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"Who is she?"
"Her name is Sunny Chandler."
"You know her?"
"Since third grade."
"Might have been second grade."
"So she grew up here?"
"Where's she been?"
"All your life?"
The first man frowned as he looked down at the second. "Where's she been?" he repeated sternly.
The second man was properly cowed. "New Orleans." His syrupy Southern accent made the pronunciation "Nawlins." "Moved there a few years back. She's a seamstress."
"A seamstress?" He never would have guessed that by looking at her.
"Something like that. Wanda could tell you more about what she's been doing."
He had every intention of asking the other man's wife later all about this Sunny Chandler. She had aroused his curiosity. And his curiosity, like all his other appetites, never went unappeased for long.
However, for the moment, he was content just to watch Sunny Chandler as she circulated among the other party guests. No longer a small-town girl, she stuck out like a sore thumb.
Bad comparison, he thought. Sore thumbs were unsightly. He had yet to find a single unsightly thing about this woman.
"Why did she leave town?" he asked.
His companion chuckled. "You'd never believe it."
"Well, it was like this." In a low voice, the man began to share the juiciest piece of gossip ever to come out of Latham Green.
The subject of the not-to-be-believed tale that was being recounted across the room stifled a bored yawn. The sudden burst of laughter startled her, as it did everyone else nearby. Turning, Sunny saw two men standing by the wall of windows, which overlooked the golf course. The tall blond one was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.
Probably telling each other dirty jokes, Sunny thought with distaste. These yokels didn't know how to behave in polite company. The back room at the pool hall and this formal parlor of the country club were one and the same to them. They had no sense of decorum.
The bridegroom's family had gone all out for this bash they were hosting in honor of the wedding couple. Since no expense had been spared, the chef had put his best efforts into the buffet. The decorator had depleted the stock of wholesale florists for miles around; the large salon was festooned with bouquets of colorful flowers. While the country club's budget was usually stretched to hire a local sextet for their dances, tonight's music was being provided by a jazzy dance band imported from Memphis.
They weren't bad, either, Sunny thought. She caught the bandleader's roving eye and smiled up at him when they began playing a Kenny Rogers ballad. He winked at her. She winked back, then quickly turned her attention to the buffet. Keeping her head down, she concentrated on filling her plate.
Groaning inwardly, Sunny painted on a fake smile and turned around. "Why, hello, Mrs. Morris."
"Long time no see, girlie."
Eloquent ol' biddy. "Yes, it's been a while."
"Three years." Three years, two months, six days. Obviously not long enough for people to forget.
"Are you still in New Orleans?"
"Still there." And loving it. Loving any place that isn't Latham Green.
"You're looking good."
The observation was intended as a dig. Sunny considered it a supreme compliment. Mrs. Morris crammed a mushroom stuffed with deviled crab into her mouth and chewed vigorously. Then, as though afraid Sunny might run off before she could ply her with more nosy questions, she asked quickly, "And your folks? How are they?"
"Fine, just fine." Sunny turned her back on the woman and picked up a raw oyster on the half shellsomething she wouldn't have eaten in a million years even though she was now a resident of New Orleansand set it on her plate.
Mrs. Morris, however, wasn't attuned to nuances and had never heard of body language. She went on, undaunted.
"They're still in Jackson?"
"They don't come back very often. But then after . . . well, you know what I mean. It's still difficult for them, I'm sure."
Sunny wanted to set down her plate, leave the room, leave the town, leave the parish, just as she had three years ago. The only thing that kept her planted now in front of the melon bowl was the determination not to give anybody the satisfaction of having scared her off.
"Do y'all still own that cabin out on the lake?"
Before Sunny could fashion a response, the honoree of the party came up to her. "Sunny, could I impose on you to help me with my hair? I feel a strategic pin slipping. Please? Excuse us, Mrs. Morris."
Sunny deserted her half-filled plate of food. She hadn't wanted to eat, she'd merely wanted to keep her hands busy. "Thanks," she said under her breath as her friend linked arms with her and led her out of the formal salon and down the hall toward the powder room.
Fran was laughing. "You looked as if you needed rescuing. Or maybe Mrs. Morris was the one in peril. I was afraid you were going to eat that Swedish meatball and then skewer her with the toothpick."
They made certain they were alone in the powder room beneath the stairs and locked the door behind them to guarantee privacy. Sunny leaned against the door and drew an exasperated breath. "And you wonder why this is my first time back in three years. Do you blame me for staying away? She was all but frothing at the mouth, crazed with a lust to know all the titillating details of my life in the big city."
Fran was sitting at the aproned vanity table repairing her lipstick. "Are there any titillating details of your life in the big city?" She cast Sunny a teasing glance in the oval, framed mirror. Sunny's icy stare only evoked another laugh.
"Relax, Sunny. This is Small Town, U.S.A. What else have people like Mrs. Morris got to do?"
"Watch the grass grow?"
"Right. They have to occupy themselves with each other's business. And, let's be frank, you gave them a lot of material to work with several years ago."
"I wasn't trying to get their attention."
"Well, you got it anyway. For all these years, they've been dying to know why you did what you did. Your parents moved away soon afterward, so they were no help in supplying an answer to the riddle. Now you show up looking like a character straight off the set of Dynasty, by all appearances unscathed by the incident. They're dying to know what prompted you to do such an unheard-of thing. Can you blame them for being curious?"
"Yes, I can blame them. The gossips practically drove my parents nuts with their childish curiosity. Mom and Dad couldn't go anywhere without being on the receiving end of snide looks and prying questions. Even so-called friends pestered them about it. They bowed to the pressure and left."
"I thought they left because your dad got that job in Jackson."
"That's the reason they gave me, but I never believed it. I was the reason they relocated. I've got to live with that, Fran." She took a lipstick from her miniclutch and dabbed her lips with it. "But thanks for the compliment about me looking like one of the women in Dynasty."
Fran smiled. "Ladies around here wear either short cocktail dresses or long formals. They never heard of matinee length. All their hems are even, not raggedy like yours. No one would think of putting tangerine and violet together, but it looks sensational on you," she said, admiring Sunny's dress. It looked like the artful crisscrossing and draping of several scarves.
"And, my word, my word," Fran exclaimed, clapping her cheeks in theatrical horror, "have you really got two holes pierced in one ear? You're bound to be a pinko! I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were a Yankee or two in your family tree."
Laughing, Sunny swatted the air inches from Fran's nose. "Be quiet! You're making me laugh, and I don't want to laugh."
Fran clasped Sunny's hand warmly. "I know you didn't want to come back here, and that the only reason you did was for my wedding. I realize what a sacrifice it was, and I appreciate it."
"I wouldn't have missed your wedding, Frannie. You know that. Although . . ."
"Although you don't understand why I want to get married again," Fran finished for her.
"Something like that."
Sunny stared earnestly into Fran's eyes. It seemed to her that Fran was only digging a deeper rut for herself. She had had a chance to take her two children and leave this backwater town after obtaining a divorce from her first husband. But Fran had stayed, stuck out all the gossip, and was getting married again.
"Sunny, I love Steve. I want to marry him, have a baby with him." Fran's expression pleaded for understanding. "I thought I was in love with Ernie, but I only saw what everybody else did, a dashing football hero. Unfortunately, that was the sum total of what he was. When he couldn't be that anymore, he fell apart, turned to drinking, turned to other women. They still cheered him on instead of telling him to grow up as I, the nagging wife, did.
"Well, Steve's as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. He loves me, he loves the girls. He's not as handsome as Ernie, and he hasn't got that built-like-a-brick-outhouse body, but he's a real man, not an overgrown child."
Sunny patted Fran's hand. "I'm happy for you. You know that. I think the world of Steve for making you whole again. It's just that I can't imagine anybody actually choosing that kind of life. I feel lucky to have escaped it."
"Only because you haven't found the right man to share it with." Fran arched her brow. "Speaking of which, I don't suppose you've seen your ex-fiance."
"No, and I hope I don't." Sunny fiddled with her hair. "He and Gretchen are still married, I suppose."
"Yes, but one hears things. The scuttlebutt is that"
"No!" Sunny said. "I don't want to know. I won't stoop to the level of everybody else in town and yearn for the latest gossip." She looked at Fran's hairdo critically. "Your hair is perfect. Where's that slipping pin you mentioned?"
"That was only a ploy to get you away from Mrs. Morris." Fran popped up off the vanity stool in a movement almost too spry for a thirty-year-old mother of two children.
The friends left the powder room, giggling like girls, the way they had done through junior and senior high school. Fran drew a more serene face when they reentered the salon. Her intended spotted her and moved toward her and Sunny.
"Hon, the president of the company just arrived from Baton Rouge," Steve told her. "He can't wait to meet you. Says he wants to see the woman who convinced a confirmed old bachelor like me to get married. 'Xcuse us, Sunny."
She watched as the successful insurance executive whisked his future bride away to meet his boss. Steve proudly introduced Fran and her two young daughters. Sunny was delighted over Fran's newfound happiness. After being married to Ernie, she certainly did deserve it.
Steve placed a protective and proprietary arm around Fran's slender shoulders. Sunny saw the instinctive, unconscious gesture. It wordlessly conveyed the way Steve felt about his future wife. Sunny attributed the empty feeling that suddenly seized her to hunger and decided to give the buffet another try.
As if returning to Latham Green hadn't been bad enough in itself, it was adding insult to injury that she had had to return for a wedding. Don, the man she had almost married, was a subject she knew she would be faced with. At least she had survived the first mention of him and didn't have to dread that milestone any longer.
Talking about him had brought back all the negative emotions she had left behind her three years ago. She had thought she was rid of them for good, but it seemed that they had been perching like gremlins on the city limit signs, just waiting for her to return. The moment she had, they had reclaimed her.
She should have known better than to come back. But how could she refuse Fran's request to attend her second wedding? She couldn't. Nor would Fran settle for her appearing only at the ceremony and making a hasty getaway afterward. Before she realized what had happened, Sunny had committed herself to attending this party and staying until after the wedding. While she was here she planned to take care of some business, but she still had to live through the week. One week. One week in a town she had sworn never to see again. Would she survive it?
Perhaps. But not without compensations. Compensations like indulging a craving or two, she thought as she eyed the array of desserts at the end of the buffet table. Little transgressions like that would help to keep her sane. She deserved a reward, didn't she? How could she lend Fran moral support if she didn't fortify herself with little treats?
Before she could talk herself out of it, she took two triple-chocolate-dipped strawberries from a silver tray and found a secluded corner in which to eat them. Forbidden fruit they were, if a woman wanted to maintain a svelte figure. But forbidden fruit was just the kind Sunny needed at the moment.
Holding the tiny green stem between her thumb and finger, she bit into the first strawberry. The dark chocolate outer layer was bittersweet against her tongue. Then the milk chocolate coated the roof of her mouth with its rich, velvet texture. Next, almost like a benediction, the mellow white chocolate soothed her palate and prepared it for the succulent ruby fruit her teeth sank into.
She chewed it with slow, sinful relish, letting each layer of chocolate melt and fill her mouth with its particular degree of sweetness.
It was a sensuous experience, not only for Sunny, but for the man watching her from across the room. Casually propped against the wall, ankles crossed, long legs at a slant, he watched Sunny Chandler's carnal destruction of two chocolate-covered strawberries. She made eating them such an erotic exercise that his own mouth watered, more for a taste of the lips and tongue that did them such delectable justice than for the strawberries themselves.
"Still got your eye on her, I see."
He shifted his weight but didn't remove his gaze from the woman. "Sunny Chandler's an eyeful," he admitted to the man who had rejoined him.
"Always was. One of the prettiest girls in school. Classy, you know?"
"What she did before she left wasn't very classy. Why'd she do it?"
"Well now, if I knew that, I'd be the only one."
The taller man looked down at his friend. "Oh, yeah? She just pulled a stunt like that and left?"
"Like that." He snapped his fingers. "Left her bridegroomDon Jenkins, you know himhigh and dry." He jabbed the other man in the ribs. "No pun intended."
They laughed together, but not loud enough to detract attention from the future bride and groom, who were busy opening wedding gifts amid appreciative oohs and aahs.