Sometimes it was handy to have a relative with a badge.
"Stop it right this minute!" Maizie screamed. Lordy, she hadn't yelled that loud since her own cheerleading days. But it worked. Everyone in the shop went stock-still.
"Sit down. I will not tolerate a brawl in my store."
Lucy sputtered and Sue Belle straightened her blouse where PJ had latched on to her arm. Although the combatants looked as if they'd rather have tea with Satan, they reluctantly complied, settling on opposite ends of the brocade Victorian fainting couch near the change rooms. The cease-fire, however, didn't stop them from shooting baleful looks at each other.
"The dispatcher said someone would be here soon. But not to worry, the doughnut shop's not too far away." Bambi punctuated her report with a typical teenage giggle.
From her lips to God's ears.
Ten minutes later Deputy Bubba Watson strolled in, a trail of white powder dribbled down his uniform, and it wasn't cocaine. The poor man wasn't the sharpest crayon in the box, but he was the law. And if he could scare the bejeezus out of the nitwits, everything would be fine.
"What's this I hear about a fight?" he drawled, snapping his suspenders in unison with the popping of his gum.
Maizie indicated the two women. "There they are."
"Whatcha gals up to?" Bubba asked. His interrogation techniques weren't exactly FBI approved.
Sue Belle started to speak, but Lucy interrupted. "She wants to"
Not to be outdone, Sue Belle launched into her own spiel.
"That's it! Bubba, get them out of here before I do something I'll regret," Maizie demanded. She turned to Lucy and Sue Belle. "You two are permanently banned from the Boudoir. Do not darken this door again. Do you hear me? Never ever come in here again."
"Aw, Maizie. Don't be that way," Sue Belle wailed.
She was on the verge of tears, but that was too darned bad.
"Yeah." Lucy never had been able to keep her mouth shut. "If we can't shop at the Boudoir, we'll have to drive to Atlanta to find decent stuff. You can't really mean it."
"Oh, I do. Believe me."
Lucy's next words sealed her fate. "I'll sue you. Sure as shootin' I will."
Maizie managed to suppress a belly laugh. "Go ahead. My lawyer's a lot meaner than yours."
Cousin Kenni's husband, Win, was a former member of the D.C. legal scene. He was also Magnolia Bluff's newest and finest attorney and even though he specialized in criminal actions, he was perfectly capable of handling himself in civil court. That man could jump into a pool of sharks and come out without a scratch.
"Bring it on, baby." Maizie waved her fingers in the universal sign for "come and get it."
Bubba might've been a little slow, but even he recognized a good exit line. "Okay, ladies, let's go." He indicated the door. "One at a time, please." He gave Maizie a conspiratorial wink and a piece of advice before he escorted the offenders out. "Be good, now, ya hear?"
Maizie plopped on the couch, suddenly aware that her knees were knocking. "I can't wait to tell Clay. He won't believe this."
"Such dimwits." PJ shook her head in disgust. "Can't you just picture them rolling around on the floor and yankin' each other's hair out?"
PJ had been working for Maizie since she graduated from high school. When she wasn't helping run the boutique she was the happily married mother of two little mop-heads. A chubby version of Rachael Ray with curly blond hair and Hershey-brown eyes, PJ was as cute as a speckled pup. Plus, she had a ready smile, a sharp wit and the common sense of Solomon.
"On that note I think we deserve some chocolate." Maizie strolled to the back room and returned with a box of Belgian candy.
"Eat up," she said. "To heck with the calories." Maizie saved her "good stuff" for emergencies and celebrations, and this situation definitely qualified.
The remainder of the afternoon went by without incident. It was a typical Friday at the Boudoirpurchases were made, returns were processed and customers were accommodated.
The gold-leafed sign on the window read Miss Scarlett's Boudoir, and if the inventory was any indication, Miss Scarlett had had herself a grand old time. It was a treasure trove of lace pillows, frothy undergarments and feminine apparel. Even the bell above the door sounded girly.
It was kitschy, it was fun and it had something for everyone. The blue-hairs loved the bath and beauty selection and the teens were hot for the trendy collection of jeans. Best of all, Maizie and PJ were known throughout the area for the exclusive line of French cosmetics they applied with a flourish. If you were in the market for a makeover, the Boudoir was definitely the place to go.
Under normal circumstances the boutique was a fantastic place to work, but this day had been a doozey and Maizie was dead on her feet.
"PJ, would you close the shop today?" she asked. "I need to run by the grocery store. We're having a family football party at my house tomorrow."
"No problem. It's almost six o'clock anyway."
"I won't be in tomorrow. Bambi and Jerry Sue will be here to help you."
"Gotcha. Don't worry about a thing."
Maizie pulled into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. She was hoping to run in and out quickly but the chances of that happening in Magnolia Bluffswhere everyone knew everyone else's business and loved to discuss itwere slim.