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Sweet Caroline

Sweet Caroline

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by Rachel Hauck
     
 

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Caroline serves others with little time to enjoy the sweeter parts of life. Until her old boyfriend returns to town--and she's given a second chance at first love.

Life hasn't always been so sweet for Caroline Sweeny.

She's sacrifice her desires for others--unlike her mother who abandoned their family years ago. But when a friend

Overview

Caroline serves others with little time to enjoy the sweeter parts of life. Until her old boyfriend returns to town--and she's given a second chance at first love.

Life hasn't always been so sweet for Caroline Sweeny.

She's sacrifice her desires for others--unlike her mother who abandoned their family years ago. But when a friend challenges her to accept an exciting job adventure in Spain, Caroline says "yes" to a new destiny.

But before she can pack her bags, Caroline suddenly finds herself the new owner of the run-down Frogmore CafΘ--and forced to choose between her friends and her future.

Then her first love, Mitch O'Neal, returns home and encourages her to seek God's desires for her future. With his help, she may just discover the true sweet life.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Waitress Caroline Sweeney is afraid to tackle the challenge of running the café she has inherited, but after receiving encouragement from a friend, she plunges in. However, a romance with a country singer and a fire threaten to destroy the business and relationships she has built with her staff and customers.

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781418537197
Publisher:
Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date:
11/15/2010
Series:
A Lowcountry Romance
Sold by:
THOMAS NELSON
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
26,000
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Sweet Caroline


By Rachel Hauck

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2007 Rachel Hauck
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59554-337-0


Chapter One

Welcome to the Frogmore Café

Home of Bubba's Buttery Biscuits

Open: Mon-Thurs 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Fri-Sat 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sunday

Jones Q. McDermott, Proprietor since 1957

June 4 Beaufort, South Carolina

The sun rises in a pinkish-blue spring sky over the Beaufort River as I exit the old drawbridge and turn left onto Bay Street. My rusty red '68 Mustang jerks and shimmies, threatening to quit on me-again-while from the radio, Tim McGraw sings when the stars go blue.

The old girl's carburetor sputters and chokes. Mimicking Dad, I bang the dash. "Don't die on me, Matilda. I'm late for work." I mash the clutch and gun the gas, desperate to keep her alive. Matilda rattles and clanks in defiance.

Last month, while waiting for the drawbridge to swing closed, Matilda shot a plume of black smoke out her tailpipe and stalled with a kerplunk. What followed was a lot of car-horn swearing, then being pushed across the bridge by angry drivers who'd as soon shoot me as help me.

The car is giving me a rep.

But today I make it over the bridge in spite of Matilda's rattle trapping. Paul Mulroney of Mulroney's Bistro glances up from sweeping his walk as I rumble down Bay Street. He shakes his head, shouting something I can't quite make out. I smile and wave, doing my part to enhance community relations.

At seven thirty in the a.m., downtown Beaufort wakes up with a slow, sleepy feel. By midday, the streets will flow with tourists and tanned retirees looking to buy a slice of lowcountry life. If only people would make their way down to Jones McDermott's-may he rest in peace-little Frogmore Café on the corner of Bay and Harrington.

"A town treasure," the Beaufort Gazette called the Café in a story about Jones the day after his funeral. More like forgotten treasure. If it wasn't for the regulars-most of them senior citizens over sixty-the Café would be sunken treasure.

Making the light at Church Street, I swerve into the Café's gravel-and-crushed-shell parking lot. Stopping in the shade of a thick, ancient live oak, the Mustang's motor chokes and, at last, dies. "Ho, boy." When I try to restart, the engine refuses to fire.

"Fine, swell, great. Be that way."

Anointing the moment with a few soap-worthy words, I fish my cell phone from the bottom of my backpack and autodial Dad. While it rings on his end, I study the back of the Café. The paint is faded and peeling from a thousand afternoons of baking in the hot South Carolina sun. One side of the porch leans and slopes.

Since Jones's sudden death from a heart attack a few weeks ago, I've been managing the place with the rest of the crew-Andy, Mercy Bea, and Russell-trying to make a go of things. Business is slow. Money is almost nonexistent. Unfortunately, the heyday of the Frogmore Café echoes in the Valley of Time alongside beehive hairdos and eight-track cassettes.

Daddy's phone rings for the third time. Come on, pick up.

Mercy Bea Hart, the Café's senior waitress, steps through the kitchen door, lighting a cigarette, indicating to me with a jab at her watchless wrist that I'm late.

Thirty-some years ago, Mercy Bea had her fifteen minutes of fame when she won a Jayne Mansfield look-alike contest. Got her picture in a Hollywood magazine and appeared on The Mike Douglas Show. Ever since, she's maintained her once-won image-dyed-blonde bombshell hair, curvy figure with just the right amount of cleavage, red lips, and long, lacquered fingernails.

"Yeah, Caroline, what's up?" Dad's crisp question is accompanied by the grind of heavy equipment.

"Matilda."

"Again? Caroline, it may just be time to get rid of that thing."

We've had this conversation. "Can you tow it to CARS? Please?" I glance at my watch. Seven thirty-five. While I take care of the Café books, I also wait tables, and my regulars arrive at 8:02.

"Where are you?" Dad asks.

"The Café parking lot." Hitching my backpack higher on my shoulder, I lean against the car door. The morning is muggy but breezy, fragrant with the sour scent of the dark, soft pluff mud of the river marsh.

"At least you made it to work this time." A chuckle softens his tone.

Kudos for Matilda. "See, she isn't all bad."

"Keep telling yourself that, Caroline. I'll be along after this job. I'm down in Bluffton, and we're having trouble with the equipment."

"Thank you a thousand times over, Daddy."

"You're welcome a thousand times over."

Pressing End, I stuff my phone into the front pocket of my backpack and head for the Café's kitchen door. Mercy Bea snuffs out her cigarette in a stained-glass ashtray. "You're late."

"What are you, the time-clock gestapo? I was caught in bridge traffic."

"Can't be running in here late, Caroline." She settles the ashtray on the windowsill and follows me inside. "And you best get rid of that broken-down heap. Half the town's push-started you. Growing tired of it."

"How lucky I am to live in such a warm, friendly place. How's business this morning?" In the office, just off the kitchen, I flip on the light and unzip my backpack.

"Slow. I cleaned the bathrooms for you." Mercy Bea leans her shoulder against the doorjamb and picks at her brilliant-red fingernails. "Land sakes, I've got to get my nails done."

"You cleaned the bathrooms? For me." Tying on my apron, I gaze over at her.

"Don't act all surprised." She pops and cracks her gum. "You covered for me a few times when my young-sons got into trouble." Mercy Bea is a single mom of two teen boys she affectionately refers to as "young-sons."

"So ... anything new from Jones's lawyer?"

Aha. This is why she cleaned the bathrooms-to butter me up for information. Not that I'm keeping secrets. "Not since he called last Wednesday. He's still tied up with an estate case in Charleston. Said he'd be down as soon as he was free."

"Well, you let me know if you hear from him, now."

"Don't I always?"

Even though I'm not the senior Café employee, Jones's lawyer, Kirk Harris, deals directly with me. My guess is because I've been handling the business side of the Café for two years. It's the reason Jones hired me.

"I could use your help around here, Caroline. Someone to teach the Café ropes," Jones said to me one afternoon when I stopped by for some Frogmore Stew.

Learning the Café ropes wasn't high on my list of life goals, but between Jones's aged puppy-dog eyes and a mental picture of my Granddaddy Sweeney looking down from heaven, whispering, "Be sweet, Caroline; help out my old friend," I couldn't say no.

Jones started me out waiting tables, then added on bookkeeping and ordering. Turns out everyone at the Frogmore Café wears multiple hats. Though I'm not allowed to cook. All on account of almost burning down Beaufort High when I took home ec. But that's another story.

Exchanging my flip-flops for my black work clogs, I glance at Mercy Bea. "So, how'd your date with Ralph Carter go last night?"

Mercy Bea responds with a Cruella Devill cackle. "Oh, dear girl. He was a loser with a capital L-O-O-S-E-R."

"You mean L-O-S-E-R."

"That's what I said."

"You added an extra O."

"Caroline, I can spell loser." Her exhale is edgy. "I've certainly acquainted myself with enough of them."

Whatever. "So, all your great hair dye and makeup went to waste?" I retrieve my pen and order pad from the desk, then stuff my backpack into the bottom drawer.

"On him, yes. Though I looked pretty darn hot, if I say so myself."

"Miss Mansfield would be proud."

"I had a little bit of a flirt with a Marine pilot when L-O-S-E-R went to the toilet. Turns out he was married. But"-she jabs the air with her finger-"in my defense, he wasn't wearing a ring, and the wife was outside on her phone."

I snap my fingers. "Those darn non-wedding-ring-wearing pilots."

Mercy Bea whirls away from me with a huff, stopping long enough to point at the clock. "Hurry on out. The breakfast-club boys will be along soon."

I return to the kitchen. "Morning, Andy." The exhaust fans over the oven compete with the soulful sounds coming from the mini boom box on top of the reach-in. All I can hear is the bass line. "What's today's special?" The Emmitt Smith-sized cook looks up from pulling a couple of green peppers from the lowboy. "Barbeque chicken with choice of three vegetable sides-greens, corn, fried okra, corn on the cob, fried tomatoes, peas, or mashed potatoes. Bubba's Buttery Biscuits, of course, and a drink. Choice of dessert. Pluff Mud Pie or vanilla layer cake."

"I ordered more produce and shrimp Friday. Should come today."

"What'd they say over at Fresh Earth Produce?" Andy chops peppers for one of the breakfast-club boys' country omelet. "Rice Dooley is wanting money, I bet."

"Well, he doesn't consider us a charity." I snatch a hot, fresh biscuit from a baking sheet. Steam rises from the fluffy white middle when I pull it apart.

Rice: "We need some sort of payment, Caroline. Look, I know Jones didn't leave y'all in good shape, but can we see something?"

Me: "I understand, Mr. Dooley. I'll get a payment to you this week. But we need corn and shrimp or the Frogmore Café is without Frogmore Stew."

"I know you're doing all you can to juggle things, Caroline." Andy whacks an onion in two.

The soft bite of my biscuit melts in my mouth. "Unfortunately, there's more debt to juggle than credit."

In the aftermath of kind and compassionate Jones McDermott's death, I discovered a hard truth: he was a horrible businessman. As a result, I've learned how to tap dance around due dates, how to stretch imaginary dollars.

"Any word from the lawyer?" Andy asks, turning to the stove, pouring eggs into a hot skillet.

I'm going to write "Nope" across my forehead and point to it when people ask, "Any word from the lawyer?"

"Nothing new."

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Andy leans over the prep table toward me. "Mercy Bea is hoping Jones left the place to her?" He grabs a handful of diced veggies and sprinkles them on the cooking eggs.

"Why would she want this place?" I gesture to the dingy white kitchen walls and cheap linoleum floor. "It's a money pit, in need of some serious loving. The old girl needs an owner with deep, generous pockets."

"Mercy Bea or the Café?"

Brushing biscuit crumbs from the corner of my lips, I laugh softly and head for the dining room. "You're bad, Andy."

A guttural um-um-um vibrates from the cook's immense chest. "This money pit is putting food on my table, paying the bills. Gloria's been out of work for over a month now on account of her back. I need this job. I'm believing God has a plan."

The cook's confidence makes me pause at the kitchen door. "If there is such a thing as an all-knowing, all-seeing All Mighty, He might have a plan for the Café. But Jones? I'm not so sure."

Andy's large shoulders roll as he laughs. "Guess you're right about Jones. Yes sirree. But the wife and I are praying, Caroline."

"You do that. I'll wish upon a star."

Chapter Two

Daily Special

Barbeque Chicken Choice of Three Sides: Greens, Corn, Fried Okra, Corn on the Cob, Fried Tomatoes, Green Beans, or Mashed Potatoes Bubba's Buttery Biscuits Pluff Mud Pie or Vanilla Layer Cake. Tea, Soda, Coffee $6.99

The Christmas bells dangling down the glass-front door ring out as three retired Marines-Dupree Cornwallis, Luke Gold, and Pastor Winnie Smith-file in wearing their Semper Fi caps over their graying, receding hairlines.

Always faithful.

"Morning, fellas," I say, bringing around their orders. Five mornings a week, when the bells chime at eight-oh-two, Andy sets their food in the window.

"'Sweet Car-o-line,'" Pastor Winnie sings, clapping his long-fingered, dark hands together as he slides into a booth along the front wall by the windows. "'Good times never seemed so good.'"

Luke and Dupree supply the trailing bump, bump, bumps.

"You boys are feeling good this morning."

"God done made a beautiful day." Pastor Winnie always testifies.

"I was up all night, peeing." Dupree grunts as he slides into his side of the booth. He starts every morning with a bathroom story.

"No coffee for you, then? Caffeine, makes you ... you know ... go."

Luke chuckles. "She's got your number, Dupe."

"Worse than trekking to the head a hundred times in the night is facing the morning without coffee." Dupree drops his cap, embroidered with the Third Marine Division emblem, on the far side of the table. "Make mine extra black."

"Have it your way. Do you want to move to the booth by the restrooms?"

"Listen, Wet-Behind-the-Ears, I was drinking mud water in the Korean forest before you were a glint in your granddaddy's eye. Caffeine don't scare me."

The breakfast-club boys are the silver lining in my Café career. If I'd turned Jones down, I would've never met Dupree, Luke, or Pastor Winnie.

"Ignore him, Caroline." Mild-mannered and recently widowed Luke unrolls his silverware as I fill their coffee cups. "He's complained about the mud water for fifty years." He looks up at me. "Any news on the Café?"

Nope. I point to my forehead.

Luke wrinkles his.

I sigh. "No news."

"Don't know what I'd do without this Café." Pastor Winnie says, mixing his eggs with his grits. "Jones was one of the first in town to defy the old Jim Crow laws. Let the black man and the white man eat together."

Dupree nods. Luke um-hums. In that moment, their affection for the Café sweeps over me. When they lost Jones, they lost a friend. The Café is all they have left of him-a symbol of their friendship and youth.

Along with hundreds of other combat veterans, their names are on the Vet Wall.

When Jones bought this place in '57, it was a run-down 1850s home. In the process of fixing it up, he discovered two soldiers' signatures under a tacky layer of '30s wallpaper. So he created a memorial to the hundreds of veterans who have fought for our freedoms over the years. Since then, vets from World War I to the Iraqi conflict have signed the Wall. Their sacrifice is not forgotten.

Mercy Bea bumps up next to me with a pot of coffee. "Morning, boys." She checks to see if their cups need refilling. Which they don't. I'm on top of it here.

"Morning, Mercy Bea."

"How're you doing, Luke?"

He clears his throat, scratching his thumbnail across his brow. "Getting by. Never imagined I'd live life without Melba."

"It's hard on the man when the wife goes first." Mercy Bea flicks her free hand with an air of authority. "See it all the time when I take a shift at the nursing home. Men need women. Can't live without us." She checks the coffee level at table 4. "Women, see, are really the stronger of the sexes. We live long and healthy lives after our men go on."

"Ha!" Dupree slaps the table, calling after Mercy Bea. "A man can live long and fine without a woman. Especially a nagging one."

"Dupe," I say, "she's not insulting men. Just making an observation."

"Well, she best to hold on to some of her observations." He raises his voice, turning his chin over his shoulder so she can hear him loud and clear. "She might be able to trick a smart man into taking her to dinner."

Holding my laugh in, I point to his plate. "Your eggs are getting cold."

Dupree jerks his napkin from under the silverware. "Has my wife been by here? Giving you nagging tips?"

The Christmas bells clang again as two men enter the Café and take a seat at the counter. "I'll be around with more coffee."

The Café routine goes on as morning sunlight gleams through the windows. Jones would've wanted it this way.

After the breakfast rush-and I use the term loosely-the dining room is bright but quiet. Mercy Bea leans against the counter, reading the Gazette, sipping iced tea from a mason jar. In the kitchen, Andy ups the music as he preps casseroles for lunch. Russell, the Café's dishwasher and part-time cook, punches in and powers up the old dishwasher.

Snatching up another warm biscuit, I tuck away in the office to face the bills, sitting in the dilapidated desk chair and launching QuickBooks while I gaze around the long, narrow quarters. Jones was a pack rat. He saved old cookbooks, menus, place mats, and the odd broken oven knob. Once the Café is sold or handed over to the new owner, I'll volunteer to help decipher this mess for cleanup.

Bending under the desk, I open the tiny safe and pull out last night's deposit. If I didn't know better, I'd swear the bag was empty. Business is such that I only trek down to the bank once or twice a week. Every time I do, the bank manager, Mr. Mueller, gives me a look like, "Don't be asking for a loan, Caroline."

Don't you worry, Mr. Mueller. When Kirk finally gets around to reading Jones's will, I'll be free ...

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Sweet Caroline by Rachel Hauck Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Hauck. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rachel Hauck is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA TODAY bestselling author of The Wedding Dress, which was also named Inspirational Novel of the Year by Romantic Times and was a RITA finalist. Rachel lives in central Florida with her husband and two pets and writes from her ivory tower. Visit her online at rachelhauck.com Facebook: rachelhauck Twitter: @RachelHauck

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