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The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she'd had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn't be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handing the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor's office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson's invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird's nest outside. Harper Rowley's invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley's in his elderly mother's garden shed.
If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there's more to what's written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don't see.
But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.
The envelope sat untouched on the back counter of Willa's store for over a week. She picked it up curiously when it had been delivered with the other mail, but then she'd dropped it like it had burned her as soon as she'd recognized what it was. Even now, when she walked by it, she would throw a suspicious glance its way.
"Open it already," Rachel finally said with exasperation that morning. Willa turned to Rachel Edney, who was standing behind the coffee bar across the store. She had short dark hair and, in her capris and sport tank, looked like she was ready to go climb a large rock. No matter how many times Willa told her she didn't actually have to dress in the clothes the store sold-Willa herself rarely deviated from jeans and boots-Rachel was convinced she had to represent.
"I'm not going. No need to open it," Willa said, deciding to take on the mundane task of folding the new stock of organic T-shirts, hoping it would help her ignore the strange feeling that came over her every time she thought of that invitation, like a balloon of expectation expanding in the center of her body. She used to feel this way a lot when she was younger, right before she did something really stupid. But she thought she was past all of that. She'd padded her life with so much calm that she didn't think anything could penetrate it. Some things, apparently, still could.
Rachel made a tsking sound. "You're such an elitist."
That made Willa laugh. "Explain to me why not opening an invitation to a gala thrown by the richest women in town makes me elitist."
"You look at everything they do with disdain, like they're just too silly to be believed."
"I do not."
"Well, it's either that or you're repressing a secret desire to be one of them," Rachel said as she put on a green apron with Au Naturel Sporting Goods and Café embroidered on it in yellow script.
Rachel was eight years younger than Willa, but Willa had never written off Rachel's opinions as those of just another twenty-two-year-old who thought she knew everything. Rachel had lived a vagabond and bohemian life, and she knew a lot about human nature. The only reason she had settled in Walls of Water, for now, was because she'd fallen in love with a man here. Love, she always said, changes the game.
But Willa didn't want to get into what she did or didn't feel about the rich families in town. Rachel had never spent more than a few months in any one place growing up. Willa had lived here almost her whole life. She inherently understood the mysterious social dynamics of Walls of Water; she just didn't know how to explain them to people who didn't. So Willa asked the one question she knew would distract Rachel. "What's on the menu today? It smells fantastic."
"Ah. Excellent stuff, if I do say so myself. Trail mix with chocolate- covered coffee beans, oatmeal cookies with coffee icing, and espresso brownies." She gestured like a game-show hostess to the snacks in the glass case under the counter.
Almost a year ago, Willa had let Rachel take over the previously closed coffee bar in the store and gave her the go-ahead to put snacks that had coffee as an ingredient on the menu. It had turned out to be a great idea. Walking into the shop in the mornings was actually a pleasure now. Being met by the sharp scent of chocolate mingling with the moist scent of brewing coffee had a dark, secretive feel to it, like Willa had finally found the perfect place to hide.
Willa's store, which specialized in organic sportswear, was on National Street, the main road leading
to the entrance of Cataract National Forest, widely known for its beautiful waterfalls, in the heart of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. All the shops catering to the hikers and campers were located here, in
one long, busy stretch. And it was here that Willa had finally found her niche, if it could be called that. Truthfully, she didn't care much for hiking or camping or any of the outdoorsy stuff that sustained the town, but she was so much more comfortable with the other shop owners and the people new to town than she was with the people she knew in her youth. If she had to be here, this was where she belonged, not with the glittery townies.
The stores were housed in old buildings that had been built more than a century ago, when Walls of Water was just a tiny logging town. The ceilings were pierced tin, and the floors were nail-worn and lemony. With the slightest pressure, they creaked and popped like an old woman's bones, which was how Willa knew Rachel had approached her.
She turned and saw Rachel extending the dreaded envelope. "Open it."
Willa reluctantly took it. It was thick and rich, and felt like cashmere paper. Just to get Rachel off her back, she tore it open. The moment she did, the bell above the door rang, and they both looked up to see who it was.
But no one was there.
Rachel rubbed her bare arms, which were goose-pimply. "I just got a chill."
"My grandmother would say that meant a ghost passed by you."
Rachel snorted. "Superstitions are man's way of trying to control things he has no control over."
"Thank you, Margaret Mead."
"Go on." Rachel nudged her. "Read it."
Willa took out the invitation and read:
On August 12, 1936, a small group of ladies in Walls of Water, North Carolina, formed a society that has since become the most important social club in the area, one that organizes fund-raisers, sponsors local cultural events, and gives out yearly scholarships.
It is with great pride that the current members of the Women's Society Club invite you, as a past member or relative of a past member, to a special commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the formation of this great organization.
Come help us celebrate 75 years of sparkling good deeds. The party will be the first event held in the newly restored Blue Ridge Madam, on August 12 at 7 p.m.
rsvp with the enclosed card to Paxton Osgood, President.
"See?" Rachel said from over Willa's shoulder. "That's not so bad."
"I can't believe Paxton's holding it in the Blue Ridge Madam."
"Oh, come on. I'd give anything to see the inside of that place, and so would you."
"I'm not going."
"You're crazy to pass this up. Your grandmother-"
"Helped found the club, I know," Willa finished for her as she set the invitation aside. "She did, I didn't."
"It's your legacy."
"It has nothing to do with me."
Rachel threw her hands in the air. "I give up. Do you want some coffee?"
"Yes," Willa said, glad for the end of this conversation. "Soy milk and two sugars." Just this past week, Rachel had become convinced that how people took their coffee gave some secret insight into their characters. Were people who took their coffee black unyielding? Did people who liked their coffee with milk and no sugar have mother issues? She had a notebook behind the coffee counter in which she wrote her findings. Willa decided to keep her on her toes by making up a different request every day.
Rachel walked back to the coffee bar to write that down in her notebook. "Hmm, interesting," she said seriously, as if it made all the sense in the world, as if she'd finally figured Willa out.
"You don't believe in ghosts, but you do believe that how I take my coffee says something about my personality."
"That's superstition. This is science."
Willa shook her head and went back to folding shirts, trying to ignore the invitation, now sitting on the table. But it kept catching her eye, fluttering slightly, as if caught in a breeze.
She flopped a shirt over it and tried to forget about it.
When they closed up shop that evening, Rachel headed off to meet her boyfriend for an evening hike, which was so annoyingly healthy that Willa made up for it by taking a brownie out of the snack case and eating it in three big bites. Then she got in her bright yellow Jeep Wrangler to go home to do laundry. Wednesday nights were always laundry nights. Sometimes she even looked forward to it.
Her life was monotonous, but it kept her out of trouble. She was thirty years old. This, her father would say, was called being an adult.
But instead of heading straight home, Willa turned onto Jackson Hill, her private daily detour. It was a steep mountain slope and a dramatic drive, almost foreboding, but it was the only way to get to the antebellum mansion at the top, locally known as the Blue Ridge Madam. Ever since renovation had started on the place well over a year ago, Willa had made these secret treks up the hill to watch the progress.
The place had been abandoned years ago by the last in a series of shady developers. It had fallen into disrepair and had been slowly disintegrating when the Osgood family stepped in and bought it. Now almost fully restored, and soon to be a bed-and-breakfast with a banquet hall, the wide white Doric columns were back, spanning the length of the house in a dramatic neoclassic fashion. The lower portico now had a period-piece chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The upper portico had cast-iron chairs on it. And it was now a startling mass of windows, whereas before they'd all been broken and boarded up. It looked like something out of the old South, a plantation manor where women in hoop skirts fanned themselves and men in suits talked about crop prices.
The Madam had been built in the 1800s by Willa's great-great- grandfather, the founder of the now-defunct Jackson Logging Company. It had been a wedding gift to his young wife-a beautiful, delicate woman from a prominent family in Atlanta. She'd loved the house, considered it her equal, but she had hated this mountain town called Walls of Water, hated its lonely green wetness. She'd been known for throwing elaborate balls in hopes of coaxing the citizens to become as fine as she wanted them to be. It never happened. Not able to make society out of what she had, she'd decided to bring society to her instead. She'd persuaded her friends from Atlanta to come for visits, to build homes, to treat this place as a playful paradise, something she'd never felt herself, but she'd been very good at convincing others. It was the particular magic of beautiful, unsatisfied women.
And so a rich society had formed in this tiny North Carolina town surrounded by waterfalls, a town once populated mainly by rough logging men. These well-to-do families were curious, incongruous, and stubborn. Not welcome at all. But when the government bought the surrounding mountain forest and turned it into a national park, and the local logging industry dried up, it was these families who helped the town survive.
The irony was that the Jacksons, once the finest family in town, the reason for the town's existence in the first place, lost all their money when the logging stopped. The memory of who they used to be, and the money they used to have, sustained them for a while. But then they couldn't pay their taxes and had been forced to move out of the Madam. Most who had the last name of Jackson left town. But one stayed, a teenager named Georgie Jackson-Willa's grandmother. She was seventeen, unmarried, and pregnant. She became, of all things, a maid to the Osgood family, who were once great friends to the Jacksons.
Willa pulled to the side of the road just before the turn to the driveway up to the Madam. She always timed it so that she got here after the crew had left for the day. She got out of her Wrangler and climbed onto the hood, leaning back against the windshield. It was late July, the hottest, thickest part of summer, alive with the drone of love-sick insects. She put on her sunglasses against the setting sun and stared up at the house.
The only thing left to the renovation was the landscaping, which apparently had gotten under way just that day. That excited Willa. New things to study. She could see that there were wooden stakes and string markers making a patchwork of squares across the front yard, and there were different-colored dashes painted on the grass, indicating where the underground utility lines were so workers wouldn't dig there. Most of the activity, however, seemed centered on the area around the only tree on the flat top of the hill, where the house sat.
The tree was right at the precipice of the left slope. Its leaves grew in long, thin bunches, and its limbs were stretched wide. When light hit the tree at just the right time in the evening, it actually looked like someone on the edge of a cliff, about to dive into the ocean. A backhoe was parked next to the tree, and plastic strings were tied around the branches.
They were going to take it down?
She wondered why. It seemed perfectly healthy.
Well, whatever they did, it was guaranteed to be for the better. The Osgoods were known for their good taste. The Blue Ridge Madam was going to be a showplace again.
As much as Willa didn't want to admit it, Rachel was right. She would love to see what the inside looked like. She just didn't think she had any right to. The house hadn't been in her family since the 1930s. Even getting this close felt like trespassing . . . which, if she was honest with herself, was one of the reasons she did it. But she'd never even had the nerve to get close enough to look in when she was a teenager, and it had been a right of passage to break into the decaying house. In her youth, she'd pulled every prank known to man, and had been so good at it that no one had known it was her until the very end. She'd been a legend her graduating class had called the Walls of Water High School Joker. But this place was different. It'd had a mysterious push-pull effect on her, and still did. Every teenager who had ever broken into the house had come away with stories of mysterious footsteps and slamming doors and a dark fedora that floated through the air, as if worn by an invisible man. Maybe that was what had always kept her from getting too close. Ghosts scared her, thanks to her grandmother.
Willa sat up and reached into the back pocket of her jeans. She brought out the invitation and read it again. It said to RSVP with the enclosed card, so Willa looked in the envelope for the card and brought it out.
She was surprised to find a Post-it attached to it that read:
Your grandmother and my grandmother are the only two surviving members of the original club, and I'd like to plan something special for them at the party. Call me and let's try to work something out.
Her handwriting was pretty, of course. Willa remembered that from high school. She had once taken a note that Paxton had accidentally dropped in the hallway and kept it for months-a strange list about characteristics Paxton wanted her future husband to have. She'd read it over and over, studying Paxton's sloping y's and jaunty x's. She'd studied it so much, she found she could replicate it. And once she'd had that skill, it had been impossible not to use it, which had resulted in a very embarrassing encounter between uppity Paxton Osgood and Robbie Roberts, the school's own redneck lothario, who'd thought Paxton had sent him a love letter.
The Walls of Water High School Joker had struck again.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Willa jumped at the voice, her heart giving a sudden kick in her chest. She dropped the invitation, and it flew on the wind to the owner of the voice, standing a few feet to the right of her Wrangler.
He had on dark trousers with a blue paisley tie sticking out of one of his pockets. His white dress shirt was translucent with sweat, and his dark hair was sticking to his forehead and neck. Mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes. The invitation hit him flat against his chest and flapped there like a fish out of water. He smiled slightly, tiredly, as he peeled it off, as if this was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now. This was a sign, she thought. Though of what, she had no idea. It was just what her grandmother would say when something unexpected happened, usually accompanied by instructions to knock three times and turn in a circle, or put chestnuts and pennies on the windowsill.
He took off his sunglasses and looked up at her. A strange expression came over his face, and he said, "It's you."
She stared at him until she understood. Oh, God. To be caught here was one thing; to be caught here by one of them was something else entirely. Mortified, Willa quickly slid off the hood and darted inside the Jeep. It was a sign, all right. A sign that meant Run away as fast as you can.
"Wait," she heard him say as she started the engine.
But she didn't wait. She kicked the Jeep in gear and raced away.