Three Miss Margarets [NOOK Book]

Overview

Miss Peggy, Dr. Maggie, and Miss Li’l Bit, friends and confidantes for nearly a lifetime, find it funny and bewildering that they have become icons in Charles Valley, Georgia. Little does the rest of the town know that beneath the irreproachable façades of its three doyennes lies an explosive decades-old secret that is about to be revealed.

Thirty-odd years ago the three Miss Margarets did something extraordinary, clandestine, and very ...
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Three Miss Margarets

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Overview

Miss Peggy, Dr. Maggie, and Miss Li’l Bit, friends and confidantes for nearly a lifetime, find it funny and bewildering that they have become icons in Charles Valley, Georgia. Little does the rest of the town know that beneath the irreproachable façades of its three doyennes lies an explosive decades-old secret that is about to be revealed.

Thirty-odd years ago the three Miss Margarets did something extraordinary, clandestine, and very illegal. Although they are haunted by the night that changed their lives, they believe that their crime was simply a matter of righting an egregious wrong. But when a stranger’s arrival in town and a tragic death open the floodgate of memory, their loyalty, friendship, and honor are tested in ways they could never have imagined—particularly when they have to contend with Laurel Selene, a young woman who has spent her life nursing an alcoholic mother and a huge grudge. Now Laurel is on the verge of discovering what happened the night the three Miss Margarets swore their oath of secrecy. Once she knows, will she reveal the truth about the three women she was raised to despise? Or will she face her own troubled history and put the dark legacy they all share behind them?

The Three Miss Margarets is an irresistible, page-turning exploration of the past and the myriad ways it exerts a hold on the present.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Beth Kephart
Shaffer's novel begins with a homey, Southern narrative voice that rapidly crescendos into lively, resounding chatter. A former soap opera actress (Ryan's Hope, All My Children, Shaffer has a knack for building complex characters with clever, cutting lines. The three Margarets of the title are an elderly trio of unmarried women who, three decades before the novel opens, participated in an illicit act that they've managed to keep secret until now. Just what that secret is, and how it will affect other members of their cloistered Georgia town, is the engine that propels the narrative forward. Shaffer relies on multiple points of view to tell her story. Ultimately, it is this fractured quality, combined with the melodrama of the plot, that prevents the book from being as good as it might have been in Shaffer's entertaining hands.
Publishers Weekly
Three elderly white Georgia women, all named Margaret, share a deep friendship and a dark secret in this winning debut by actress and television writer Shaffer. For reasons not entirely clear even to her, Laurel Selene McCready has inherited her mother's grudge against "the three Miss Margarets," upstanding icons in rural Charles Valley. Returning home drunk late one night, she spies the three ladies congregating unaccountably in a deserted cabin. The body of Vashti Johnson, a renowned African-American geneticist who had returned to Charles Valley to visit her mother, is soon discovered in the cabin, prompting an investigation by the police, as well as by Laurel Selene and her new boyfriend Josh, a journalist who's writing a book about Vashti. As the three Miss Margarets struggle with how much to reveal about Vashti's life and death, they also reflect on their own longtime intimacy and on the race hatred in their community that led, decades ago, to a series of ghastly crimes. Shaffer's achievement is making each Miss Margaret a complex character with a fiercely guarded interior life. She doesn't belabor the social forces that defined the lives of these doyennes; instead, she gradually reveals Dr. Maggie Harris's lesbian love life, Margaret (Li'l Bit) Hanning's decadelong affair with a redneck gardener and Peggy Garrison's embattled domestic arrangement. Sometimes Shaffer leans too much on heavy-handed foreshadowing, and the secondary characters are thin, especially Laurel Selene and Josh. Yet the three Miss Margarets are wholly imagined, rich creations whose reticence speaks volumes about their time and place. Agent, Eric Simonoff. Author tour. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Thirty years ago, the leading ladies of Charles Valley, GA, did something terribly wrong for a very good reason. Now their secret is about to pop out. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Old murder haunts a rural Georgia community, in a debut from TV writer and soap actress Shaffer. Some think the three Margarets know what happened—but the old ladies said all they had to say a long time ago. A New York journalist working on a book about the world-famous scientist Vashti Johnson, who grew up in Charles Valley, picks up Laurel McReady, a major-haired divorcée with a big mouth, at a bar and gets her to explain. She starts with the story of L’il Bit (a.k.a. Margaret Elizabeth), the hopelessly plain, too-tall, galumphing daughter of Harrison Banning III, whose radical politics and NAACP membership scandalized everyone in town. Then there’s Dr. Maggie, an in-the-closet lesbian, whose do-gooding knows no color. (Maggie’s childhood friend Lottie was black, and Maggie never got over her guilt about getting a fine education when Lottie couldn’t.) These two befriended the much-younger Peggy, a white-trash goddess, after she was raped by Grady Garrison, a brute whose rich parents always indulged him. Later, she married Grady’s father, old Dalton Garrison, who never knew about the rape until years after their May-December union. Moving right along, Laurel explains that her ne’er-do-well father died mysteriously on the same night as Richard Johnson, who married Lottie’s daughter Nella. Richard Johnson, black and proud in a way that got white folks riled, was run over after an altercation with Grady, apparently over the favors of sweet but stupid Nella, who left town with her own daughter, Vashti, shortly thereafter. The three Margarets saw to Vashti’s education, and the smart little girl grew up to become a brilliant scientist. But she came back home, dying of brain cancer, tocommit suicide, and it’s been whispered that the three Margarets were there when she did. Eventually, Laurel gets out the whole story of the three old ladies, in mind-boggling detail. First fiction endangered by a life-threatening case of exposition.
From the Publisher
“Rich, funny . . . Fans of Fannie Flagg and Adriana Trigiani, take note. Shaffer has created a little piece of heaven.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A ROMP OF A READ–warm but never smarmy, wise without pretense of profundity. Shaffer tells a good story that’s part mystery but mostly an exploration of loyalty and friendship.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“THE MISS MARGARETS ARE TREASURES . . . Shaffer unfolds the story deftly. . . . Each of the three Miss Margarets is a wonderfully realized character; each has a closely guarded secret life.”
The Boston Globe

“A HIGH LEVEL OF SUSPENSE . . . Drop by this charming Southern town. No doubt you’ll be invited to join the three Margarets on the veranda and sip sweetened tea, lemonade, or even
Gentleman Jack . . . and enjoy the promise of a good read.”
The Roanoke Times

“PROVOCATIVE . . . A FUN READ. Those who appreciated Steel Magnolias and the ‘Ya Ya Sisters’ will enjoy this closely bonded group of women.”
Anniston Star (AL)

“Louise Shaffer is a magnificent storyteller. She weaves a tale so rich and compelling, you will be unable to put it down. A triumph!”
–ADRIANA TRIGIANI
Author of the Big Stone Gap trilogy

“[A] fine first novel . . . A surprising amount of suspense . . . Shaffer explores the familiar territory of the small-town South, its undying issues of race and class, with insight, humor, and compassion.”
Orlando Sentinel

“I shouldn’t have started The Three Miss Margarets so late in the day, nor kept on reading into the early hours of the morning. But so I did, and a fine, satisfying story it was, too–well worth the loss of sleep.”
–ANN B. ROSS
Author of Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind

“Intriguing . . . The Three Miss Margarets is immensely appealing in its depth of characterization. . . . Readers are sure to enjoy getting to know these women for their strength, daring, and selflessness.”
Times Daily (Florence, AL)

“A can’t-put-it-down Southern tale [with] a good plot and a sense of mystery.”
The Columbus Dispatch

“A SOUTHERN GOTHIC WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR.”
Poughkeepsie Journal

“What a pleasure it is to hear the voice of Louise Shaffer, and all the wonderful characters she brings to life in The Three Miss Margarets. An entire world is splendidly evoked, a gripping mystery heightens the tension, and always we are guided along with great skill by the fresh, funny voice of the author. I loved this book.”
–MARK CHILDRESS
Author of Crazy in Alabama

“The story never lags, leaping back and forth between present and past, showing how much the latter creates the former. Shaffer has a pleasing way with a phrase.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Lively . . . A homey, Southern narrative voice . . . Shaffer has a knack for building complex characters with clever, cutting lines.”
Book magazine

“[A] winning debut . . . The three Miss Margarets are wholly imagined, rich creations whose reticence speaks volumes about their time and place.”
Publishers Weekly

“GLORIOUS . . . A TRIUMPH.”
TV Guide Online

“Thick with mystery and heartbreak and unforgettable characters, The Three Miss Margarets is a story of yearning and love and redemption, of uncommon and unquenchable friendships stretching across race and class, compellingly illuminated by a writer with a razor-keen understanding of the heart.”
–KEN WELLS
Author of Meely LaBauve

The Three Miss Margarets invites readers on a roller-coaster journey spanning three generations of laughter, secrets, and tears.”
Soaps in Depth

“Thrilling . . . [Shaffer] builds into her time-tripping page-turner enough heartbreak and cliffhangers to keep SOAPnet in plot twists for years.”
In Touch Weekly

“Shaffer unravels this tale with skill, building enough sense of foreboding to be enticing as she reveals the backgrounds of the major characters . . . and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.”
Booklist

THE THREE MISS MARGARETS ARE TREASURES . . . Shaffer unfolds the story deftly and slowly, evoking the climate of racial hatred and class tension that led, many years before, to a series of crimes. Each of the three Miss Margarets is a wonderfully realized character; each has a closely guarded secret life.”
The Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345478641
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/3/2004
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 92,518
  • File size: 431 KB

Meet the Author

Louise Shaffer
Louise Shaffer, a graduate of Yale Drama School, has written for television and has appeared on Broadway, in TV movies, and in daytime dramas, earning an Emmy for her work on Ryan’s Hope. Shaffer and her husband live in the Lower Hudson Valley.


From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

Louise Shaffer, a graduate of the Yale Drama School, has written for television and has appeared on Broadway, in TV movies, and in daytime dramas, earning an Emmy for her work on Ryan's Hope. Her debut novel, The Three Miss Margarets, was released in 2003. Shaffer and her husband live in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

Good To Know

Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Shaffer:

"I'm a prude. That's not a good thing -- in fact, when I was younger I used to worry that it would stunt my creativity. But I'm lazy, and debauchery takes tons of energy -- if you're going to do it right. I'm proud of the fact that my husband and I have rescued and adopted thirty-seven animals since we got married – thirty-eight if you count the pig. His name was Hubie and he wasn't a cute little pot-bellied number, he was a full-fledged 750 pound hog who played football -- his rules and we didn't argue. Beyond that, the only other thing anyone needs to know about me is, I've had more dumb luck when it comes to family, friends and work than any one person deserves."

"My big break came when I landed a gig on a soap opera that went on and off the air in six months. In those days a show had to be really bad to tank that fast. The crew in the studio where we were shooting wanted a game show in there because it would have meant a lot less work for them, so they were always forgetting to do things like nail down the sets. I played one love scene while holding up the bedroom wall and when I had to do one of those endless coffee scenes in the kitchen, there was a prop guy hiding in the fridge. He hadn't moved fast enough when they yelled action. We didn't do retakes on this show because they were canceling us and trying to save money."

"My best writing inspirations always come when I'm cleaning the kitty litter. Don't ask me why. I'm serious, please don't ask me, because I don't want to think about it."

"The things I dislike most are bullies, prejudice, people who have all the answers, and CEOs who go on national television to explain why they had to cut jobs for twenty thousand workers while they just picked up a forty million dollar bonus."

"The things I love are puppies, kittens, roses, Pavarottis's voice, birthday cakes, fancy dress, the glint in my mother's eye when she's just put one over on her solicitous kids, and my husband's smile when he's really happy."

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

She’d gone to bed with her shoes on, and not by accident. She’d deliberately climbed under the covers fully clothed and pushed her shod feet down between the clean sheets. Because she felt like it. Because she was mad at the world at large and whatever force passed for God in particular. Because it was the kind of thing an icon didn’t do. And Margaret Elizabeth Banning, otherwise known as Miss Li’l Bit, definitely qualified as an icon in her little part of the world. Which just went to show that if you lived long enough, any old damn thing could happen to you. At least it could in a place as lacking in a sense of humor as Charles Valley. Humor and memory. There probably weren’t five people left in town who remembered that in her youth, at six feet tall, with far more nose than chin and a father who was, to put it politely, different, she had been considered a disaster. Then she was the homely-as-a-mud-fence daughter of the local lunatic who couldn’t get herself a man if her life depended on it. Now she was an icon.

“That Miss Li’l Bit,” the locals would say, to visitors who’d come to Charles Valley to soak up its southern charm and visit its world-famous horticultural center, “she’s the real thing—Old South to her toes. She’s a Banning on her daddy’s side. They’ve been here since before the War of Northern Aggression, which is what we like to call it.” Pause to allow the listener to chuckle at adorable southern humor. “She still lives in that big old white house that’s been in the Banning family since her great-granddaddy bought it in eighteen sixty-eight. Runs it herself, does Miss Li’l Bit, just has that girl Cora come in to do for her twice a week. And she keeps up the Old Justine Gardens too. Well, they’re not the originals, you understand, but she redid them close to. The Justine family is famous in these parts. They owned a plantation that covered all of Lawson County until the family lost it during Reconstruction. Miss Li’l Bit’s great-granddaddy bought the big house and the gardens around it to keep it from going for taxes. The Justines were his wife’s people, cousins a couple of times removed. And Miss Li’l Bit, she keeps the gardens like they were back in the olden days. Why, she’s even got some magnolia trees that were put in a hundred years ago.” Pause for inevitable tourist response to quaint local eccentricities. “Yes, ma’am, I guess we Southerners do take our history real serious. And Miss Li’l Bit—like I said, she’s the real thing.”

Well, the “real thing” was lying like a lump under her blankets, wearing the skirt and blouse she’d put on yesterday morning, her support hose, and her second-best pair of Natural Bridge oxfords. Her admirers would be shocked. And if they knew what else she’d done in her time. . . . But she wasn’t going to think about that.

She hoisted herself up in bed so she could read the clock on her nightstand. The numbers were insultingly large, meant for eyes that were starting to fail, although of course the salesgirl who suggested it had not said so. Her nap had lasted forty-four minutes. Pleased, she turned off the vanquished alarm. She prided herself on waking before the thing went off, because no clock was going to tell her when it was time to stop sleeping. Especially not tonight. She was in control tonight. She had to be.

Slowly, she pulled herself out of bed, her knees giving her the hard time she’d come to expect. But she wasn’t going to coddle them. Tonight there was no such thing as aching joints. Tonight her body would have to perform.

The phone rang. “Yes, Peggy,” she said, too quickly to give the caller time to identify herself. Proving she was still in control. Staying a step ahead of the music.

“We’re here,” said Peggy. Her voice sounded tired, not too young for her age as it usually did. “Maggie’s in the cabin. I came out to call you from the car phone.”

“I assumed as much.” It was indulgent and needlessly showy to have rented a car with a telephone in it, and she’d told Peggy so when she got the foolish thing.

“Do you need me to come get you?” Peggy asked.

“No, I’ll be fine on my own.”

“It’s real cold out, Li’l Bit. Couldn’t you please drive?”

“I’ll have my flashlight, and I’ll take the shortcut over the ridge.” Impossible to explain how much she needed the short walk alone in the dark to collect her thoughts.

There was a weary laugh on the other end of the phone.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded.

“Maggie said you’d want to walk through the woods. She says when you’re alone in the woods that’s when you pray.”

That was total nonsense. She did not pray—not in the mealy-mouthed way most people meant—she never had and she never would. She left the praying to Maggie, who insisted in believing in her saints and Madonnas in spite of having a first-class mind and an excellent education.

Peggy continued. “That’s what we’ve been doing, Li’l Bit. We’ve been praying. Maggie gave me her rosary beads and we’ve been saying that prayer to Jesus’ mother. I never thought I could do it tonight, but somehow having those beads in your hands really helps. And it’s much easier praying to a woman; at least that’s how it feels to me. Maybe I should convert to Catholicism after all these years. What do you think?” She laughed again, and sounded close to tears. Too close.

“Peggy, how much have you been drinking?”

Pause. “Not more than usual. And Maggie’s sharp as a tack. She’s remembering everything. So if you’ll just change your clothes, the three Miss Margarets will be fine.”

“I wish you wouldn’t use that ridiculous phrase. It makes us sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan trio.” No need to address the issue of changing her clothes. Maggie and Peggy knew her too well.

“Li’l Bit, stop stalling. It’s not as bad as you’re afraid it’s gonna be.” There were times when Peggy could be unpleasantly clear-sighted. “Just get yourself over here now,” she said, and hung up.

Peggy was right. It was time to get on with it. Li’l Bit took a moment to steady herself, then marched into her bathroom, where she’d already laid out her clean clothes. Her freshly ironed clothes, thank you very much.

As she entered the bathroom, a dog the size and color of Gentle Ben heaved herself up from her resting place on top of the heating vent and came over, her long brush of a tail wagging happily. Automatically Li’l Bit reached out in time to save a box of tissues that was perched on the vanity before it went flying.

“Petula’s lights are usually on dim,” Peggy had said, when she conned Li’l Bit into adopting the half-starved mongrel, “but she’ll be a true and believing acolyte. You two need each other.” Peggy was ruthless when it came to finding homes for strays that were left at the shelter she had founded; she’d talked poor Maggie into taking three. Peggy named her dogs after performers she had admired over the years. Giving them a little pizzazz, was the way she put it.

“Not now,” Li’l Bit said to the dog. “I can’t take you for a walk. Go back to sleep.” Petula sighed and plopped back down on the vent. Li’l Bit picked up her comb and began to drag it painfully through hair she hadn’t touched in days.

It was so like Peggy to turn to the sloppy comfort of Maggie’s religion. Well, let them chant over their beads and confess their sins and beg for God’s mercy. Li’l Bit would not be joining them. She did not need mercy. And as for praying to God, she sincerely hoped she’d been right all her life and no such being existed. If one did, he or she had much to answer for.

Suddenly the comb became too heavy. She put it down and turned away from the mirror. Petula was still watching her. Li’l Bit lowered herself to the floor, ignoring the grumbling of her knees, and wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck, burying her face in thick black fur. But she was not crying. On this night she would not shed one tear.

Peggy got out of the car and looked at the cabin in front of her. In spite of her brave words to Li’l Bit, she needed a minute before going back inside. She leaned back against the car and looked up at the stars. She shouldn’t have teased Li’l Bit by bringing up the three Miss Margarets. They’d been called that for as long as anyone could remember, but Li’l Bit hated it. It was the idea of being lumped together that made her so mad. Li’l Bit’s fascination with her own uniqueness had always been a pain in the butt. Lately, some of the things she’d been doing were downright weird, like that trick of hers of going to sleep in her clothes. Maggie said it was a form of depression. Well, they were all depressed, and mad, and desperately sad too, but Peggy couldn’t see the point in letting yourself go. If anything, she’d been even more careful to keep herself together. She’d had her hair done early that morning before she and Maggie drove to Atlanta. But then she’d always been one for keeping up appearances. So often they were all you had. In her mid-sixties, she was still the perfect size six she’d been when being a size six meant something. She favored the cotton-candy shade of blond that had done so much for Marilyn Monroe’s career, fringed her china-blue eyes with black mascara, and accented her still-curvy mouth with a coral lipstick that was specially formulated not to settle into the cracks. No one had ever seen her wearing flats.

She forced herself to look at the cabin again. In the dark, the little house almost looked cozy. You couldn’t see the peeling paint and the weeds climbing up onto the porch. The old peach tree dying of neglect in the backyard wasn’t visible at night.

The cabin nestled at the foot of a curved ridge that separated Maggie’s thirty acres, the eighty-odd acres Li’l Bit owned, and the two hundred and sixty acres Peggy had inherited when she became the widow Garrison. Peggy, Li’l Bit, and Maggie split, not evenly, a pie-shaped piece of land that sat awkwardly in the middle of Highway 22. A dirt road connected the cabin at the center of the wedge with the highway. As was explained in the informative brochure provided to tourists by the Charles Valley Visitors Bureau, all this land had originally been the rolling lawns surrounding the Justine Great House. Back then the might of the family had been such that the road had been split to go around it. The configuration was kept when Highway 22 was put in decades later.

The lawns were long gone, as were the Justines. Over the years Maggie’s family had bought the piece she now owned, Li’l Bit’s people had acquired the chunk her house sat on, and the rest had been swallowed up by the Garrisons—as had just about everything else in the area. Much of the land between the houses was now a forest of wild pines and kudzu mixed with the remnants of old peach and pear orchards. All that remained of Justine grandeur besides Li’l Bit’s house were four huge live oaks, the last of a line of trees that once grew along the top of the ridge. Peggy looked up at them, ancient, silent witnesses to what she—what they all—would be doing that night. She shivered and scanned the ridge instead.

But there was no sign of Li’l Bit’s large frame emerging from the darkness. Why did she have to pick this night to go scampering through the forest like some outsized nymph? She had a perfectly good car; she could have driven like a sane person. The last thing they needed on this night was Li’l Bit with a broken leg. Peggy leaned back against the car, lit a cigarette, and tried not to want a drink. She’d deliberately left her engraved thermos (somehow it made being a lush better if your accessories were attractive) back at her house.

Maggie had had the electricity turned on in the cabin so a faint glow was coming from the shuttered windows, and the smell of the wood fire she and Maggie had laid in the fireplace was starting to perfume the air. Had the chimney been cleaned for this night or had Maggie been keeping it up all along? Even though she no longer owned it, Maggie still took care of the cabin. Peggy wished someone would tear the stupid thing down. She wished Li’l Bit would show up. She wished she could have a damn drink.

In the distance a dog started to bark. After a second, several more joined in. She sighed; they were probably hers. She had twelve dogs in residence at the moment. The Historical Society crowd was very upset with the way she let her darlings run free in the house, which was a Garrison home and therefore a shrine.

Once in the early eighties there had been talk about having the place turned into some kind of landmark, on the grounds that it was the largest log house in the nation, but the whole thing came to nothing when it was discovered that a country singer in Nashville had built a bigger one. So her babies continued to run the hallowed halls, scratching up the foyer with doggy toenails and periodically peeing on sacred heart-pine floors. A large wooden sign outside her home proclaimed it to be garrison cottage, a form of old-money understatement she had once found enchanting. Presidents and prime ministers had slept under that eight-thousand-square-foot tin roof; there were brass plaques on the doors of the bedrooms to prove it. Sonny and Cher, her two pit bull– husky mixes, slept in the room some ambassador from France had used when he stayed with the Garrisons in the fifties. The three-legged black Lab puppy she’d named Elvis swam in the pool where FDR had taken his daily exercise.

Peggy stubbed out her cigarette carefully in the dirt driveway. All they needed was a fire tonight. Funny to think that as ambivalent as she was about her home now—and there were days when she really hated it—there had been a time when she had wanted it enough to pay any price for it. Be careful what you wish for, children.

The barking trailed off. The cabin still loomed in front of her. And the night still stretched out ahead of them. It wasn’t right to leave Maggie on her own this long. She took a deep breath and started toward the cabin, then stopped. Just a few minutes more, she told herself. She lit another cigarette and looked up at the stars again.

Inside the cabin, Maggie closed the bedroom door behind her and moved into the living room. The important thing was to keep focused, she told herself. Just think about one thing at a time. And stay in the present. No wandering back to the past and getting lost in days long gone. There would be no escaping tonight, though normally she believed in it with all her heart. Escapism, denial, and the occasional lie were the Holy Trinity of survival as far as she was concerned. To hell with the psychiatrists. Let them live to be eighty-six, then they could talk to her. The fact was, she’d always been tougher than she looked. When you were not quite five feet tall, had never weighed more than ninety-seven pounds, and had a face that had once been described as doll-like, people tended to underestimate you—which was a big mistake.

She looked around the room, checking to see if she’d missed a dust ball or a spiderweb when she’d cleaned it. It was spotless. But it was all wrong, because it was empty. If she closed her eyes for just a minute, Maggie could see it the way it should be, with the things that belonged there. There were four kitchen chairs and a wooden table with a red linoleum top in one corner, a sagging bed that served as both a sofa and place to sleep rammed against the wall. Tossed over it, a hand-stitched quilt pieced together from scraps of denim, blue jeans, and overalls that had become too frayed to mend, and backed with old flour sacks; the antiques dealers who descended on Charles Valley every weekend would pay a fortune for that quilt today. A rag rug—also handmade—protected the precious wood floor, and dominating the center of the back wall was an old Philco cabinet radio purchased secondhand after electricity was installed in the cabin. Those were the things that belonged in this room. She could see it all clear as day, and she could hear the voices laughing. But she mustn’t let herself. Not now. Later would be time enough to escape. Now she had to be clear.

She moved to the window and looked out at Peggy standing next to the car. The poor thing still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to come back in. Well, it was only natural. She was the youngest of the three of them, and she hadn’t had as much time to toughen. Besides, Peggy never had been as strong as she and Li’l Bit were.

Maggie was feeling very strong tonight. She was a little light-headed, and her heart was fluttering. But given the fact that it had been broken, it was doing well to beat at all.

She pulled away from the window and looked back at the bedroom. It wasn’t empty. It was fully equipped.

When she first joined the Roman Catholic Church it was the Agnus Dei that attracted her, a mantra of forgiveness that seemed to her to be the heart of her new faith. The priests said it in Latin then, the majesty of the language giving it a power that was reassuring in those years when she had been so young and needy. The words floated through her mind now.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

“Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”

But would He? Or had they finally gone too far? The fluttering in her chest pushed up to her throat; the light-headedness became a roaring in her ears. Palpitations, she diagnosed, good doctor that she was. A reduction of stress was what she would prescribe. Her mind made a frantic dash for safety, away from this empty room back to the time when it had been the center of a home. Back to the time when two young girls rolled back the rag rug and danced the Charleston on the wood floor.

That was when it had all begun for her. That was the time that had made her different. Because she and Peggy and Li’l Bit were all different. That was why they had been able to do what they had done. And it was why, after so many years, they were able to do what they were going to do now. Maggie sighed and closed her eyes. It had all come full circle, and it was right to have it happen here in this cabin, where they had made decisions and changed lives. For the better, she prayed. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

And now the circle was complete. Except for the one loose end they’d never been able to fix. Except for the girl.

“Maggie?” Peggy’s gentle voice yanked Maggie back from her thoughts. She blinked and saw Li’l Bit and Peggy standing in the doorway of the cabin. Peggy was looking like she’d love to run. Behind her, Li’l Bit was trying to be stoic and succeeding except for her eyes.

“Are you okay, Maggie?” Peggy asked.

She nodded. Of course she was. Now that they were together she was fine. “I was just thinking,” she said.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

She'd gone to bed with her shoes on, and not by accident. She'd deliberately climbed under the covers fully clothed and pushed her shod feet down between the clean sheets. Because she felt like it. Because she was mad at the world at large and whatever force passed for God in particular. Because it was the kind of thing an icon didn't do. And Margaret Elizabeth Banning, otherwise known as Miss Li'l Bit, definitely qualified as an icon in her little part of the world. Which just went to show that if you lived long enough, any old damn thing could happen to you. At least it could in a place as lacking in a sense of humor as Charles Valley. Humor and memory. There probably weren't five people left in town who remembered that in her youth, at six feet tall, with far more nose than chin and a father who was, to put it politely, different, she had been considered a disaster. Then she was the homely-as-a-mud-fence daughter of the local lunatic who couldn't get herself a man if her life depended on it. Now she was an icon.

"That Miss Li'l Bit," the locals would say, to visitors who'd come to Charles Valley to soak up its southern charm and visit its world-famous horticultural center, "she's the real thing—Old South to her toes. She's a Banning on her daddy's side. They've been here since before the War of Northern Aggression, which is what we like to call it." Pause to allow the listener to chuckle at adorable southern humor. "She still lives in that big old white house that's been in the Banning family since her great-granddaddy bought it in eighteen sixty-eight. Runs it herself, does Miss Li'l Bit, just has that girl Cora come in to do for her twice aweek. And she keeps up the Old Justine Gardens too. Well, they're not the originals, you understand, but she redid them close to. The Justine family is famous in these parts. They owned a plantation that covered all of Lawson County until the family lost it during Reconstruction. Miss Li'l Bit's great-granddaddy bought the big house and the gardens around it to keep it from going for taxes. The Justines were his wife's people, cousins a couple of times removed. And Miss Li'l Bit, she keeps the gardens like they were back in the olden days. Why, she's even got some magnolia trees that were put in a hundred years ago." Pause for inevitable tourist response to quaint local eccentricities. "Yes, ma'am, I guess we Southerners do take our history real serious. And Miss Li'l Bit—like I said, she's the real thing."

Well, the "real thing" was lying like a lump under her blankets, wearing the skirt and blouse she'd put on yesterday morning, her support hose, and her second-best pair of Natural Bridge oxfords. Her admirers would be shocked. And if they knew what else she'd done in her time. . . . But she wasn't going to think about that.

She hoisted herself up in bed so she could read the clock on her nightstand. The numbers were insultingly large, meant for eyes that were starting to fail, although of course the salesgirl who suggested it had not said so. Her nap had lasted forty-four minutes. Pleased, she turned off the vanquished alarm. She prided herself on waking before the thing went off, because no clock was going to tell her when it was time to stop sleeping. Especially not tonight. She was in control tonight. She had to be.

Slowly, she pulled herself out of bed, her knees giving her the hard time she'd come to expect. But she wasn't going to coddle them. Tonight there was no such thing as aching joints. Tonight her body would have to perform.

The phone rang. "Yes, Peggy," she said, too quickly to give the caller time to identify herself. Proving she was still in control. Staying a step ahead of the music.

"We're here," said Peggy. Her voice sounded tired, not too young for her age as it usually did. "Maggie's in the cabin. I came out to call you from the car phone."

"I assumed as much." It was indulgent and needlessly showy to have rented a car with a telephone in it, and she'd told Peggy so when she got the foolish thing.

"Do you need me to come get you?" Peggy asked.

"No, I'll be fine on my own."

"It's real cold out, Li'l Bit. Couldn't you please drive?"

"I'll have my flashlight, and I'll take the shortcut over the ridge." Impossible to explain how much she needed the short walk alone in the dark to collect her thoughts.

There was a weary laugh on the other end of the phone.

"What's so funny?" she demanded.

"Maggie said you'd want to walk through the woods. She says when you're alone in the woods that's when you pray."

That was total nonsense. She did not pray—not in the mealy-mouthed way most people meant—she never had and she never would. She left the praying to Maggie, who insisted in believing in her saints and Madonnas in spite of having a first-class mind and an excellent education.

Peggy continued. "That's what we've been doing, Li'l Bit. We've been praying. Maggie gave me her rosary beads and we've been saying that prayer to Jesus' mother. I never thought I could do it tonight, but somehow having those beads in your hands really helps. And it's much easier praying to a woman; at least that's how it feels to me. Maybe I should convert to Catholicism after all these years. What do you think?" She laughed again, and sounded close to tears. Too close.

"Peggy, how much have you been drinking?"

Pause. "Not more than usual. And Maggie's sharp as a tack. She's remembering everything. So if you'll just change your clothes, the three Miss Margarets will be fine."

"I wish you wouldn't use that ridiculous phrase. It makes us sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan trio." No need to address the issue of changing her clothes. Maggie and Peggy knew her too well.

"Li'l Bit, stop stalling. It's not as bad as you're afraid it's gonna be." There were times when Peggy could be unpleasantly clear-sighted. "Just get yourself over here now," she said, and hung up.

Peggy was right. It was time to get on with it. Li'l Bit took a moment to steady herself, then marched into her bathroom, where she'd already laid out her clean clothes. Her freshly ironed clothes, thank you very much.

As she entered the bathroom, a dog the size and color of Gentle Ben heaved herself up from her resting place on top of the heating vent and came over, her long brush of a tail wagging happily. Automatically Li'l Bit reached out in time to save a box of tissues that was perched on the vanity before it went flying.

"Petula's lights are usually on dim," Peggy had said, when she conned Li'l Bit into adopting the half-starved mongrel, "but she'll be a true and believing acolyte. You two need each other." Peggy was ruthless when it came to finding homes for strays that were left at the shelter she had founded; she'd talked poor Maggie into taking three. Peggy named her dogs after performers she had admired over the years. Giving them a little pizzazz, was the way she put it.

"Not now," Li'l Bit said to the dog. "I can't take you for a walk. Go back to sleep." Petula sighed and plopped back down on the vent. Li'l Bit picked up her comb and began to drag it painfully through hair she hadn't touched in days.

It was so like Peggy to turn to the sloppy comfort of Maggie's religion. Well, let them chant over their beads and confess their sins and beg for God's mercy. Li'l Bit would not be joining them. She did not need mercy. And as for praying to God, she sincerely hoped she'd been right all her life and no such being existed. If one did, he or she had much to answer for.

Suddenly the comb became too heavy. She put it down and turned away from the mirror. Petula was still watching her. Li'l Bit lowered herself to the floor, ignoring the grumbling of her knees, and wrapped her arms around the dog's neck, burying her face in thick black fur. But she was not crying. On this night she would not shed one tear.

Peggy got out of the car and looked at the cabin in front of her. In spite of her brave words to Li'l Bit, she needed a minute before going back inside. She leaned back against the car and looked up at the stars. She shouldn't have teased Li'l Bit by bringing up the three Miss Margarets. They'd been called that for as long as anyone could remember, but Li'l Bit hated it. It was the idea of being lumped together that made her so mad. Li'l Bit's fascination with her own uniqueness had always been a pain in the butt. Lately, some of the things she'd been doing were downright weird, like that trick of hers of going to sleep in her clothes. Maggie said it was a form of depression. Well, they were all depressed, and mad, and desperately sad too, but Peggy couldn't see the point in letting yourself go. If anything, she'd been even more careful to keep herself together. She'd had her hair done early that morning before she and Maggie drove to Atlanta. But then she'd always been one for keeping up appearances. So often they were all you had. In her mid-sixties, she was still the perfect size six she'd been when being a size six meant something. She favored the cotton-candy shade of blond that had done so much for Marilyn Monroe's career, fringed her china-blue eyes with black mascara, and accented her still-curvy mouth with a coral lipstick that was specially formulated not to settle into the cracks. No one had ever seen her wearing flats.

She forced herself to look at the cabin again. In the dark, the little house almost looked cozy. You couldn't see the peeling paint and the weeds climbing up onto the porch. The old peach tree dying of neglect in the backyard wasn't visible at night.

The cabin nestled at the foot of a curved ridge that separated Maggie's thirty acres, the eighty-odd acres Li'l Bit owned, and the two hundred and sixty acres Peggy had inherited when she became the widow Garrison. Peggy, Li'l Bit, and Maggie split, not evenly, a pie-shaped piece of land that sat awkwardly in the middle of Highway 22. A dirt road connected the cabin at the center of the wedge with the highway. As was explained in the informative brochure provided to tourists by the Charles Valley Visitors Bureau, all this land had originally been the rolling lawns surrounding the Justine Great House. Back then the might of the family had been such that the road had been split to go around it. The configuration was kept when Highway 22 was put in decades later.

The lawns were long gone, as were the Justines. Over the years Maggie's family had bought the piece she now owned, Li'l Bit's people had acquired the chunk her house sat on, and the rest had been swallowed up by the Garrisons—as had just about everything else in the area. Much of the land between the houses was now a forest of wild pines and kudzu mixed with the remnants of old peach and pear orchards. All that remained of Justine grandeur besides Li'l Bit's house were four huge live oaks, the last of a line of trees that once grew along the top of the ridge. Peggy looked up at them, ancient, silent witnesses to what she—what they all—would be doing that night. She shivered and scanned the ridge instead.

But there was no sign of Li'l Bit's large frame emerging from the darkness. Why did she have to pick this night to go scampering through the forest like some outsized nymph? She had a perfectly good car; she could have driven like a sane person. The last thing they needed on this night was Li'l Bit with a broken leg. Peggy leaned back against the car, lit a cigarette, and tried not to want a drink. She'd deliberately left her engraved thermos (somehow it made being a lush better if your accessories were attractive) back at her house.

Maggie had had the electricity turned on in the cabin so a faint glow was coming from the shuttered windows, and the smell of the wood fire she and Maggie had laid in the fireplace was starting to perfume the air. Had the chimney been cleaned for this night or had Maggie been keeping it up all along? Even though she no longer owned it, Maggie still took care of the cabin. Peggy wished someone would tear the stupid thing down. She wished Li'l Bit would show up. She wished she could have a damn drink.

In the distance a dog started to bark. After a second, several more joined in. She sighed; they were probably hers. She had twelve dogs in residence at the moment. The Historical Society crowd was very upset with the way she let her darlings run free in the house, which was a Garrison home and therefore a shrine.

Once in the early eighties there had been talk about having the place turned into some kind of landmark, on the grounds that it was the largest log house in the nation, but the whole thing came to nothing when it was discovered that a country singer in Nashville had built a bigger one. So her babies continued to run the hallowed halls, scratching up the foyer with doggy toenails and periodically peeing on sacred heart-pine floors. A large wooden sign outside her home proclaimed it to be garrison cottage, a form of old-money understatement she had once found enchanting. Presidents and prime ministers had slept under that eight-thousand-square-foot tin roof; there were brass plaques on the doors of the bedrooms to prove it. Sonny and Cher, her two pit bull– husky mixes, slept in the room some ambassador from France had used when he stayed with the Garrisons in the fifties. The three-legged black Lab puppy she'd named Elvis swam in the pool where FDR had taken his daily exercise.

Peggy stubbed out her cigarette carefully in the dirt driveway. All they needed was a fire tonight. Funny to think that as ambivalent as she was about her home now—and there were days when she really hated it—there had been a time when she had wanted it enough to pay any price for it. Be careful what you wish for, children.

The barking trailed off. The cabin still loomed in front of her. And the night still stretched out ahead of them. It wasn't right to leave Maggie on her own this long. She took a deep breath and started toward the cabin, then stopped. Just a few minutes more, she told herself. She lit another cigarette and looked up at the stars again.

Inside the cabin, Maggie closed the bedroom door behind her and moved into the living room. The important thing was to keep focused, she told herself. Just think about one thing at a time. And stay in the present. No wandering back to the past and getting lost in days long gone. There would be no escaping tonight, though normally she believed in it with all her heart. Escapism, denial, and the occasional lie were the Holy Trinity of survival as far as she was concerned. To hell with the psychiatrists. Let them live to be eighty-six, then they could talk to her. The fact was, she'd always been tougher than she looked. When you were not quite five feet tall, had never weighed more than ninety-seven pounds, and had a face that had once been described as doll-like, people tended to underestimate you—which was a big mistake.

She looked around the room, checking to see if she'd missed a dust ball or a spiderweb when she'd cleaned it. It was spotless. But it was all wrong, because it was empty. If she closed her eyes for just a minute, Maggie could see it the way it should be, with the things that belonged there. There were four kitchen chairs and a wooden table with a red linoleum top in one corner, a sagging bed that served as both a sofa and place to sleep rammed against the wall. Tossed over it, a hand-stitched quilt pieced together from scraps of denim, blue jeans, and overalls that had become too frayed to mend, and backed with old flour sacks; the antiques dealers who descended on Charles Valley every weekend would pay a fortune for that quilt today. A rag rug—also handmade—protected the precious wood floor, and dominating the center of the back wall was an old Philco cabinet radio purchased secondhand after electricity was installed in the cabin. Those were the things that belonged in this room. She could see it all clear as day, and she could hear the voices laughing. But she mustn't let herself. Not now. Later would be time enough to escape. Now she had to be clear.

She moved to the window and looked out at Peggy standing next to the car. The poor thing still hadn't gotten up the nerve to come back in. Well, it was only natural. She was the youngest of the three of them, and she hadn't had as much time to toughen. Besides, Peggy never had been as strong as she and Li'l Bit were.

Maggie was feeling very strong tonight. She was a little light-headed, and her heart was fluttering. But given the fact that it had been broken, it was doing well to beat at all.

She pulled away from the window and looked back at the bedroom. It wasn't empty. It was fully equipped.

When she first joined the Roman Catholic Church it was the Agnus Dei that attracted her, a mantra of forgiveness that seemed to her to be the heart of her new faith. The priests said it in Latin then, the majesty of the language giving it a power that was reassuring in those years when she had been so young and needy. The words floated through her mind now.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

"Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us."

But would He? Or had they finally gone too far? The fluttering in her chest pushed up to her throat; the light-headedness became a roaring in her ears. Palpitations, she diagnosed, good doctor that she was. A reduction of stress was what she would prescribe. Her mind made a frantic dash for safety, away from this empty room back to the time when it had been the center of a home. Back to the time when two young girls rolled back the rag rug and danced the Charleston on the wood floor.

That was when it had all begun for her. That was the time that had made her different. Because she and Peggy and Li'l Bit were all different. That was why they had been able to do what they had done. And it was why, after so many years, they were able to do what they were going to do now. Maggie sighed and closed her eyes. It had all come full circle, and it was right to have it happen here in this cabin, where they had made decisions and changed lives. For the better, she prayed. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

And now the circle was complete. Except for the one loose end they'd never been able to fix. Except for the girl.

"Maggie?" Peggy's gentle voice yanked Maggie back from her thoughts. She blinked and saw Li'l Bit and Peggy standing in the doorway of the cabin. Peggy was looking like she'd love to run. Behind her, Li'l Bit was trying to be stoic and succeeding except for her eyes.

"Are you okay, Maggie?" Peggy asked.

She nodded. Of course she was. Now that they were together she was fine. "I was just thinking," she said.
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Reading Group Guide

Miss Peggy, Dr. Maggie, and Miss Li’l Bit, friends and confidantes for nearly a lifetime, find it funny and bewildering that they have become icons in Charles Valley, Georgia. Little does the rest of the town know that beneath the irreproachable façades of its three doyennes lies an explosive decades-old secret that is about to be revealed.

Thirty-odd years ago the three Miss Margarets did something extraordinary, clandestine, and very illegal. Although they are haunted by the night that changed their lives, they believe that their crime was simply a matter of righting an egregious wrong. But when a stranger’s arrival in town and a tragic death open the floodgate of memory, their loyalty, friendship, and honor are tested in ways they could never have imagined—particularly when they have to contend with Laurel Selene, a young woman who has spent her life nursing an alcoholic mother and a huge grudge. Now Laurel is on the verge of discovering what happened the night the three Miss Margarets swore their oath of secrecy. Once she knows, will she reveal the truth about the three women she was raised to despise? Or will she face her own troubled history and put the dark legacy they all share behind them?

The Three Miss Margarets is an irresistible, page-turning exploration of the past and the myriad ways it exerts a hold on the present.

1. When the three Miss Margarets took the law into their own hands, there were fatal consequences. Do you think they were justified in what they did?

2. As we discover early in the novel, Josh is not exactly who he appears to be. Do you think he is a trustworthy character? What exactly are his intentions,and how do they shift? How do your feelings for him change throughout the novel? Do you think he and Laurel are ultimately meant to be together?

3. For their era, the three Miss Margarets were unusual women in the sense that none of them had settled down into conventional families. Does a lack of that kind of responsibility or connection empower a woman to think outside the box? Do relationships and focusing on others hinder us in some ways? Do you think the unraveling of events would have occurred in the same way had all three Miss Margarets been wives and/or mothers?

4. Throughout the course of The Three Miss Margarets, the author often shifts the setting back in time. What effect do these flashbacks have on the reader? And why does Shaffer especially focus on the three Miss Margarets’ adolescences when she revisits their pasts?

5. The action the three Miss Margarets took thirty years ago continues to have repercussions for them and Laurel. Has any decision you’ve ever made affected you for many years? Do you think the three Miss Margarets have any ultimate regrets about what they did? How did other characters’ choices, particularly those of Vashti and Grady, for example, affect them emotionally?

6. Do you agree with Dr. Maggie that happiness usually comes to you when you aren’t necessarily looking for it, through unexpected ways–often through one’s line of work? Do you agree with her that the one great source of joy in life that you can control is the work you do? On another note, do you think Maggie would still have become a workaholic if she had been able to love freely?

7. Discuss the prominence of alcohol in The Three Miss Margarets. How does it affect the characters and how they interact with each other? Do you think its presence is unhealthy in every instance throughout the novel?

8. It seems that Li’l Bit’s relationship with Walter Bee was defined by limitations. Why do you think they didn’t move in together or get married? What was their ultimate downfall? Do you understand Li’l Bit’s rationale for lying to Walter? What do you think would have happened if she had told him the truth?

9. Is the Southern locale of The Three Miss Margarets essential to the novel? Do you think events would have played out differently in a different location?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2014

    Highly Recommend

    Love the cast of women

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2013

    enjoyed all of her books.

    I have read the first 4 books of Louise Shaffer and Highly recommend all of them.

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  • Posted October 27, 2012

    Hard to put down!

    The writing in this book reminds me of Fannie Flagg's style. The story is simple but probable. The characters are very real people and there is no pretense about them. I have lost interest in reading books where the characters are authors and they read Proust, I don't even know who that is but its phony. The characters in this book and also the companion book to this are not pretentious but also not stupid and "bumpkinish". There is not one particular character this is about but rather five characters and a family. I couldn't put it down and I would highly recommend it. It is not necessarily a feel good story but when I was done reading both books I was very glad to read it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2003

    This Southern Girl Loved It!

    I, too, stumbled upon this book and I'm happy that I did. The story was so captivating and the references to southern culture & places so well thought out. I couldn't wait to get to the end just to see how it turned out but when I did I wished that it had gone on more, as I met some new friends in this book. It was great!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2003

    Southern Hospitality

    Louise Shaffer welcomes you into the lives of The Three Miss Margarets like a trusted friend. She will share all their secrets with you (none of which I would dare give away here), including the big, dark secret the three share. In creating these artistically rendered portraits, she also creates a beautiful landscape of a Southern town through the decades. Like a great work of art, you will have a hard time tearing your eyes away from these pages.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2003

    A lucky stumble

    Yes, I literally stumbled on to this book. Saw it on my library shelves, knew nothing about it,but it seemed to call to me to read it. And what a good read it is! This may be the author's first book, but it is not her first writing. (Check out her rsume.) These three women, elderly as I am, made me want to join them on the porch and let me into their lives. Well, perhaps not into some of what they had done in the past, but that is a decision, to judge or not judge, to be made by the reader. As a member of two book discussion groups, I see this book as one to include on the reading list. It is writing that takes you along, doesn't let you go, and keeps you wondering about the what and how. Were they wrong? What would the reader do? Finally, alas, the books ends and we have to say goodbye to the three Margarets. I didn't want to. I want to join them on that porch.

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    Posted March 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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