Read an Excerpt
The Mossy Creek Gazette
215 Main Street * Mossy Creek, Georgia
From the Desk of Katie Bell, Business Manager
Lady Victoria Salter Stanhope
The Cliffs, Seaward Road
St. Ives, Cornwall TR37PJ
Hope things are good along the white cliffs of Dover. Over here, across the ocean, we're finally done with summer and resting up before the holidays. Some of the local churches have come to me with an idea to publish inspirational stories in the Gazette each week--you know, to get us all in the spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. When it comes to inspiration, Creekites are eager to share. I'll send you some of my columns and the stories people tell me. I plan to publish them in the paper under the title Blessings Of Mossy Creek. That sounds so much better than More Juicy Gossip in Mossy Creek, doesn't it? As usual, I expect to do some snooping and report more than people intend to admit. We have a lot of little dramas going on around here this fall. I'm not leaving them out of the mix.
You'll like the story I'm including with this note. I should have mentioned it over the summer--it took place back in June--but there was so much going on that I just never got around to telling you. I'm also including the article I ran in my Bell Ringer column afterwards. I know you love wedding stories, so enjoy!
Blessings and good gossip to you and yours,
P.S. I can't believe I almost forgot to tell you! I've been nominated for a newspaper award! I'm off to New York! Watch out, Big Apple!
In Mossy Creek, a wedding is a community affair.
"Count your blessings!"
Reverend Hollingsworth's benediction was bellowed more than said, and I found myself reeling at the impact. He'd caught me by surprise again. The small, mild-mannered preacher--small, at least, when compared to my six-foot-eight-inch, two-hundred-seventy-pound frame--had another personality when he climbed into the pulpit. Reverend Hollingsworth "got the Spirit," as Josie's mother, LuLynn McClure, put it, but not when he talked about the damnation side of religion. No, when he spoke about the fires of hell, Reverend Hollingsworth's countenance turned dark and woeful. Only when he spoke on the joys of God's love did excitement overwhelm him. His voice shook with emotion, and he pounded his fist and Bible on the pulpit. Then he climbed down and greeted everyone at the front door with a smile and voice as soft as an angel.
He was an interesting dichotomy.
I'd never taken much stock in organized religion. The God of my science resided in the flora and fauna of the North Georgia mountains where I did my research. But ever since Josie said "yes" to my proposal of marriage, she'd been coaxing me to the hundred-year-old oak pews of the Mossy Creek Presbyterian Church. And I have to say that, so far, I didn't mind all that much. The experience had proven at worst a little dull, but sometimes most entertaining.
"How many blessings do you have?"
The Reverend pointed his bony finger directly at me, it seemed, though I was halfway back and on the very edge of the sanctuary, right under the stained glass window depicting the Apostle John. I knew better than to think I'd been singled out, of course, but for some reason that phrase bored into my consciousness like a black beetle bores into the bark of a red-gum.
There was a time in my life when I would've laughed in anyone's face who talked to me about blessings. A house fire six years ago left me half broken and badly burned across my chest and face. I spent an excruciating year in several hospitals specializing in burn trauma and skin grafts, then spent three even more painful years watching people's reactions to my monster face. Two years ago I built a cabin on Mount Colchik, north of Mossy Creek, and like the monster I was, retreated to my den to conduct my research. My work was the only blessing I had in those dark days. My research was not only conducive to my hiding from the world, it required it.
My Ph.D. in environmental biology had earned me a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to study the effect of acid rain on the indigenous hardwood trees of the Appalachian Mountains. So I lived like a hermit for two years, sending down to the world the data I collected.
Though I lived high above the world, I existed far below it ... in a kind of hell. I was at the lowest point in my life, and felt singularly unblessed.
Until sunshine walked onto my mountain.
Remembering that day, I slid my arm along the back of the pew, easing Josie against me. She gave me a serenely loving smile and shifted a little closer. A fresh wave of her subtle scent caught me. Mountain laurel. She'd extracted the oil herself from the small white flower that blooms in the early spring, a technique she'd learned from some long-ago Martha Stewart show.
I played idly with a strand of her chestnut brown hair that had escaped the tortoiseshell clip trying to confine it. Thick and straight, Josie's hair reached halfway down her back. She'd threatened to shorten it last summer to a more professional cut to go with her new decorating career, but kept it long when I asked her to. LuLynn called Josie's hair her one beauty, but Josie's mother was wrong. Josie's beauty went deeper than hair or skin. She glowed with beauty that came from her soul.
My wife-to-be was as natural, as unique and as hardy as the mountain laurel that grew on the rocky slopes that had surrounded her all of her life. I knew how I'd lived without her ... in darkness. And I was certain I never wanted to be without her light again.
Blessings? Josie was Blessing Incarnate ... the only blessing that mattered.
I held her small hand as we stood for the invitation song. After the final amen, the congregation meandered toward the door, everyone stopping to talk to everyone else. Except me, of course. Oh, a few of the men shook my hand and mumbled things like, "Nice to see you." But I was a newcomer to Mossy Creek and though I'd been accepted by most of the townspeople, it was a surface acceptance. To be fair, I still had my research to conduct, so I wasn't in town all that much. To use one of Josie's decorating metaphors, I wasn't a pleat in the fabric of the town. I was more like an oddly colored button that hadn't been sewn on yet. Since I still caught a few what-a-freak stares now and then, I knew the general citizenry hadn't quite decided if I matched well enough to go to the trouble of threading the needle.
It didn't matter to me, of course, except that it mattered to Josie. Having grown up here, she was woven into the fabric that was Mossy Creek. Though she'd only realized that when she became recognized for her decorating skills, which were now in great demand. That made her happy, so I was happy to stand behind her as she chatted her way out of the church.
Suddenly a heavy hand fell on my shoulder. I glanced around to find Mac Campbell, one of Mossy Creek's best-known lawyers. At six-foot-four, he was also one of the few men in town who came remotely close to matching me in size, with the possible exception of the police chief, Amos Royden, who reached the six-four mark in cowboy boots. Both men could look me in the eye without straining their necks too badly. Mac also had as much education as I did, and I enjoyed talking with him. So I turned with genuine pleasure.
As I did, he grabbed my hand and shook firmly. "How'd the wind treat you, Harry?"
I squeezed his hand in return. A spring storm had blown through several weeks before with straight-line winds of hurricane strength. Mossy Creek hadn't sustained much damage, nestled as it was in a valley, but the wind felled some of the oldest and mightiest trees all over the surrounding mountains, especially toward the top. I'd spent a week clearing a path to my cabin on Mount Colchik, then another cleaning debris off of it and from around it. This was the first time I'd been to town since.
"Lady Luck was sitting on top of my cabin," I said. "A hemlock and an elm were both heading toward my roof, but it looked like they canceled each other out. When I got there, their top branches were enmeshed, holding each other up." I folded my fingers together and spread my elbows over Josie's head to demonstrate.
She glanced up, then turned from her conversation with Jayne Reynolds, visiting this morning from the Mt. Gilead Methodist Church. Jayne smiled at me, but nestled in her arms, her baby boy, Matthew, stared at me as if he might cry. Josie nodded. "You should've been there, Mac. I've never seen anything like it."
"Well, I'll be..." Mac rubbed his chin. "You start cutting on one, they'd both come crashing on your roof. How'd you get them down?"
"I threw a rope around one, then Josie and I pulled them down toward the back."
"Both at the same time..." Mac nodded. "Of course. It was the only way. You should've called. I could've helped."
"Mac, that's so sweet!" Josie peered up at me, one eyebrow raised. "I told you to call someone."
Mac's words had taken me aback, but I shrugged them away. Easy to make promises after the fact. "Someone is rather vague, Josie." Then, deciding to show her just how much his promises were worth, I turned to Mac. "I'm going to be cutting them up for firewood and lumber. You can help me with that."
"Hey! I can help, too."
The voice came from below, and we all glanced down to find Clay Atwood, the boy whom Mac and his wife, Patty, were in the process of adopting. At nine he was small for his age. From what I'd heard of his early years, that was probably from not having an adequate diet. From what I'd seen since Patty and Mac had taken him in, Clay had a good heart despite the abusive father Chief Royden had taken him away from.
Josie spoke first. "Of course you can help, Clay." She ruffled his brown hair. "But you have to leave Dog at home, I'm afraid."
Mac and Patty had inherited a mutt named Dog along with Clay. The boy raised disbelieving eyes to his future father. "But Dog could--"
"Josie's right," Mac placed large hands on the boy's thin shoulders. "Dog has to stay home with Maddie and Butler. They're his canine buddies."
"It's not that we don't love Dog." Josie sat back down on the pew so she was at Clay's level. "But he might wander off to go exploring, and he'd probably get lost."
And eaten by a bear, I thought, but held my tongue. I thought children should grow up aware of the dangers of the mountains, but Josie had gently scolded me more than once for forcing reality on children. I had to admit I tended to go into far more graphic, scientific explanations of those dangers than a child could comprehend and, as Josie told me, I had to practice restraint for our own future children.
The possibility of me fathering a little girl just like her mother made me smile. More blessings to come.
"Awwright," Clay agreed reluctantly, making me realize that daydreams had caused me to miss more explanations of why his dog couldn't help clear the trees. Not that I would need to remember the exchange. It wasn't as if Clay and his father would actually be helping me. After all, Mac was just making polite conversation.
"Josie!" LuLynn called from the last pew in the church. "Remember I've got a hen in the oven."
"All right, Mama. We're coming." Josie gave Clay a brief kiss, then rose to shake Mac's hand. "We appreciate your offer to help, Mac." She glanced around him. "Where's Patty?"
He pointed down toward the church basement. "She's at a meeting to plan this summer's Vacation Bible School."
Josie nodded, looking around. "Jayne's disappeared. She must've taken Matthew outside. Tell Patty hello. Y'all are coming to the wedding, aren't you?"
"Are you kidding? It's the event of the year."
Josie waved goodbye as she headed for her mother. "Hope you're not allergic to roses, Mac!"
Once Josie was out of earshot, Mac glanced at me. I shrugged. "Josie's second favorite flower, since laurel finishes blooming too soon for a June wedding. LuLynn had Mrs. Townsend order twenty dozen white roses from Atlanta."
Mac paused. "Eugenia Townsend? LuLynn ordered flowers from Mossy Creek Flowers and Gifts?"
I didn't like the amazed look on his face. "Josie insisted on buying as much as possible of all that wedding paraphernalia in Mossy Creek. Something wrong with Eugenia at Mossy Creek Flowers and Gifts?"
"No, no," Mac said quickly. "I'm sure Eugenia's fine ... now. Haven't heard her mention any problems in a long time. It happened over twenty years ago, after all."
"What happened over--"
"Harold!" LuLynn called. She always insisted on using my formal Christian name. "Do you like dried-out chicken?"
Dried-out chicken was less important to me than the possibility that something might occur to make Josie's wedding day less than perfect. "Mac, what happened over twenty years ago?"
"Nothing that amounts to a hen's feather," Mac assured me. "Eugenia wouldn't deliberately sabotage an order as lucrative as this one must be. Besides the money, the town would never forgive her. No. Everything's fine. I'm sure."
I didn't like the word sabotage. "Mac--"
"Harold, we're leaving." LuLynn crossed her arms over her chest. Josie had already escaped outside. "Do you want to walk the five miles to Bailey Mill?"
Despite her pretensions and predilection toward snobbery, I liked my soon-to-be mother-in-law. I didn't want to make her mad at me six days before I was going to marry her daughter.
I backed toward the church door, but kept my gaze locked into Mac's. "About Eugenia Townsend. You're sure?"
Mac nodded and waved me on. "The worst Eugenia would do is overcharge LuLynn, but that will only make LuLynn think she's getting the best."
Since that was true, I allowed myself to be mollified. I'd heard from more than one source that nobody in town, except Katie Bell, the official queen of gossip, knew more than Mac about Creekites' business. Not that he was a busybody. He represented nearly all of them in legal matters.
"Call me after your honeymoon about cutting up those trees," Mac said. "I'm serious."
I waved an acknowledgement--it's always better not to let people know you expect the least of them--and walked out of the church. I blinked as I hit spring sunshine and felt my hand grabbed in a firm shake.
By now I knew the steel of that grip. "Reverend Hollingsworth. Enjoyed the sermon."
"Why, thank you, Dr. Rutherford." He always seemed immensely pleased to be complimented, making you feel as if you were special because you're the only one who'd noticed. "I enjoyed writing that one."
"And delivering it," I couldn't help adding.
He smiled softly. "Yes. I do love a good, rousing topic."
"I'm coming, LuLynn!" I knew she didn't like me calling her by her first name in public, especially at church, but since she was thirty-eight--only five years older than me--I couldn't bring myself to call her Mother. I nodded to the Reverend. "See you at the rehearsal on Friday."
"Harold, where is Josie?" LuLynn called. "Isn't she with you?"
"I thought she was out here with you."
I glanced toward the emptying parking lot, but didn't spot my beloved. Scanning the churchyard, I finally caught a glimpse of her dark red dress under the spreading branches of a white oak that had been there as long as the church. She and Eleanor Abercrombie were bent over the roses growing on the picket fence that lined the bank of the east branch of Mossy Creek.
With a fond smile, I made my way over. Josie had grown up tending roses with her Grandma McClure. Since her grandmother was now deceased, Josie never lost an opportunity to milk advice from those with more experience. Eleanor was a charter member of the Mossy Creek Garden Club.
"Tsk, tsk." The older woman shook her head over a rose branch trying to reach the lowest limb of the oak. "This isn't the way to train a climbing rose. It'll never get sun up there." She pulled at the thorny limb as I approached and coaxed it down along the fence. "There, there. That's it, sweetie. Join your sisters."
Josie helped by pulling it between two boards of the fence. "Why aren't there any blooms?"
"The prom at Bigelow High last night, dearie. Teenagers cleaned out every rose on every unguarded bush in the county. I doubt there's a single rose left in Mossy Creek or Bigelow." Mrs. Abercrombie winked as she straightened. "'Cept in private gardens like mine, of course."
"Yours are too valuable to decorate a high school gymnasium." Josie smiled at me absently and sucked on a finger she'd obviously pricked.
Mrs. Abercrombie patted several branches on the climbing rosebush and tsked again. "Look at these yellow leaves. These bushes need some work. Delia Mitchell's been taking care of them for the church. She covets the Bigelow County Rose Trophy, but doesn't want to do what it takes to win it. You can't grow roses and sit on your duff all day."
"No, ma'am. I know," Josie said.
"Roses are like young'uns." Mrs. Abercrombie included me in her admonition as I took Josie's hand and smoothed a drop of blood off her finger. "You might as well learn the truth now, you both about to get hitched, and all." She nodded sagely. "They're like children ... you got to tend them constantly, or they'll go wild on you."
"No need to worry about that, Mrs. Abercrombie," I said. "Josie's in her rose garden every day, rain or shine, cold snap or heat wave."
"I was taught by one of the best," Josie insisted.
"You were that," Mrs. Abercrombie agreed. "Your Grandma Gladys McClure won the county fair's rose contest eighteen years running, God rest her soul." Mrs. Abercrombie peered toward the parking lot. "And your mama's about to have a conniption over in her Coupe DeVille. You'd best get."
Josie gave Mrs. Abercrombie a hug. "I'll try to make it over to your house sometime this week. I'd like to see your Silver Passions while they're peaking." Then she turned to me and slipped her arm through mine as we walked toward LuLynn's Cadillac. "Mrs. Abercrombie always wins the rose competition in the Bigelow County Garden Contest, which is next Saturday afternoon, after the wedding. This year, she has a silver rose that's--"
"Josie McClure," LuLynn yelled, "you going to starve that husband of yours before you even get your apron strings tied around him?"
Josie winced. "She doesn't mean that."
I squeezed her arm. "I know. Don't worry about it."
LuLynn was a dichotomy, too. A homecoming queen whose crowning moment had been snatched away from her over twenty years ago by the bizarre incident that burned down Mossy Creek High during halftime of the big game with Bigelow High, LuLynn helped manage her husband's cattle farm but now was a die-hard fan of Martha Stewart, never caring that the home decorating guru's crown was a bit tarnished. LuLynn had thrown herself into Josie's wedding plans with a vengeance, determined that this wedding would be the envy of every mother of a marriageable-aged daughter in Bigelow County.
Josie was no pushover, though, and had definite ideas about how her wedding should be. So there'd been more than one argument between the bride and the mother-of-the-bride that would've brought down the rafters of any church. Since I'd never heard Josie raise her voice to another living creature, I dragged her up to my cabin on Mount Colchik every time she and her mother verged on new warfare.
But for the moment, peace reigned. Josie and LuLynn discussed Mrs. Abercrombie's roses as Josie's mostly-silent father, John McClure, drove us to the McClure farm in the Bailey Mill community. There we would feast on LuLynn's roasted chicken at Josie's last Sunday dinner as a single woman.
Josie sighed wistfully. "I wish I could grow roses as wonderful as Eleanor Abercrombie's. I would build my bouquet around a single Silver Passion."
"Wouldn't that be stunning." LuLynn was practically salivating. "Oh, well." She reached into the backseat to pat Josie's knee. "You'll have a Silver Passion rose one day. You've got your Grandma Gladys's touch." It was the kindest thing I'd ever heard LuLynn say to her daughter.
I lifted Josie's hand to my lips. "I'll see if I can buy some of them from Mrs. Abercrombie."
The car suddenly went silent. Even the engine seemed to hesitate. Then the entire McClure clan erupted in laughter.
I let it subside to an audible level before I asked, "Not a good idea?"
With a final giggle, Josie placed a kiss on my cheek. "My dear, sweet, naive Harry. You can't buy even one of Mrs. Abercrombie's Silver Passions. They're priceless."
The biologist in me begged to differ. "No plant is priceless. Any gardener worth her salt would've made grafts so she can grow more."
"Not by next Sunday," LuLynn said.
"What's next--" Then I remembered. "Some contest, right?"
"Not just some contest," Josie said. "The Bigelow County Garden Contest."
"Only the biggest floral competition in the county," LuLynn said. "The rivalry between the Bigelow Garden Club and the Mossy Creek Garden Club is famous. Why, it's been featured in Southern Living."
The gospel according to Southern Living. LuLynn considered it a supplemental text to her real bible, Martha Stewart Living.
"It's especially exciting this year," Josie said. "Geraldine Matthews is Bigelow's biggest threat this year. She has some gorgeous bushes. Why, her Martha Washingtons are as wide as a plate! But Mrs. Abercrombie has developed her Silver Passions for years. They simply take your breath away. I'm certain she'll keep the rose trophy in Mossy Creek. Everyone else in Mossy Creek thinks so, too."
"Of course they do." Then I had to ask, knowing it was a sore subject. "What does everyone in Bigelow think?"
"The rose growers down in Bigelow can kiss Eleanor Abercrombie's manure spreader."
John McClure's comments were always succinct, typically colorful, and rare enough that we all stared at him in surprise. Although Bailey Mills was an outlying community from Mossy Creek, its inhabitants considered themselves staunch Creekites and so were dyed-in-the-wool Bigelow despisers.
Josie broke the silence with another giggle. "In other words, we don't care what people in Bigelow think."
"Unless this contest is fixed, Eleanor will win," LuLynn added with absolute certainty. "She always does."
Josie sighed. "So you see, Harry, no amount of money will buy one of Mrs. Abercrombie's roses. I'll have to make do with a white rose from the florists in Atlanta." She smiled and slipped her hand into mine. "But that's okay. I'm getting you--the best prize of all. The flowers in the church won't matter."
I didn't believe Josie's statement for a single second, because everything else about our wedding was a matter of monumental importance--down to the shade of pink Josie should wear on her fingernails. I had to drag Josie away from her mother several times during the next few days, though she wouldn't let me take her all the way to the cabin. Too many details left to be taken care of.
Thursday was an especially trying day, so I drove Josie into town to visit Eleanor. Mrs. Abercrombie's garden was filled with roses of all hues. Some of them were truly breathtaking, but their real magic was making Josie forget all about the wedding for several hours.
Mrs. Abercrombie's roses reminded me of Mac Campbell's startled face when I mentioned Mossy Creek Flowers and Gifts and his comment about Eugenia Townsend having some reason to exact revenge on Josie because of some nebulous something between Eugenia and LuLynn over twenty years ago. His words nagged at me. I didn't want to tell Josie my suspicions. She would again be disappointed in me for not trusting the people of Mossy Creek to look out for each other.
Surely Josie or LuLynn had checked with Eugenia about their flower order. The thing was, in my field of empirical research I'd learned to leave nothing to chance. I had to check on my own.
I knew something was wrong before the door of Mossy Creek Flowers and Gifts closed behind me early on Friday afternoon. The first clue was the stillness. A flower shop should have been singing with activity with a wedding the next day. This one was as quiet as a church on Monday morning.
The second clue was the sudden pallor on the face of the young woman behind the counter. Josie had introduced us at some Mossy Creek function or other so I knew her reaction was more than could be attributed to the first sight of my scarred face.
Three strides took me to the counter. "Good afternoon. Muriel, isn't it?"
She swallowed. Hard. "Ye ... Yes, Dr. Rutherford."
"Call me Harry, please." My tight smile didn't bring color back to Muriel's cheeks. "I came to check on the flowers my fiancée ordered for our wedding tomorrow."
"This is a flower shop, isn't it? The only one in Mossy Creek?"
"Ummm ... yes. It is." She was stalling.
"Three months ago, my fiancée and her mother ordered flowers for our wedding tomorrow. Twenty dozen white roses, I believe it was."
Muriel dragged her gaze from mine and glanced at the computer sitting to her right.
"Right. Yes. I remember."
"Funny, I don't see a single white rose around the shop. Have they already been delivered to the church?"
I barely heard her soft, "No."
My voice was almost as quiet. "What are you saying, Muriel? The flowers aren't ready yet?"
She backed up a step. "They were never even ordered."
I closed my eyes to better control the rage flowing through me and saw the image of Josie's tear-stained face as she walked down an aisle unadorned with flowers. No way could I let that happen.
I opened my eyes and let my gaze bore into Muriel's. "Eugenia Townsend did this deliberately, didn't she? Because of something that happened between her and LuLynn McClure over twenty years ago."
"I don't know! I was only two-years-old then."
"What was it?" I demanded. "What happened back then?"
"I don't know, exactly. I've only heard things."
"What have you heard?"
"I'll lose my job if I..." She trailed off and sighed. "It was the year that Mossy Creek High School burned down. LuLynn McClure ... although she wasn't a McClure yet ... was about to be crowned homecoming queen. Mrs. Townsend was first runner-up."
"That's all? Are you saying my bride won't have flowers in the church on her wedding day because LuLynn beat out Mrs. Townsend in some stupid popularity contest two decades ago?"
"Mrs. Townsend claims Mrs. McClure only won the crown because she'd been ... because she was pregnant by the captain of the football team. Didn't matter that she married him a few months later."
That was the first time I'd heard that gossip, but since Josie had just turned twenty, the math was right. It was no excuse for Eugenia's revenge now, however. "Where is Mrs. Townsend? I need to have a few words with her."
Muriel shook her head. "You can't. She went to visit her sister up in Chattanooga for the weekend."
"And left you behind to deal with the mess she deliberately made."
Muriel's brown eyes teared up. "Tell Josie I'm sorry. I didn't know until this morning, just before Mrs. Townsend left."
I turned and stared blindly out a window at the town square. People walked around as if nothing had happened, as if tomorrow wouldn't be the blackest day of the year.
What was I going to do?
I turned to Muriel. "You can order flowers, can't you?"
"Mrs. Townsend does all the wholesale ordering for the shop..." Her gaze cut to the computer. "But I know where she orders them from."
"Get on the phone. Please. I can't let this happen to Josie."
"I ... white roses are a specialty item. We get them from warehouses down in Atlanta. It could take several days."
"Surely they can arrange for overnight delivery. If not, I'll drive down there myself and pick them up."
Muriel stepped over to the keyboard. "I'll ask."
By six o'clock that evening, we'd talked to every floral warehouse in a two hundred mile radius. No one could promise us even a dozen white roses before Monday. It was a weekend in June, the month of weddings, and they were all ordered out.
Every floral avenue exhausted, I staggered back onto the sidewalk. The bright spring sun shed no light on my dark dilemma.
Where could I possibly get white roses in the next eighteen hours?
I wandered around the town square, desperate for a solution. Shop owners nodded to me as they waved away their last customers or rolled up the sidewalks. Most shops in Mossy Creek closed at 6 p.m., with the exception of the theater and café. Anna Rose Lavender and Beau Belmont were auditioning locals for the summer musical season.
I'd never felt so alone, even at the top of Mount Colchik.
Why was I surprised? Every one of us was alone, ultimately. No matter how much Josie talked about Creekites standing by each other through thick and thin, the people of Mossy Creek weren't any different from people in big cities. Everyone looked out for themselves.
My gaze fell on a bed of begonias at the corner of cross pathways leading to the bandstand in the middle of the square. I'd seen Eleanor Abercrombie and her husband, Zeke, tending the bed earlier in the week, their backs curved by years of bending over flowers.
In my desperation, I was sorely tempted to steal them. But I couldn't, not even for Josie's wedding. Begonias wouldn't do, anyway. They were a shy little flower. Eleanor Abercrombie was famous for her roses. Why couldn't she have planted some on the square?
Suddenly I straightened, my head swinging west. The Abercrombies might not grow roses on the square, but I knew where they did. Eleanor Abercrombie thought the world of Josie. Surely she wouldn't let Josie's wedding be ruined, even to win the Bigelow County Garden Contest.
I headed toward Spruce Street, praying to the God I didn't believe in that Josie was wrong ... that Mrs. Abercrombie's Silver Passions could be purchased. I would offer my entire bank account to find out.
I never got the chance. Mrs. Abercrombie wasn't home. I banged on both her front and back doors, but the only answer was silence.
Standing on the bottom step leading up to her back porch, I glanced around at the wealth adorning her backyard. Rose bushes lined the whitewashed wooden fence, laden with blossoms in nearly every hue of the rainbow.
Where had Mrs. Abercrombie gone? And would she be gone long enough for me to do the unthinkable--
"Hey! You there!"
I turned to see Mrs. Abercrombie's next-door neighbor, Clevine Wallace, making her way slowly around the side of the house. Mrs. Wallace was eighty if she was a day, with arthritis so bad she walked with two canes.
"What are you up to, young man?"
"Good evening, Mrs. Wallace. Do you perhaps know where Mrs. Abercrombie is, and what time she'll be home?"
"Who's that?" Mrs. Wallace came several steps closer, then paused to push her glasses up on her nose. "Why, you're the young man Josie McClure's gonna get married to tomorry, ain't you?"
"Harold Rutherford, ma'am. About Mrs. Abercrombie..."
Mrs. Wallace shook her head. "Eleanor and Zeke won't be home until tomorry morning. Had an emergency with their daughter, Nancy, over in Yonder."
"Tomorrow? What about the garden contest?"
"Oh, they'll be back for that, don't you fret. Eleanor'll rush home tomorry just in time to do some last minute trimming, I expect. She's got to beat Geraldine Matthews, ya know."
I explained what had happened. "As you can see, it's imperative I talk to Mrs. Abercrombie. Do you have a phone number for her daughter?"
Mrs. Wallace shook her head. "That's a gawl-dern shame, that's what it is. Imagine Eugenia acting like that. Holdin' a grudge for twenty years. Even by Creekite standards, that's something. Why, nobody in town'll give her any business now."
"A phone number?"
Mrs. Wallace peered at me closely. "You ain't thinking you're gonna get Eleanor's roses, are ya?"
"I'm desperate. Josie is going to be heartbroken when she finds out that she won't have any flowers for her wedding. Not even a bouquet."
Mrs. Wallace shook her head. "Eleanor might cut you some on Sunday, after the contest, but not before."
"Sunday's too late, and she has hundreds of flowers. How many does she need for the contest?"
"Every single one. The judging's on the entire garden, not just one flower."
"What about other rose bushes in Mossy Creek? Surely the other ladies in the Mossy Creek Garden Club can spare some roses from their gardens."
Mrs. Wallace's face brightened, then fell. "That's true, son, but most of 'em donated their roses to the high school prom last Saturday. You might find a few buds, but that's about all."
I glanced at my watch. I had an hour before I had to be at the rehearsal. "Please give me the phone number of Eleanor's daughter, Mrs. Wallace. I can't give up."
"I could, I reckon, but it won't do you no good. Eleanor, Nancy, and Zeke are all heading to Nancy's in-laws, 'cause Nancy's mother-in-law's sick. Eleanor and Zeke got to take care of the grandkids while Nancy takes care of her mother-in-law."
I felt hope recede. Still, I had to try. "Please. Maybe I can catch them before they leave Nancy's house in Yonder."
Mrs. Wallace pursed her lips all the way back to her house next door. She looked up Eleanor's daughter's number in her address book and let me call from her phone.
She was right. There was no answer. I left a plaintive message, begging Mrs. Abercrombie to call me as soon as she could. But in my heart, I knew it would do no good.
Back on the sidewalk, I paused in the fading sunlight for one last look at Mrs. Abercrombie's roses. I could come back late that night and steal them, but that would be despicable. Plus the whole town would know who did it. Even if Mrs. Wallace didn't tell, people would recognize the flowers. It would be just as hard on Josie to have her husband in jail as to face a church with no flowers.
No flowers. Josie was going to be devastated. From what I'd seen, her idol, Martha Stewart's, entire decorating premise centered around flowers. Sure, we could use other kinds of flowers in the wedding, but Josie had her heart set on roses.
I wanted to rail at every rose-stripped Creekite garden I passed on the way back to my truck. How could all those rose bushes let Josie down like this?
That night at the rehearsal, I put off telling Josie as long as possible. There was nothing she could do about it, anyway. I'd tried everything short of...
Short of scouring the mountains for old farmstead roses that had gone wild. Of course. Why hadn't I thought about that sooner? Hardy, old-fashioned roses that had survived on their own weren't as showy as the modern hybrids, but at least they were roses.
I spent the entire night wandering the dark mountains in search of roses, without even a sliver of a moon to help. I knew where several bushes were from my years wandering the mountains, and I found a few more after the sun came up.
The wedding was slated to start at one, so I was forced to start back down the mountain with my sack full of roses just after ten. My arms, face and back were covered with gashes. Wild roses don't give up their beauty willingly.
Exhausted from stress, the sleepless night and exercise, I thought I was imagining things when I heard voices. When I rounded the next bend, I stopped dead. Two women were walking just ahead carrying sacks laden with wild roses.
I shook my head. Was I hallucinating? "Hello there."
They smiled and greeted me. I'd met them before, but not at Josie's church. Mossy Creek Garden Club members. Peggy Caldwell and Mimsy Allen. Only Mimsy was a true Creekite. Peggy had moved to Mossy Creek just a couple of years ago.
"Shouldn't you be at home taking a shower and getting dressed?" Peggy asked.
"I'm going now, but first I have to take these roses by the church. You see, Eugenia Townsend at Mossy Creek Flowers and Gifts didn't--"
"Didn't order Josie's flowers," Mimsy finished. "We know."
"The whole town knows," Peggy said. "What do you think we're doing up here on a Saturday morning?"
I was stunned. "You came all the way up here to pick roses for Josie?"
"Of course we did." Mimsy sniffed as if insulted. "You don't think we'd let Josie get married without roses, do you? Why, Eleanor's grooming her as a future member of the Mossy Creek Garden Club."
"I..." I could hardly believe it. "Thank you."
"Are you headed down to town, now?" Mimsy asked.
"Yes. I need to get these to the church so I can pick up my tux."
Mimsy grabbed Peggy's sack, poured her flowers into it then handed it to me. "Take your sack and ours down to Ed Brady's truck, will you? We've got a few more bushes to strip."
"You mean ... Mr. Brady's here? Are there any others?"
"Well of course," Mimsy said. "Half the town. The other half's at the church, arranging the flowers we're shipping in by special delivery, courtesy of some connections Mayor Walker has with an out-of-state grower. But don't worry. We'll make it to the church on time. Just see that you do."
My astonishment must've been plain, because Peggy placed a warm hand on my arm. "Don't you understand? You're not alone up here, Dr. Rutherford. Creekites care about each other, and take care of each other. I had a hard time grasping that fact, too, when I first came to town. But you're a Creekite now. Might as well get used to it."
"I ... I can't thank you enough."
"You got that right," Mimsy chirped. She pushed me on down the trail. "So get on down the mountain with your load. Put your sacks in the back of Ed's truck. He'll see they get to the church. You go get a hot shower. You look like you need one."
By noon, I was at the church. I walked in and stopped dead in my tracks. There were probably thirty people scattered about the sanctuary, arranging roses on the altar, in vases along the pulpit, on the ends of pews.
I walked down the aisle in wonder. As I passed, the workers greeted me casually, as if this kind of thing happened every day. Halfway down, I realized that the roses arranged in cascades across the pulpit were special.
"You look right handsome in your tux, young man."
I turned to face Eleanor Abercrombie. "Your roses."
She nodded. "That's right."
I couldn't believe it. "The contest..."
"Happens every year. Josie will get married only once." Her pale blue eyes narrowed. "You see to that."
"How much do I owe--"
"Don't insult me, young man."
I took her hands in mine. "Thank you for doing this for Josie. It means so much ... to both of us."
"You're most welcome, Harry Rutherford. From the bottom of all of our hearts. And just so you know, I didn't do this for Josie. Well, all right, I did it because I love her, but I also did it to uphold the town's honor." Her sun-weathered face beamed up at me. "Don't judge Mossy Creek because of Eugenia Townsend. Just because one bush has root rot doesn't mean the whole garden needs digging up."
I kissed her cheek. "I can't thank you enough."
"No need to." She pulled back and reached down into a pew. "Like I said, you're handsome in your tux, but it needs one more thing."
She straightened and pinned one of her Silver Passions on my lapel. "This isn't the best one. I used that in Josie's bouquet."
"Mrs. Abercrombie, are you sure you want to pin one of your prize roses on me? I have to confess ... yesterday I thought about stealing them."
She chortled. "Why, I'm flattered." Then she patted my chest. "They're exactly where I want them to be. You're one of us now. When you need help, all you have to do is ask."
All I had to do was ask, and a whole town would come to my rescue. Even though I'd earned a second masters degree in quantum mathematics, I couldn't begin to count those kinds of blessings. They were infinite.