Allie, Des, and Cara, each having her own reasons for wanting a share of their father’s estate, agree to meet in the grand Victorian home in which he grew up, only to be greeted by another secret he purposely hid from them: his sister Bonnie.
The women reluctantly band together to take on Fritz’s challenge, working with a local contractor to begin the renovations financed by an account Fritz had set up for the task. While the restoration appears to go smoothly at first, it soon becomes apparent that the work will be more extensive than originally thought, and Des, elected to handle the money, needs to find ways to stretch out the remaining savings while searching for new sources of funding.
As strangers linked only by their DNA try to become a family, the Hudson sisters also try to come to terms with the father they only thought they knew. In the process, each woman discovers her own capacity for understanding, forgiveness, love, and the true meaning of family.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Sugarhouse Blues
Desdemona Hudson stood in the lobby of the old Art Deco theater in Hidden Falls, Pennsylvania, and raised her eyes to the water-damaged domed ceiling. Flares of color—red, gold, green—shot out overhead in geometric patterns from the elaborate crystal chandelier that hung from the center of a large plaster medallion.
“I’m sure the roofers had insurance. I remember seeing a certificate with the contract.” Des couldn’t take her eyes off the disaster. “Damn it. We finally got our new roof, and the first big wind to come along takes some of it.”
Joe Domanski, the contractor who’d been hired to oversee the renovation of the Sugarhouse Theater, stood with his hands on his hips, a look of resignation on his suntanned face.
“This isn’t their fault, Des, and this wasn’t just a ‘big wind.’ This was a massive storm with hurricane-strength winds, a hundred-year storm. It’s what you’d call an act of God, and I don’t know of any insurance policy that doesn’t exclude those.”
“You called the roofers?”
“Called them before I called you. They should be here within the hour to check out the damage and make some temporary repairs in case we get more rain before they can replace the missing shingles.”
Des nodded slowly. There was nothing she could say to Joe that he wasn’t thinking himself.
How much was this going to cost? How long will this delay the renovations?
She was pretty sure the roof itself could be repaired, and maybe Joe could talk the roofers into replacing those missing shingles for free as sort of a goodwill gesture. The real problem was going to be restoring the intricate and decorative painting on the damaged ceiling.
A shard of plaster drifted downward, stuck in her auburn curls, and dangled over her forehead. She swatted it away and frowned at the patches of color that had scattered onto the floor.
“Crap,” she muttered. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a tissue she’d pulled out of her bag. The air inside the theater was stifling and hot.
“I’ll do what I can,” Joe told her.
“Just . . .” Des sighed. “Get me the estimate and let me know how long it will take to fix it.”
She whistled, and a white flash darted out from the audience seats and ran up the aisle. “Time to go, Buttons,” she said to the mixed-breed stray she’d rescued and taken in, pulling a pink leash from her jacket pocket. Des leaned over and snapped it onto the little dog’s matching collar.
“Aren’t you going to stay until the roofers get here?”
Des shook her head. “Cara should be on her way down here soon. She’d have come if she’d been back from her run when you called. Just have the roofers replace whatever flew off and let Cara take it from there. The actual building repairs are her department. I came because the money is my problem. Getting it fixed is Cara’s. Paying for it is mine.”
“Des, I . . .” Joe began, but she waved away whatever comment he was about to make.
Really, there was nothing more to say.
It wasn’t Joe’s fault that an early summer storm had blown through the Pocono Mountains over the weekend and sent several shingles flying onto the library’s parking lot next door. While Des didn’t hold Joe personally responsible, the last thing she needed was one more problem to strain their already tight renovation budget. She walked through the lobby and out the front door into the unseasonal heat, Buttons hustling to keep up. It was barely ten in the morning, and already the rising temperature and the humidity made for an uncomfortable walk.
It would still be spring at her home back in Cross Creek, Montana. The trees behind her log house would be budding, and the bulbs she’d planted last September would be in bloom. Here, peonies were nearing the end of their cycle, and local strawberries were piled high in green cardboard containers in the roadside markets that were springing up along country roads. In the Montana mountains, winter could be reluctant to leave. Here in the mountains of Pennsylvania, summer was already knocking on the door.
She slowed her pace as she walked by trees that had already leafed out, letting Buttons dawdle and sniff and paw at whatever caught her fancy. Cara drove by and stopped long enough to get the rundown from Des before taking off for the theater.
Des took her phone from her pocket to check messages. Usually, by this time in the week, she’d have heard from her friend Fran, who ran the dog rescue shelter Des funded back in Cross Creek. Still no messages. Des typed a quick Everything okay there? before tucking away the phone. Even though there were many miles between Des and Cross Creek, she kept her finger on the pulse of the shelter that was so near to her heart. She wanted to know what was going on with new dogs, animals that had been adopted, any staff that had been hired in her absence, and chatty Fran was always good for the information.
It was tough to be away from her home and her work for so long, especially after she’d established that shelter, funded it, and personally worked to rehabilitate the neediest of the abused. Every dog she’d worked with had taken a little bit of Des with them when she sent them off to their forever home. It had been several years since she’d decided that rescuing dogs was her calling in life, and she’d invested a lot of herself in making that happen.
And yet here she was, a couple of thousand miles away, deep into the renovation of a ninety-year-old theater in a town she’d never heard of while someone else ran her shelter and worked with her dogs.
What was wrong with this picture?
Then again, back in Cross Creek, she hadn’t kept any of the dogs she’d loved, because she’d loved them all. Here in Hidden Falls, she’d been able to keep Buttons, who’d quickly found her way into the hearts of everyone in the Hudson family.
Still, a day didn’t pass when Des didn’t wonder which place was really her home.
Gee, thanks, Dad.
Dad was the late Franklin—Fritz—Hudson, Hollywood agent and father to Des and her sister, Allie, via their mother, Honora—Nora—Hudson, the actress, who’d died four years earlier. Unbeknownst to them until recently, he’d also been father to Cara, whose mother, Susa, may or may not have been Fritz’s legal wife. Things were a bit fuzzy where his marriages were concerned. Had he divorced Nora before marrying Susa? The paper trail was spotty, and Fritz’s best friend and attorney, Pete Wheeler, hadn’t been able to shed any light on the situation when it came time to sort out the legalities. After Fritz died, it had fallen to Pete to introduce Des, Allie, and Cara to each other, and to break the news to all three daughters about their father’s dual families. Once the shock had begun to subside, Pete’d dropped the other shoe: To inherit Fritz’s estate, the three women had to live together in their father’s family home in Hidden Falls, Pennsylvania, until they completed the restoration of the family’s boarded-up, run-down theater. If any one of the three refused or left before the restoration was complete, the entire estate would be donated to a charity of Pete’s choice. Since Fritz’s daughters each had her own reason for needing the money, they’d agreed to the absurd terms.
But it turned out that Fritz had kept other secrets.
There was that little matter of Fritz’s sister, Bonnie—known to everyone in Hidden Falls as Barney—who’d been living in the Hudson family home. While Fritz’d never told his daughters about her, Barney had known all about them and the terms of her late brother’s will, and was waiting for them with open arms when they arrived. It had been impossible not to love Barney, and they’d all taken to her immediately. Barney was not only smart, she was wise, loving, and had a heart of gold. She’d cheerfully filled in her nieces on the family history their father had neglected to share. Des knew her life was so much richer for having Barney in it.
And the more Des got to know Cara, the more she cared about this half sister who was down-to-earth and fun, and had been blessed with common sense, a logical mind, and an abundance of heart. She and Des even looked a little alike, both having the same curly auburn hair and heart-shaped face. Together they’d studied the family portraits displayed in Barney’s front hall, trying to figure out which ancestor they resembled.
Cara was easy to get along with, certainly more so than Allie, who was the oldest of the three, and the tallest. She was slim, and her blond hair was long and straight. She had cheekbones that a model would envy, and features that guaranteed that more often than not, she’d be the most beautiful woman in the room. Allie had an innate sense of style that Des admittedly lacked. And while as a child Des had been the star of her own TV show, Des Does It All, she’d always felt invisible when Allie was around.
It had been years since Des and Allie had lived beneath the same roof, and Des still wasn’t sure this was going to turn out to be a good thing. It was a source of pain to Des that the big sister she’d adored as a child had barely been in contact for over half Des’s lifetime. Des knew the distance between them was Allie’s way of never letting Des forget her resentment over the fact that long ago, Des had been chosen for the television role that Allie had desperately wanted. Ironically, Des had only auditioned because their mother had forced her—she’d never wanted to act, had never wanted the spotlight to shine on her. The crazy thing was that Des was a natural. The other side of the crazy coin was that Allie had no talent whatsoever, and for that, she’d blamed and never forgiven Des.
With the death of their mother, even the occasional contact the sisters once had fell by the wayside. Des had tried a number of times to bring Allie back into her life, but nothing had worked. She was hoping that during the time they spent together in Hidden Falls, she and Allie could work out their problems and become real sisters again, the way they’d been before envy and resentment had become more important than the bonds of sisterhood. At least, that was Des’s plan.
When Des reached the edge of the vast front lawn of the spacious Victorian house that occupied one entire side of the first block of Hudson Street, she let Buttons off the leash. The little dog loved to dash to the porch and bark while she danced around the front door until someone opened it to let her in. Today Des’s steps were slower than usual, and she could feel Barney’s eyes on her as she approached the porch.
“That bad?” Barney held the door until Des stepped inside.
In her seventies, Barney had declared herself too old to wear shorts, so on days when the temperature soared, she donned a cotton knit dress that reached her knees and was really little more than a long T-shirt. With her blunt-cut blond hair and her trim, youthful figure, Barney could carry off the look at any age.
“Cara’s down there now waiting for the roofers. Until we get their report, we won’t know how extensive the damage is. I have no idea what those repairs are going to cost. But oh, Barney, some of that beautiful hand painting is ruined, and that beautiful peacock-blue ceiling has patches missing.”
Des followed Barney into the sitting room, where the older woman had obviously been reading. A book lay open, facedown on the sofa, and a cup of tea cooled on the coffee table.
“Where’s Allie?” Des asked.
“She came down earlier and made breakfast and took it back up with her, as she’s been doing every day about this time since Nikki left. I do sympathize. If Nikki were my daughter, I’d want her to be with me, not on the other side of the country with her father. But that’s the arrangement Allie and her ex agreed to. Of course, at the time, your sister had no idea she’d end up here. It’s hard to blame her for being unhappy.”
“Unhappy and unpleasant are two different things.” Des leaned against the doorjamb. “At her best, Allie falls just a notch above Elphaba.”
“The Wicked Witch of the West. You know, from Wicked? The play? The wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz?” Des grinned. “You know, the one who said, ‘I’ll get you, my pretty . . .’?”
“?‘And your little dog, too.’?” Allie finished the quote from the front hall. “What’s going on over at the theater?”
“Nothing that a flock of flying monkeys couldn’t fix.” Des quickly filled Allie in on the water damage at the theater. “Once Cara gets back, we’re going to have to figure out what our next step is going to be.”
“If she’s down at the theater with Joe, maybe she’ll make it back by dinner. Maybe.” Allie leaned on the jamb across from her sister.
“You’re just jealous because Joe has a thing for Cara and not you.” Des wondered if perhaps there wasn’t a bit of truth in that. Cara had barely arrived in Hidden Falls before she’d caught Joe’s eye, and all three Hudson sisters had agreed that the tall, buff blond contractor was not only good-looking, but a genuinely nice guy. Des herself had wondered what it would be like to have a guy like Joe crazy about her.
“Oh, please. Like I’d be interested in Joe.” Allie rolled her eyes. “He’s so not my type.”
Des laughed. “Joe Domanski’s every woman’s type. Every woman with a pulse and an active libido. The man is hot by anyone’s standards.”
Allie pretended not to hear as she headed for the stairs. “Give me a shout when Cara gets back.”
Des watched her sister climb the steps to the second floor, then turned to Barney and said, “I’m going to get something to drink, then I’m going into the office. I should call our insurance people about the mess at the theater. Feel free to join us when we finally get everyone together.”
“I’ll be in after I finish this chapter.” Barney held up her book. “I’m itching to see if Maude gets away from the kidnappers. Buttons can stay here with me. She really has no head for business.”
The dog stared up at Barney, wagging her tail expectantly.
“Oh, all right.” Barney patted the sofa cushion next to where she sat. “Come on.”
The dog hopped, rolled onto her back, and gave Barney her rub my tummy face.
Des sighed. “I’m wondering if any of us have a head for business. This is not as easy as we thought it would be.”
“By ‘this’ you mean restoring the Sugarhouse?”
“If it were easy, my brother would have completed the renovations before he died.” Barney resumed reading, one hand absently rubbing the dog’s tummy.
Des had just walked into the kitchen when Cara came in through the back door and hung up her car keys on their designated hook.
“So how’d it go? The roofers show up?”
Cara nodded. “They went up onto the roof and found several shingles that needed to be replaced. They also checked the plywood underneath. It’s wet, but that can easily be replaced as well, which the roofers are going to do, no charge. But the damage to the ceiling looks pretty bad. Joe’s going to have scaffolding erected inside the lobby. The roofers said they’d take care of that. They’ll bring in as much scaffold as they have, but they said they don’t have nearly enough to go all the way to the ceiling. They did agree to beg, borrow, steal, or rent whatever else is needed to reach the top so we can inspect the ceiling. We won’t know more until that’s been done.”
“I guess it’s time to call our insurance agent. I’m happy to hear the roofers are willing to step up to replace the shingles and the wood sheathing—which they definitely should do—but I don’t know who’s going to pay for the damage to the ceiling, the roofer’s insurance company or ours, but we need to put in a report.”
Cara pulled the elastic from her long auburn hair, a few shades lighter than Des’s and only a little less curly. “Let me grab a drink and I’ll come in and we’ll check the coverage on the policy.”
“Bring Allie, would you? I think we need to powwow.”
Des crossed the wide hall and went into the office that had served several generations of Hudsons. She found it a little intimidating to think of those who’d sat at the large oak desk before her. Even the chair was imposing—a high-backed black leather chair that had first been used by Reynolds E. Hudson, Des’s great-grandfather, then the second Reynolds Hudson, her grandfather, then finally by Barney when she took over as president of the bank that had been run by Hudsons for years. They were all bigger than life to her, even Barney.
Especially Barney, who’d been the president for more than twenty years after Fritz flew the family coop with Nora and took off for the West Coast to help make his beloved a star.
It had been expected that Fritz would follow in the footsteps of previous generations, but when that didn’t happen, Barney had walked into the board of directors meeting and reminded everyone that Fritz wasn’t Reynolds’s only child, and she was better suited to run the bank since she was smarter and more focused than her brother had ever been. Once the ancient, all-male board gave in, they discovered she was everything she’d claimed to be. Barney was still revered in Hidden Falls for the many ways she’d helped the town hang on through rough times. Under her watchful eye, businesses had sprung up, new houses were built, and some older homes changed hands. She was proud of the fact that not one loan she’d granted had ever gone into default.
It was hard for someone like Des, who hadn’t even taken a course in bookkeeping, to feel worthy of following in such footsteps. Yet here she sat, in the big black chair behind the fabled desk, files in front of her, ready to discuss the theater’s financial state with her sisters. When it had come time to divvy up the areas of responsibility pertaining to the theater’s restoration, Des had been selected as the one who’d hold the purse strings by virtue of the fact that she’d wisely invested the money she’d made as a child actress.
“Not much of a résumé,” she muttered as she opened the file in front of her, marked RECEIPTS, and searched for the original estimate from the roofing company, Sennett and Masters. She reread their initial report, then the contract, searching for language that might throw responsibility for the leak back on them. But Joe had been right. The “acts of God” clause was right there in the fine print.
While she waited for her sisters, Des opened her laptop and pulled up the theater’s bank account. For a long moment, she stared at the diminishing balance, then picked up a pen and began to tap it on the desktop in agitation. She’d tried so hard to budget carefully, but every system had had to be replaced and some new ones added. The building now had air-conditioning and Wi-Fi, two things that had been unheard of when the theater was built and were expensive to retrofit. Most of the big-ticket system replacements had been completed, but there was not a dime to spare.
And there were still hefty expenses to come. The carpets needed to be replaced and the chairs and marquee required repairs. The exterior needed painting and the ticket office had to be restored. The lights and the screen as well as the curtains in the staging area all had to be replaced and the stage needed refinishing, too.
And now they needed to fix the ceiling and all that meticulous detailed painting would have to be restored.
Des blew out a long breath. Sooner or later, they were going to run out of money. She prayed it wouldn’t be sooner.
She rested her arms on the desk and looked around the handsome room with its stone fireplace, tall windows, and dark wainscoting, and wondered what financial crises other Hudsons had dealt with while sitting in this same chair. The first Reynolds, the one who’d built the theater, had seen the town through the Depression. Her grandfather, whom she thought of as Reynolds two, had managed to guide Hidden Falls through World War II, and Barney had navigated the town through several economic downturns. Des imagined both Reynoldses standing alongside the fireplace, their arms folded over their chests, tapping their feet, standing in judgment, waiting to see if she was up to the challenge and worthy to call herself a Hudson.
“Okay, gang’s all here,” Allie announced as she and Cara came into the room. “What’s the big deal?”
“Take a seat.” Des pointed to two of four dark green leather side chairs that flanked the desk and she brought them up to date about the damage and the question of whose insurance was going to pay for the repairs.
“I’m sure we have the kind of policy that covers wind damage. I remember looking it over when we received it.” Cara went to the cabinet and pulled out the appropriate file. “It would be under ‘Covered Perils.’?” She scanned page after page. “Here it is.” She paused to read the section. “Basically it says that if water damage is caused by wind, the resulting damage is covered.”
“I’ll call our agent right now.” Des reached for the file and searched for the agent’s number.
“It’s the roofer’s fault,” Allie said. “Their insurance should cover it.”
“The insurance companies can fight it out. I don’t really care who pays for it, as long as it gets done.” Des punched the number into her phone. “The bigger problem is going to be finding someone who can actually repair the decorative ceiling.”
“Cara, the ceiling is part of the building, and since you’re in charge of renovations, that’s your job,” Allie told her.
“I’m responsible for any repairs to the actual plaster. All the pretty painted details are yours, since you’re in charge of décor. And from where I was standing, a lot of those pretty little details are toast.”
Allie’s phone buzzed to alert her to an incoming text, and she opened it immediately. After reading the message, she looked up at Cara and said, “Sorry. Nikki is filling me in on her summer plans.”
“Isn’t she coming here?” Des put her hand over the phone while she was on hold.
“I’m just getting the agenda. She’s having her two weeks with Clint’s parents in Chicago, which is fine. They’ll spoil her rotten and buy her a bunch of summer clothes, so I’m good with that. Now I’m waiting to see what else her father has planned for her. I want her to spend the rest of the summer here, with me.” She looked up from her phone. “Us, I mean. I want her to spend the summer with us.”
“You know we all want her here,” Cara assured her.
“For as long as we can have her,” Des added. She knew how much her sister loved and missed her daughter, who was fourteen and the absolute love of her life. Allie might be many things—snarky and sarcastic came readily to mind—but no one could deny she was a terrific mother. Nikki was living proof that at Allie’s core, there must be a very deep layer of goodness.
“Oh, don’t worry. I will fight for as much time as I can get,” Allie assured them. “Clint has her all year long. I’m entitled to having her for the summer.”
“Definitely. She should be with us,” Des said.
“I know you guys love her. I’m grateful for that. Really, I am. And I know she loves and misses you as well.” Allie’s lips curved into a half smile, her face visibly softening. “Maybe not as much as she loves and misses me, but still . . .”
Des laughed and tossed a piece of paper at her sister’s head. “You’re such a bitch, Allie.”
“True. But you love me anyway. And in my own sweet fashion, I love you all, too.” Her gaze shifted to Des. “I think.”
“What’s going on in here?” Barney stood in the doorway.
“You’re just in time.” Allie twisted in her chair to face her aunt. “We were just about to join hands and sing a couple of verses of ‘Kumbaya.’?”
“Oh good. A song from my generation. Shall I begin?” Barney grabbed a chair and pulled it next to Cara’s.
Des smiled and said, “I think the moment’s passed.”
“So what did I miss?”
“Not a whole lot . . . yes, hello?” Des’s attention reverted to her phone call. “I was on hold for Heather Martin?”
“I think we should all go look at the damage.” Allie lowered her voice.
Cara nodded. “I agree, if for no other reason than we’ll all know what we’re dealing with. Any one of us could be called upon to speak with the insurance people or prospective artists.” She paused. “Though where we’re going to find artists who are qualified to work on historic buildings—not to mention the detailed painting itself—I have no idea.”
“Althea College.” Barney spoke up.
“What?” Allie and Cara both turned to her.
“Althea College. They have a wonderful Fine Arts Department. At one time, they offered a major in art conservation. Perhaps they still do, or at the very least, someone in the department might know of someone who could work with you.”
“That’s perfect, Barney.” Des hung up the phone. “Heather, our agent, said she could meet with us anytime. We just have to call.”
“I’ll call the college.” Allie rose.
“And I’ll get with Joe to see about finding a plasterer.” Cara folded the policy and returned it to the file drawer.
“The ceiling isn’t our only problem.” Des motioned her sister to sit back down. “I’ve gone over the numbers. The amount of money we have left might, if we stretch to the absolute limits, cover the remaining big expenses. Beyond that, we’re going to be in trouble. We have to figure out how to come up with the funds to keep the place running while the renovations are being completed. Electric, water, heat, air-conditioning—those bills have to be paid while the work is ongoing. The work crews can’t work in the dark, and from what Barney tells us, it gets really hot and humid here in the summer. I don’t see the money for the monthly expenses in the remaining funds.”
“Dad left us a million dollars,” Allie reminded her.
“He underestimated.” Des tapped her pen on the desktop again. “It isn’t enough.”
The room fell silent.
“Hey, we have a theater. Let’s put on a show.” Allie turned to Barney. “Isn’t that what Mickey Rooney always said in those old movies you watch all the time?”
“Babes in Arms, I believe, was the only film where that line—or something akin to it—was actually uttered.” Barney, a fan of movies from the 1930s through the ’50s, spoke with some authority.
“Don’t knock it, Allie,” Des said. “It may come to that.”
“I was kidding.” Allie rolled her eyes.
“I’m not. The theater is going to have to pay for itself. We’re not going to have the money to run the place.”
“Excuse me, but nowhere in Dad’s will did it say we had to run it, Des,” Allie reminded her. “It only said we had to renovate it.”
“We may not be able to complete the renovations if we don’t find a way for the building to make money, that’s the point,” Des explained. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There are monthly expenses to be paid—electric, to keep the lights on and the air-conditioning running, unless we want the contractors to all die of heat stroke while working in the dark this summer.”
“If I may make one other suggestion.” Barney spoke up. “I’m on the board of trustees at Althea. The college was founded by Reynolds Hudson, who, as you all know, gave so much to the community during the Depression. Founders Day is next weekend. Why don’t we all put in an appearance at the cocktail party? Who knows, once word goes out among the faculty, perhaps someone might step up with some ideas?”
“I’m in.” Des didn’t hesitate.
“Me, too,” Cara said.
“Allie? You in?” Des waited for her sister to respond.
“Yes, I’m in.”
“Wonderful.” Barney rose. “Cara, let me know after you’ve spoken with Joe, and I’ll call for tickets.”
“And, Allie, see if you can get names of people in the Art Department we can hopefully schmooze next week at the gala.” Des watched her sister rise.
“Aye-aye, Captain.” Allie saluted as she walked past Barney and through the doorway.
Two days later, lured by the afternoon sun that spread across the backyard and highlighted Barney’s flower bed, Des wandered outside, her notebook in hand and Buttons by her side. The garden was beautiful, with a few late tulips and peonies—red, white, pink, burgundy, and even yellow—interwoven with hydrangeas that were still leafing out and roses that had yet to bloom. Des pulled one of the Adirondack chairs from the patio into the sunlight to go over her list of things to do that could bring cash into the theater. But the combination of warm sun and the fragrance of the peonies made her drowsy, so she closed her eyes and rested her head on the back of the chair. She’d have fallen asleep if Cara hadn’t accidentally slammed the back door on her way out of the house.
“Sorry.” Cara pulled another chair from the patio to join Des in the sun. She wore dark glasses, khaki shorts almost identical to the ones Des wore, and a white tee. “Were you napping?”
“I shouldn’t be, but I came close.” Des sat up and gave her head a little shake. “What are you up to?”
“Just looking for a bit of sun myself.” Cara situated the chair so she was facing Des, then placed her book on the armrest while she patted Buttons. “It’s so peaceful here, and quiet, even though we’re just a little more than a block from the center of town.”
“My house in Cross Creek was right at the edge of town. It’s pretty private and quiet there, too. After I’d lived in L.A. for so long, Cross Creek seemed like the wilderness.” Des thought about her log home on three and a half acres. She’d bought it on a whim after visiting friends who’d settled there, and she’d never looked back.
“Do you miss it?”
“Sometimes. On the one hand, yeah—my own house. I can walk around all day dressed in nothing more than a towel and there’s no one to tell me to get dressed.”
“I heard a ‘but’ in there somewhere,” Cara said.
“But on the other hand, I like having people around. I like having someone to watch TV with. It’s nice to have someone to talk things over with.” Des squinted when she turned to look at Cara, whose hair was curling over her ears in the same manner as Des’s. “How ’bout you? Do you miss your house?”
“Sort of, but you know, I didn’t really have a place that was just mine the way you do. Drew and I lived in an apartment while we were saving for a house. I moved out of there and into my mother’s house after I found out about Drew and Amber. Nothing says time to move on like having your husband file for divorce so he can marry one of your best friends. Former best friends.” Cara stretched her legs out in front of her. “It was a relief to be out of the apartment, but at the same time it made me a little sad to be living in the house without my mom. It was a small place, but it was one hundred percent Susa. There’s no place I miss her more than in that house. She’d refinished a lot of the furniture and made some of the rag rugs, so her stamp was definitely everywhere. In that respect, it really wasn’t mine. But do I miss it? Yeah, sometimes.”
“I’m surprised Dad didn’t try to make her move to a big place so he could furnish it with a bunch of expensive new stuff.”
Cara laughed. “Oh, he tried a couple of times to get her to let him build her something big and grand along the beach, but Susa wouldn’t budge from that little place. She’d bought it on her own and painted every inch of it herself before she met him. She had no interest in anything she hadn’t had some part in creating. She loved finding old pieces of furniture and making them beautiful. It gave her pleasure, so after a while, Dad stopped trying to make her into someone she wasn’t. Money meant very little to her. It just wasn’t important.”
“I know we’ve talked about this before, but it still strikes me as funny that he’d picked two women who were such opposites. Your mom so down-home and independent, mine so high maintenance and worldly and spoiled. It’s almost as if there were two sides to him.” Buttons reappeared and jumped onto Des’s lap.
“I think a lot of people have two sides,” Cara said. “We both answered the same question in basically the same way. Do we miss our homes, our solitude? And we both responded yes and no. That’s like having two sides, right?”
“In a way, yes.” Des’s phone buzzed. She apologized to Cara for the interruption, took the call, and chatted for a few minutes with Fran about goings-on at the Cross Creek shelter.
“I apologize,” Des told Cara after she’d finished the call. “That was the director of the shelter back in Montana bringing me up to date.”
“I thought you were the director.”
“Nah. I don’t want to be responsible for the day-to-day operations. Of course, I want to know what’s going on, but I’m happy someone else deals with it. I just want to work with the dogs. That’s the part I enjoy. Fran’s a good administrator, so I leave it all to her.”
“I don’t blame you. Running anything can be a pain. I’m so lucky to have someone who’s taking care of my yoga studio in Devlin’s Light while I’m here.” Cara opened her water bottle and took a sip. “So what’s new out there in the wilderness?”
Des laughed good-naturedly. “Three new dogs came in over the past week. She’s working with the owner of the new hardware store to do a meet and greet with the dogs to try to find them new homes. Let’s see . . . Oh, my book club changed their meeting night from Tuesday to Thursday. And Kent—I dated him a couple of times—has moved on to the new library assistant.”
“Maybe there’s a book club in Hidden Falls. Or maybe we could start one.”
“Yeah, I do miss my book club.”
“But not Kent?”
Des made a face. “The library assistant is welcome to him.”
“So what’s the notebook for?” Cara pointed to the pad that had slipped to the ground.
“I started to make a list of ways to bring in some cash for the theater. Nothing that’s going to bring in a heap of money. It’ll be more like a little trickle, but if we can pay even one bill every month, like just the electric bill, even that would be helpful.”
“What’s on the list?” Cara said.
“Well, for starters, I’ve been thinking about those old movie posters we found in the office. I’m trying to determine how we can make the most money off them. I did some research, and there is a market for reproductions as well as originals. The important movies like Gone with the Wind and The Philadelphia Story—you know, the classics, and Oscar winners—can bring in a nice amount. I’m just not sure if we’d make out better selling reproductions on eBay or offering the originals to a dealer.”
“Once the original is gone, it’s gone. But if we can keep making copies . . .” Cara thought aloud. “Then again, we could make copies of the originals before we sell them to a dealer. Get top dollar for the original and still have copies to sell directly.”
Des nodded. “Though there’s something about having those original posters.” She sighed. “Maybe a good way would be to test the waters by sending one or two originals to an auction that specializes in movie memorabilia, see what kind of money we can bring in.”
“I remember talking about having movie nights, maybe showing one of the old films that we found in the cabinet. We don’t have to have all the renovations completed to do that. Of course, we’d need a projector,” Cara pointed out. “I doubt the old one still works.”
“I’ll take a look at the projector while we’re there this afternoon.”
“A screen would be nice, too. The one we have is ripped on one side.”
“Maybe we can tape it?” Des made a face. “More likely we’ll have to replace it.”
“So what else is on the list?”
“We’d talked before about doing a book of photos from the early days of the theater, and Barney said she wanted to work on that. Remember the pictures she showed us of our great-grandparents all dressed to kill standing in the lobby, holding a martini in one hand and shaking someone’s hand with the other?” Des stretched out one arm and held an imaginary glass. “Barney’s got a list of people she thinks might have some old photos. She’s been calling them to see who has what and what we can borrow.”
Cara smiled. “I love the story those photos tell about the people who lived in Hidden Falls back then. The ones who’d lost their jobs during the Depression but still got all dressed up to go watch a movie or see a play or hear a concert, all for free on a Sunday night.” Cara’s voice had gone soft. “He must have been quite a guy, that first Reynolds. All he did for this town. And can you imagine anyone today treating their employees the way he did?”
“It’s hard to imagine. But his coal mines had made him a fortune, he didn’t have to answer to a board of directors, and there were no shareholders. He made the decisions, and good or bad, he stood by them, so Barney says.”
“She said his son—her dad—was the same.”
“Makes you wonder about our father, doesn’t it? Looks to me like Barney got all the strength and conviction in their generation.”
“Dad had his strengths and convictions. They just didn’t follow convention. He was convinced enough about your mother’s talent that he left his family and moved across the country to help her chase her dream. He loved her enough to do that. And she did become a movie star.”
“For a while. Until she drank herself out of one role after another.”
“That was on her, Des, not him.”
“Maybe he drove her to it. Maybe she knew about—” Des stopped, then blew out a long breath. “I didn’t mean to imply that his relationship with your mother made her drink. I honestly don’t think she knew about that, and frankly, I doubt if she’d have cared. Mom drank because she wanted to. And besides, the drinking came long before Dad met Susa.”
“There’s no point in speculating. We’ll never know what caused him to fall in love with my mom.”
“And it really doesn’t matter, I guess. He’s gone and they’re both gone—Nora and Susa—so they’re all together in the afterlife.” Des grinned. “Wonder how that’s going for the three of them.”
“Yeah, it probably wasn’t the happiest of reunions,” Cara mused. “Then again, maybe the slights and hurts of this life don’t follow us from one side of the veil to the other.”
“You believe there’s a veil that separates one world from the other?”
Cara shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. When my mother was dying, she said something about how what happened next was all a big secret, and she was finally going to find out what it was. She didn’t fear death at all.”
“It would be nice to have that kind of faith.” Buttons curled up in Des’s lap and went to sleep.
Cara looked up at Des. “Maybe that’s what it was, a kind of faith. Susa was open to all of life’s experiences. She always said you had to open each new door and walk through to see what was on the other side. I think she saw death as just another door to be opened.”
“She must have been a very spiritual person.”
“She was. Not so much in a traditional religious sense, but in her own way she definitely was spiritual.”
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have someone like that for a mother. Mine was materialistic and totally of this world and out for herself.”
“So we’re full circle back to the opposites thing. I guess that says a lot about our dad. He had to have seen the contrasts. It makes me think there must have been something in him that was attracted to both, the spiritual and the worldly.”
Cara’s car pulled up the driveway, Allie behind the wheel. She parked in front of the carriage house and got out, a tote bag in her arms.
“Where’ve you been?” Des asked her.
“Oh, I just ran a few errands. Thanks again, Cara, for letting me use your car.”
“You’re welcome. Anytime.” Cara nudged a chair with her foot. “Sit with us.”
“I just want to run inside for a moment.” Allie started toward the back steps. “Anyone want anything from inside?”
“No, thanks,” they both replied.
Five minutes later, Allie was back. She grabbed a chair and pulled it into the garden, then sat and stretched her legs out.
Cara reached her hand toward the nearest peony and touched the petals with her fingertips. “If I ever got married again, I’d want an armload of these. The scents and the colors are heavenly.” She paused, then made a face. “Oh, but not the white ones.”
“Why not the white ones? White peonies would make a beautiful wedding bouquet,” Des noted.
“Wait, is someone getting married?” Allie leaned forward.
“No one’s getting married.”
“Then why are we talking about wedding flowers?” Allie turned to Cara. “Good lord, don’t tell me you and Joe are already talking about—”
“No, no. I just mentioned that if—if—I were ever to marry again, I’d want peonies in my bouquet. Just not white ones.”
“What’s wrong with white peonies? They’d be perfect,” Allie said.
Cara sighed. “The mother of my ex’s new wife worked in my best friend’s bakery. Every morning when I stopped in for a muffin on my way to the studio, this girl’s mother would start talking about their wedding plans, as if I were dying to know.”
“How insensitive. Way to rub it in.”
“I know, right? So one day she was talking about how her daughter wanted white peonies and the florist told her she couldn’t get them and the mother asked me if I knew where she could locate some.”
“Wait, this woman asked you where her daughter could get flowers for the daughter’s wedding to your ex?” Allie’s eyes widened. “Her daughter who was sleeping with your ex before he was your ex?”
“That’s incredibly bitchy. Just flat-out mean. Even I wouldn’t do something that rude.”
“And we know how high that bar is set.” Des snickered.
“Ordinarily, I’d have a retort for that, but right now, I’m all out of snark.”
“Allie, your snark well has never run dry.”
“Well, it did today, Des. I used it all up on Clint.” Allie grinned. “But it was snark well spent, believe me. He’s agreed to let Nikki fly directly here from Chicago after her visit with his parents and stay until the week before school starts.”
“Well done.” Cara clapped.
Des nodded approvingly. “Snark well spent indeed.”
“I was brilliant, if I do say so myself.” Allie beamed. “I told him I’d go back to the judge and show how Clint has violated the original custody agreement. He countered that I had approved it, but I told him I’d maintain that he’d given me no choice since he was the one who moved and enrolled Nikki in a new school without consulting me.”
“Well, as long as we have her company for the entire summer, I don’t care what tactics you used. But I am proud of you, taking the logical approach instead of resorting to name-calling and hysterics,” Des told her.
“New territory for me. But it worked.”
“Must have caught Clint off guard.”
“It did, and that made my day. Now all I have to do is survive the anxiety over the fact that his elderly parents will be taking Nikki to the Chicago airport and whether or not they get her onto the right plane.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine, Allie. You don’t need to angst over every little thing.”
“Until it’s your child, Des,” Allie shot back.
“Nikki’s very smart and very resourceful,” Cara reminded them. “She’ll get herself onto the right plane. I have total confidence in her.”
“Good point. Thank you for that.” Allie rested her elbows on the arms of the chair. “Anyway—here’s something totally random I’ve been thinking about. Don’t you think the kitchen could use a little update in décor? It’s almost depressing.”
“It does appear a bit . . . tired.” Cara took a more diplomatic route. “Maybe a little paint.”
Allie rolled her eyes. “Please. White walls with ivy stenciled all the way to the ceiling? How 1990s is that? The cabinets are just shabby chic enough to be cool—they do have that authentic vibe, especially the ones with the glass doors—but that yellow linoleum floor has seen its day come and go.”
“So what would you suggest? We update here while we’re redoing the theater?” Des took a drink from her bottle of water. “Personally, I have enough on my plate right now. Besides, it’s not our kitchen. It’s not our house. It’s Barney’s. We’re here because she’s letting us stay.”
“Well, maybe we should talk to her about that. It would be nice for her to have something fresh and pretty to work in since she does like to do most of the cooking,” Allie said. “It might help her to move on a little.”
“What do you mean, move on?” Cara asked.
“Hasn’t it occurred to either of you that it looks as if little or nothing has been done in this house in, like, thirty-five or forty years? Since Barney’s fiancé died and Dad left?”
Des and Cara fell silent for a very long moment. Then Des said, “Yeah. It’s as if after Gil died, her life just stopped. Except for her job, that is.”
“Not that she’d ever forget either her lost love or her brother. But seriously, wouldn’t a little change-up be nice for her?”
“I think you’d have to ask her, Al,” Des replied. “But I agree that a change might be a good thing. Maybe if we could get her to change her surroundings a little, we could help her to move on in other ways.”
“Well, there she is.” Cara nodded in the direction of the driveway. “No time like the present.”
The three women watched their aunt’s car disappear into the garage. Barney emerged, closed the garage doors, and walked toward the house. She was almost to the patio when she noticed her nieces sitting in the sun near her flower garden.
“Well, don’t you three look relaxed.” At the sound of her voice, Buttons jumped off Des’s lap and ran to Barney, who knelt down to make the appropriate amount of fuss over the dog.
“Want to join us?” Des stood. “I’ll help you bring your lounge over.”
Allie turned in her seat. “Because we know you can’t sit in a wooden Adirondack chair like the rest of us.”
Barney laughed out loud. “Why would I sit on a wooden chair when I have this lovely lounge with its comfy cushion?”
Together Barney and Des moved the lounge to the lawn. Barney repositioned the back, then sat and slipped off her shoes. “It’s another warm one, girls,” she said as she shrugged out of her jacket.
Buttons stared longingly at the lounge until Barney patted the cushion next to her, and the dog happily jumped up.
“How was the luncheon?” Cara asked.
“It was lovely, thank you, and I think we raised a few more dollars for the scholarship fund at the high school.” Barney looked from one face to the next. “What’s up?”
Des shrugged. “Nothing, really. Just enjoying an early summer day in the garden and waiting for Joe to let Cara know when all the scaffolding is up.”
“I got a text from him awhile ago. A few more sections are going up this afternoon. He’ll let me know when the rest is in place. Shouldn’t be long now.”
“Let me know as soon as you do. The insurance agent wanted to stop in and take a look,” Des reminded her. “She said all she needed was a fifteen-minute heads-up and she could meet us there whenever.”
“You’ll know when I know,” Cara assured her.
“So what were you talking about before I joined you?”
“Oh. We were talking about an idea for your house,” Des said, a note of caution in her voice.
“What sort of idea?” Barney paused. “And it’s not my house. It’s our house. Someday it will pass to the three of you. You’re entitled to whatever your father would have been entitled to if he’d died of old age.”
“He was sixty-eight,” Allie reminded her. “He was old.”
“You hush, child. Sixty’s the new forty. I thought everyone knew that. So what was your idea about the house, Des?”
“Actually, it was Allie’s . . .”
“I was just thinking it would be nice if we worked with you to freshen up the kitchen a bit.” Allie softened the message.
Barney surprised them by agreeing. “Well, it’s been awhile since anything was done here. I think I had the walls painted and the ivy stenciled back in . . .” She paused to think for a moment as she tucked her blond hair behind her ears. “Let’s see, it was the year that I . . . oh, Lord, could it really have been that long? Nineteen ninety-one? Where the devil did the time go?”
“I could help you paint, if there was a color you liked,” Allie offered. “I painted all the rooms in my house in L.A. I’m pretty good at it.”
“I’m sure you are and I’d be delighted to hand the project off to you. I guess I’ll have to get to the hardware store and pick up some paint brochures for inspiration.”
“I see hours of HGTV in your future, Barney,” Des teased.
“As if I don’t watch enough TV already,” Barney replied.
“I don’t think those morning game shows spend much time on decorating trends.”
“Oh, you.” Barney swatted playfully at Cara. “Now you’ve got me thinking. What would you do if you were me?”
“I’d freshen up the white paint,” Allie said without hesitation, “and cover up the ivy. Assuming you don’t want to replace the cabinets—and there’s no reason to, they’re in great shape—I’d go with light gray doors on the top and a darker gray on the bottom. Maybe replace the counters with a white granite or quartz that has shades of gray and maybe something else in it.”
“That was all off the top of your head?” Des asked.
Allie nodded. “Gray is very popular right now, and both shades—the dark and the light—would pick up the gray in the fireplace. The stones also have a bit of gold and some taupe shades. The mantel is lovely and the stone is in great shape. Do you ever use the fireplace?”
“We used to a lot in winter when we were kids. Mrs. Allen, the housekeeper, would come over early to light a fire before she started making breakfast so that when we came down into the kitchen, the room would be cozy and warm. Didn’t matter how cold it might have been outside, or how loudly the wind might be blowing, how deep the snow, it was always warm in the kitchen.” The apparent pleasure of those memories brought a smile to Barney’s face.
“If we’re still around next winter, maybe we could use the fireplace in there. Like when you were younger,” Des ventured.
“I agree. Except for the one in the sitting room, I haven’t used the fireplaces in forever. I don’t know why I stopped.” Barney paused and seemed to reflect. “I guess I didn’t want to bother only for myself. I should probably call a chimney sweep in to make sure they’re okay to use.”
“Well, we’re all here now, and we’d love to have those fires burning again. Though maybe not until the weather cools off.” Des smiled at the thought of having that first cup of morning coffee in a cozy room on a cold morning. “Maybe we could put a chair or two in front of the kitchen fireplace.”
“That’s assuming we’re all still here come the cool weather,” Allie broke in. “Once the theater’s done, we can leave. I know I for one am outta here on the first plane.”
Des caught the crestfallen expression on Barney’s face. “I don’t know,” she said hastily. “Who knows how long it’s going to take? And besides, even if it’s finished, who’s to say we wouldn’t come back for Christmas? I’d come back, if Barney wanted me to.”
“Nothing would make me happier than to have you all here with me for Christmas, regardless of the state of the theater. And the icing on the cake would be to have Nikki here as well.”
Allie appeared to think that over. “I don’t know if Clint would agree to that.”
“Oh, just convince him it would be romantic to take his girlfriend to London or Paris for the holidays,” Cara suggested. Her phone pinged and she dipped a hand into her pocket to retrieve it and read the incoming text.
“That could very possibly work.” Allie nodded slowly, then stopped. “But we’re getting ahead of ourselves—it’s not even June.”
“Joe just texted to let me know that the roofers put more scaffolding up and he and Ben were going to climb what’s there to get a better look at the ceiling.”
“Ben Haldeman is there?” Allie’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
Cara shrugged. “I guess he saw Joe’s truck out front and stopped to see what was going on.”
“Why isn’t he patrolling the streets, keeping Hidden Falls safe from marauders?” Allie grumbled. “Isn’t that his job as chief of police?”
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Sugarhouse Blues includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Mariah Stewart’s second novel in the Hudson Sisters series, readers find Allie, Des, and Cara back in Hidden Falls as they continue their work restoring the local Sugarhouse Theater. The women reluctantly band together to take on their father’s challenge—all with the goal of completing the restoration and gaining their inheritances—but soon it becomes apparent that the work will be more extensive than they originally thought. Des, elected to handle the money, needs to find ways to stretch the remaining savings while searching for new sources of funding, with the aid of the town’s local residents.
As the Hudson sisters spend more time in their hometown, they must try to come to terms with the father they only thought they knew and find a way to welcome new friends and embrace the truth of sisterhood.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the title The Sugarhouse Blues. Why do you think Mariah Stewart selected this title, which follows the first book in the series, The Last Chance Matinee? Given that we know the series is about the sisters rebuilding and renovating the Sugarhouse Theater, what do you think the “blues” in the title represent?
2. The book follows the sisters through the next stage of the restoration. Consider where the three women stand in light of the unexpected delays in repairs due to new water damage to the roof and other surprise expenses. Which, if any, of the sisters seems most comfortable with the idea of staying in Hidden Falls longer? Do you expect any of them to remain in the town after the restoration is complete? Why or why not?
3. Allie tries her best to hide her drinking from her family members. By the book’s end, do you feel she or her sisters have properly addressed her drinking habits? What would you do in this situation if she were a friend or family member? Discuss the ways in which your group believes Allie’s drinking may factor into the next and final book in the series.
4. Des views the time spent on the restoration in Hidden Falls as an opportunity for her to reconnect with her sisters. Discuss the different distances between Des and her sisters. By the book’s end, do you think she has succeeded in reconnecting with Allie? Does she foster a sisterlike relationship with Cara? Discuss your own family relationships. Are there any wounds in your own families that need to be healed?
5. “But I agree that a change might be a good thing. Maybe if we could get her to change her surroundings a little, we could help her to move on in other ways.” (Page 31) Does Des’s comment about her aunt Barney apply to the other characters in the book? Which characters need to move on, physically or mentally, from their pasts? Do you think any of the characters seem to be stuck in old routines or in the past? Why or why not?
6. Cara finally shares with her sisters the box of letters that she found in The Last Chance Matinee. How do Allie, Cara, and Des differ in their reactions to the letters? Discuss Allie’s reaction on page 250 and her view of her parents’ relationship. Can you relate to one of the sisters more than another in this moment? How would you react to discovering news of one of your parent’s infidelities or extramarital affairs?
7. In Chapter 8, Des and Allie have a very tense moment discussing their experiences as actresses on the same television show. Given the recent headlines and current events between men and women in Hollywood, are you surprised Des kept so many secrets from her family for this long? Allie also mentions that she should have known based on Brandon’s history. Do you think she should have intervened then? As a group, discuss how you might handle being in a similar position. How do you lend support when a friend or family member has such a traumatic ordeal? In what ways do you react?
8. There are a lot of secrets in the family that resurface in this series. Discuss what sort of secrets you may have found out about later within your own families. Do you have any long-lost family members or interesting family histories, like a great-great-grandfather who built a historic theater, by any chance? What family history has been shared with you and what will you share with your children?
9. The topic of childhood labor, including that of child actors, is oftentimes a difficult one for people to discuss. How do you think Des’s and Allie’s time in Hollywood shaped their lives? How is this sort of work different from what some children may experience working in factories? Would you ever consider bringing your child in for a casting call? Were you or any of your family members made to work, either in the family business or otherwise, at a young age? Discuss the differences between work like Des’s and Allie’s versus your own childhood experience.
10. As a single mother, Allie admits that most of her time spent with Nikki was just the two of them. Do you think she is an overprotective parent? How does Allie finally find a way to let Nikki get comfortable in her life in Hidden Falls?
11. In the book, Des puts up many boundaries around men. Discuss how she comes to terms with her feelings for Seth and how she moves past her early opinions of him. Discuss the issues of judgment between the characters and how this contributes to many of the characters’ decisions in the book. Do you think Des rejected the possibility of being with Seth because she, or someone else, judged him?
12. The book closes with Des’s birthday and a special movie screening in the theater. As a group, make some predictions about how Mariah Stewart will end the series. Do you think the sisters will all stay in Hidden Falls after the restoration? Who do you think will leave to return home? Of all the couples, which do you think stand a chance to start a serious relationship? Are there any other cliffhangers that you hope to see resolved?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bring a copy of Mariah Stewart’s first novel in the Hudson Sisters series, The Last Chance Matinee, to your book group’s meeting. Are there any passages you or your fellow members may have highlighted that you want to revisit?
2. Consider reading Mary Alice Monroe’s Lowcountry Summer series or Kristy Woodson Harvey’s Peachtree Bluff series for your next book. Do you see any similarities between the writing styles, the characters, or the locations? Is there anything else you’d like to consider discussing?
3. Des admits that her favorite romantic movie is Pride and Prejudice, but she says she does not have a favorite version. As a group, consider reading the original novel for your next book club pick, or watch one of the more recent versions of Pride and Prejudice. Is there a particular cinematic version that your group likes best?