Sarah Booth always has had a lot on her plate—working as a private investigator and actress, keeping her ancestral home together, searching for the perfect man. If those “real” concerns weren’t enough, there’s Jitty, a ghost, who’s on her case to have a child to continue the family line. Sarah Booth’s just about had it…until her friend, Tinkie, convinces her to leave her worldly concerns behind and join her for a vacation. Is there anything a posh spa and cooking school can’t cure?
The pampering and exquisite meals go a long way toward healing Sarah Booth’s soul. But it’s a corporate beauty pageant/cook-off that really takes her mind off of her woes. All these women, with their posturing and backbiting—they amuse Sarah Booth to no end. But soon the heated competition boils over and the top contender is poisoned. And, lo and behold, Sarah Booth finds herself hired to work on the case. So much for that much-needed R&R…
Spring smote the Delta and fled before the onslaught of May heat. A thick haze of warmth hangs over the fields and the rivers, blanketing the land and the cotton bursting from the ground, green and vibrant. Hope is alive here, where farming is still a way of life.
To my shame, hope has died in me. The loss of my child, my potential son or daughter, has done something to me, and I’m afraid it can’t be repaired. While the cotton is growing and my partner’s husband, Oscar, and Deputy Gordon Walters have both fully recovered from the “plague” that nearly killed them, I have not fared so well. At least not emotionally. Doc says my body is healing fine. No permanent internal injuries, and my broken arm is all but mended. There should be no ill effects.
So what’s wrong with my heart?
Dahlia House, my family home, echoes with loneliness.
The familiar rooms are too big and empty in a way I never noticed. Perhaps this malaise of melancholy is hormone induced, as Cece Dee Falcon, my transgender friend who is an authority on the tricky role of endocrine chemistry, tells me. She assures me that my body will balance itself and that time will buffer this loss.
I wish I could trust her words. There are no known Delaney genes for moping, yet I can’t seem to stop. Songwriter Jesse Winchester says it best, it takes “nothing to pity yourself—but it’s dangerous fun.”
Unable to endure the shadows of Dahlia House, I’ve taken myself outdoors into the heat laden with the smell of summer. The scent of this sun-warmed land—the taste of it—is imprinted on my DNA. These fields have been my solace through so many losses, but I find no comfort here now. I walk to the oak grove behind the Delaney Family Cemetery—the place I saw my dead mother in a dream or vision or visit from the spirit world. She assured me I would recover from this miscarriage. I hope she’ll return today to guide me to that path, but I know she won’t. She’s warned me about lingering in the past, and she won’t facilitate my melancholy.
“You’re damn right, she won’t!”
Jitty, the resident haint of Dahlia House, has found me. Jitty has the tracking abilities of a Parchman prison bloodhound and the fashion sense of Jackie Kennedy or, on some days, Carrie Bradshaw. Therefore I’m stunned by her white apron and chef’s hat. Jitty does not “do” domestic, despite the fact she was my great-great-grandmother Alice’s nanny and best friend. What she does do is tap into my private thoughts—a habit I fi nd more than annoying.
“Don’t badger me, Jitty, I’m not in the mood,” I warned her.
“Pull it together, Sarah Booth. Tinkie will be here any minute to pick you up. You’re packed and ready, so quit waffling. This trip will be good for you, and the Richmonds have spared no expense. Tinkie and Oscar are tryin’ to bust you loose from the tar baby of grief. ’Course, instead of let-tin’ go, you keep pokin’ in another appendage. Soon enough you won’t be able to let loose.”
“I’m not going to Greenwood.”
“Says me.” My fingers brushed against the rough bark of an oak tree, igniting a tickle of childhood sensation, just a split second of the past. I don’t want a vacation or a stay in a luxury boutique hotel. What I want is to time travel, to go back to a place where my parents are alive and I’m the protected and beloved child.
Jitty is having none of that. “Wrong. Tinkie has gone to a lot of trouble to plan this trip for you. From what I’ve seen, you can sure benefit from some cookin’ classes. Girl, that handsome Graf Milieu is gonna wanna eat sometimes. Even movie stars got to feed the gullet on occasion.”
“Then he can cook.” My tone was reasonable, cloaking the deep sense of loneliness brought on by the mention of Graf’s name. He was my man, and I needed him beside me even though my logical brain knew he could not walk out on a movie. “At the moment, Graf is building his film career, and he doesn’t care if I cook or not. Eating at Millie’s Café makes me happy. She’s a better cook than I’ll ever be.”
Jitty eyed me. “I would be happy—if you’d eat. You go up there and stir the food around on your plate. You look like an abused greyhound.”
“Nothing like a compliment to make a girl feel better.” That she was right only made me more morose. I did look unhealthy. My skin was waxen, and I’d given up shirts that showed my protruding collarbone. I didn’t wear grief well.
“You want some compliments? Then go down to Greenwood and relax with Tinkie. Take your mind off things here. Have some laughs.” Her expression became sly. “You can kill two birds with one stone.”
“What two birds?”
“One, get away from here and start to heal your heart, and two, let your business partner take care of you. She wants to do that, Sarah Booth. It’s selfish not to let her.” Tinkie and I co-owned Delaney Detective Agency, but she was so much more than half owner. She was my closest friend.
She’d planned a vacation getaway for us to the nearby town of Greenwood and the famous Viking Cooking School. While it was a ruse to pull me away from Dahlia House and my depression, it was also, as Jitty pointed out, a chance for Tinkie to care for me. Jitty was right, but the lethargy that tugged at my heart left me unable to move.
“Sarah Booth, only time can help you get by this, and pinin’ away here, alone, is only prolongin’ it.”
Another point on Jitty’s scorecard. I pushed away from the old oak. I had to fight this depression. I couldn’t give in to it. The Delaneys were fi ghters, not quitters. “Okay.”
The smile that spread across her face carried enough wattage to light up Dahlia House. “That’s my girl.” She fell into step beside me as we walked past the old cemetery shaded by cedars and toward the house. “Now focus your cookin’ lessons on manly foods. None a’ that froufrou stuff that don’t satisfy. And remember, don’t ever eat nothin’ pink and foamy. Those are words to live by.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Pink and foamy? Like what?”
“Like cherries or strawberries mixed with cottage cheese. Or none a’ that pink mousse stuff.” She shuddered. “Nothing crème-filled that’s pink. Just take my advice and stay away from it.”
I’d never known Jitty to have an anti-pink obsession. “There’s more to this story.”
“And I’d tell it, but your ride to vacationland is here.”
Sure enough, I heard the crunch of tires on the shell drive. Though the house blocked my view, I knew my coach and driver had arrived in the form of a brand-new Cadillac with Tinkie behind the wheel.
“Have fun.” Jitty swept off the chef’s hat as she faded into oblivion—a trick I was determined to learn if I ever got stuck between Earth and the Great Beyond.
“Sarah Booth! Sarah Booth!” Tinkie’s little fists beat at the front door as she called my name.
“I’m in the backyard,” I yelled. I put my ass into gear and trotted around the corner of the house to meet my friend.
“Your chariot awaits,” she said, waving at the brand-new tomato red Caddy Oscar had given her as a gift.
“Let me grab my bags.”
A silver bowl of green apples centered the marble registration desk of the Alluvian Hotel. I sampled some iced peach tea in the lobby as Tinkie checked us in. Although I wasn’t P.I.-ing, I did deduce that the Alluvian had a great dental plan—the hotel staff all smiled, displaying handsome teeth.
The lobby was quiet, a reflection of the noon hour, and cool, a tribute to man’s ability to air-condition. A bar and restaurant branched off one side of the lobby, and a series of lounging areas were on the other side. Peeking into a room, I could imagine folks gathered around the grand piano in a far corner.
Across the street was the famed Viking Cooking School. Delta ladies entered and exited with shopping bags full of kitchen spices and the latest in equipment and gadgets.
Tinkie and I were scheduled to take classes at the school in a matter of hours.
“Ready?” she asked. A bellman loaded our bags on a cart.
Tinkie offered separate rooms, but I’d opted to share one. After all, the point was to battle the loneliness, not give in to the desire to hide in the dark. The bellman took our luggage to the top floor, where a chilled bottle of champagne and a pitcher of orange juice awaited us in a room that gave a view of downtown Greenwood.
“The hotel staff thinks of everything, don’t they?” Tinkie said, popping the cork with proficiency.
She mixed mimosas in crystal champagne flutes. Indeed, the hotel supplied a polished touch. She kicked off her shoes and climbed into one of the double beds. “So, we have our first class this afternoon. It’s party appetizers. When we get home, Sarah Booth, let’s have a party. We can show off our new entertaining skills.”
“You assume I’ll acquire some.” The mimosa was delicious, and I settled onto my bed. The tension in my shoulders lessened.
“Oh, we’ll both be prepared to dazzle guests when we finish this course.”
From the hallway came a loud thumping and banging. Tinkie and I both started to our feet. What sounded like a scuffle ensued, and someone pounded on the door of our room. Before we could react, the door flew open and two beautiful young women tumbled in. They were almost buried in luggage, which they unceremoniously dumped to the floor.
“Who put us in the same room?” the brunette growled.
“I’m going straight to the desk.” The blonde picked up a huge suitcase and tossed it into the hall where it slammed against something—or someone.
Tinkie calmly put down her drink and picked up the telephone. She punched in the number for the front desk. “Yes, this is Mrs. Oscar Richmond. We have intruders in our room. Please come immediately.” She hung up with a smile.
Both young women finally realized they had an audience. They stood, luggage up to their thighs, and stared at us.
“Who the hell are you?” the brunette asked.
“Tinkie Bellcase Richmond.” She hoisted her drink as if in a toast. “Don’t bother with your name. You won’t be staying long enough for me to give a damn.” She settled back onto the bed. Tinkie had taken an instant dislike to the women, which was unusual for her.
The brunette rose to the challenge. “Wanna bet? We’ll have those beds stripped and you out on your ass before the flies can settle on you.”
The blonde, petite and wide-eyed, put a restraining hand on the brunette. “Calm down, Karrie.”
Karrie shook her off. “Don’t touch me, you country-fried hick. If this old bat wants a fight, I’ll give it to her.” Karrie, whoever she was, had seriously misjudged Tinkie. While my partner was short, she could kick ass like a Spartan.
Tinkie slid to her feet. She was a good ten inches shorter than Karrie, but she was undaunted. Tinkie and her eight-ounce dustmop dog, Chablis, had more courage and spunk than a busload of gang members. “Who, exactly, are you calling an old bat?” she asked, advancing.
I snapped to, aware that for the last three minutes I hadn’t been depressed at all. “Hold on, Tink,” I said. I fell in beside her. If there was going to be a hair-pulling, Tinkie and I were going in together.
The blonde stepped between Karrie and Tinkie. “Stop it. We obviously have the wrong room.” She pushed Karrie’s bags toward the door. “Let’s go to the desk and get this straight. I want another roommate, anyway.”
Karrie wasn’t ready to back down. She glared at Tinkie. “Do you have a daughter in the contest? You’re too old to cut the competition.”
“I may have a few years on you, honey, but genetics tell all,” Tinkie said. “Your bone structure gives it away—some combination of Snopes and Wicked Witch of the West.”
“What contest?” I couldn’t help myself. I felt like my earlier wish had been partially answered and I’d fallen backward in time to high school. I’d actually been aiming for grammar school, but time travel is hard to predict.
“The Miss Viking beauty contest and spokesperson competition,” the blonde answered with a world-weary roll of her eyes. “The finalists are here this week for the cook-off and the runway talent contests. The winner gets a $200,000 contract to serve as Viking spokesperson and travel the world, not to mention scholarships and potential endorsements of food products worth millions.”
“Fascinating,” Tinkie said.
“I’m Crystal Belle Wadell.” The blonde made it clear the rhyming of her name caused her much grief. “That’s Karrie Kompton.” She pointed at the brunette. “She’s already way ahead in the Bitch on Wheels category and she’s about to win the Most PMS-ing title.”
“I see,” Tinkie said in a droll tone that told me Crystal Belle had amused her.
“Ladies, you obviously have the wrong room. Best to take this up with the desk.” I’d enjoyed the fireworks, but now I was done with it.
And just in time, two hotel staffers appeared in the doorway. In a matter of moments, Karrie and Crystal were assisted down the hallway. A door slammed and loud complaints blasted from both women as the hotel staff did their best to resolve the roommate issue. From what I overheard, the lodging decisions had specifically been made at the request of the contest manager—someone with a wide streak of sadism or who’d perhaps grown weary of the spectacular bitchiness of Karrie Kompton. I felt a brief second of pity for Crystal Belle.
“Surely all the contestants can’t be that awful,” Tinkie said, somewhat echoing my thoughts.
“Might be worth catching the talent competition if it’s being held locally.”
Tinkie’s face lit up. “Excellent idea. I’ll check at the desk for tickets or information. For now, let’s have a facial. The spa across the street has this to-die-for facial. Then we’re on to appetizer school at four o’clock.”
She babbled happily about beauty products I’d never heard of as we refilled our glasses with mimosas and ambled across the street for a full beauty treatment.
Even I, a non-cook, was dazzled by the Viking Cooking School. I donned my apron and stood surrounded by state-of-the-art appliances that actually had me thinking of whipping up a batch of . . . well, nothing specific came to mind, but I wanted to create some magnificent edible concoction. Such is the power of fancy tools. I couldn’t help but wonder if the same would apply if someone put a really nice drill into my hands. Would the urge to “do” carpentry come with the tool?
“Earth to Sarah Booth! Earth to Sarah Booth!” Tinkie tugged at my sleeve. “What in the world are you thinking?”
“About carpentry,” I admitted.
She shook her head. “Don’t even try to explain.” Her smile told me that what ever my mental deficiencies, I looked more relaxed. She gave me a big hug. “Let’s make those appetizers.”
I’d never considered appetizers had a history, so it was interesting to learn the Athenians introduced the first hors d’oeuvre buffet. Even more fascinating was the concept that appetizers are meant to whet the appetite. I’d always assumed they were designed to keep guests from chowing down like porkers at the main course.
Tinkie, of course, was a scholar in this field. We chopped, blended, whirred, and designed our Bouche Cream Cheese Prosciutto into elegant scoops nestled in crystal star-shaped holders and garnished with cross-cut cherry tomatoes. We then turned our hands to Miniature Quiches as light and delicate as the flowers they resembled. During the process I watched Tinkie with plea sure. She loved to cook—as long as it wasn’t part of her job description. She cooked for pleasure, not necessity, and her parents and Oscar provided her a life that allowed such an attitude. Tinkie had married well.
To my surprise, the class was a total delight. When we finished, Tinkie and I headed back to the Alluvian and a revitalizing cocktail. The hotel bar was jammed with beautiful young women, and we found a table in the corner and sat back to watch the interaction.
Karrie held court at the bar, surrounded by a half dozen well-dressed men who did everything except chew her martini olive for her. Beauty is a powerful weapon, and those men had been mortally gaffed. They hung on Karrie’s looks, flirtations, and expressed whims.
A dark-haired woman, half in shadows, sitting alone in the farthest corner of the bar, caught my attention. Black eyebrows over china blue eyes, delicate cheekbones, and full lips—she looked like a movie star.
“Who’s that?” Tinkie asked.
I shook my head. “Never saw her before, but she is striking.”
“She’s got a burn on for Karrie Kompton.” Tinkie, too, had observed the way the dark stranger’s gaze drilled holes in Karrie’s back.
“Somehow, I can understand that.” We clinked our glasses in a toast.
“Think she’s part of the beauty pageant thing?” Tinkie asked.
“Yeah, I’d say so. The other women seem to know her, but I wonder why no one is sitting with her.”
“Maybe she has cooties,” Tinkie said.
“And I thought we’d been time-warped back to high school. Now I see we’ve regressed all the way to second grade, where classmates are infested with that legendary parasite.”
“Seriously,” Tinkie said.“I’ve been watching the interaction. The other girls act like they’re afraid of our Dark Stranger.”
I signaled the barkeep for another round of cosmopolitans. Despite Jitty’s admonitions, we were drinking pink in honor of Cece Dee Falcon, who would join us as soon as she finished a deadline at the Zinnia Dispatch, where she was society editor and chief investigative reporter. It was an unusual combination of journalistic work, but then all the best crimes in the Mississippi Delta involved high society. She had the background knowledge on debutants and debuts, soirées, socials, engagements (broken and otherwise), marriages (those that held and those that didn’t), and other information crucial to a good juicy story when a crime spree broke out amongst the landed gentry.
Cece had also been a part of the landed gentry until she went to Sweden and had the part of her that bore the name Cecil permanently excised. Her family had disowned her, but Cece carved out a new life for herself from the ruins of her old one. She had strength I could only envy.
The bartender brought our drinks, and Tinkie motioned him closer. “Who’s that woman in the corner?” she asked.
“Hedy,” he said without hesitation. “Really nice gal, unlike some of the other contestants.” He glared at Karrie’s back. “Some of these girls think the whole world spins in an orbit around them.”
Before he could collect our empties, a bouquet of white roses as wide as the doorway waddled into the room on two human legs.
“Karrie Kompton?” a rough, low voice said from the midst of the fl owers.
“For me?” Karrie squealed with the best sorority girl abandon I’d heard in years. “Oh, look, everybody, someone sent me fl owers.”
While the bartender rushed over to help the delivery-man put the flowers in a safe place, Karrie snatched the card and ripped it open. Her face flushed with plea sure, and she tapped her glass with a cigarette lighter to make everyone hush.
“Everyone! Shut! Up! I want to read my card.” She cleared her throat. “ ‘A gift for the fairest princess in the land. Knock ’em dead.’ ” She fluttered the note and squealed again. “It’s signed, ‘Your secret admirer.’ Isn’t that just the best? A secret admirer. It’s so . . . romantic.”
The deliveryman produced a giant box and handed it to Karrie. “This is also for you.” He stood a moment and when it became clear she had no intention of tipping him, he gave her a disgusted look and left.
One thing about Karrie Kompton: She knew how to play a moment to the hilt. She held out the box, shook it lightly, and then very carefully untied the pink organdy ribbon that adorned an ornate, foil-stamped, fuchsia box. Chocolates were my guess.
When she lifted the lid, instead of a squeal, she sighed with plea sure. “Look at this. I’ve never seen chocolates like this before. They’re so big and dark and expensive looking.”
The girls and male admirers all leaned in to examine the box. Even after eating a dozen or more appetizers, I couldn’t stop my mouth from watering. Chocolate was definitely my weakness, and Karrie had the ability to make others want what she had, even a box of candies. I waited for her to pass them around to her friends. Instead, she picked one out and held it up for all to see.
“It’s like a chocolate shell,” she declared, turning it this way and that. “And stamped onto the top is an exact replica of the crown I’m going to win. These had to have been handmade just for me.”
“Eat the damn thing or put it down,” Crystal Belle Wadell finally said. “You aren’t going to share, so just eat it and shut up about it. Brook, Janet, Gretchen—let’s go find out about our schedules.”
The four young women stood.
“Jealous because I have a secret admirer?” Karrie taunted. Her laughter danced around the room. “I’ll bet this is a gift from one of the judges.”
The audacity of her statement made Tinkie’s eyes widen. “What an instigator she is,” Tinkie whispered. “I’m surprised one of the other contestants hasn’t whipped her ass.”
“The night is still young.” I sipped my drink as Karrie teased the other contestants with her flowers and candy. She had a genuine talent for torment, and everybody in the bar, including Tinkie and me, couldn’t stop watching. What ever Karrie lacked in kindness, or even basic human decency, she made up in spades with the ability to mesmerize an audience.
Two women stepped into the bar, one a bit older than me and the other obviously one of the contestants. Pale and elfin, she had an ethereal quality. When she turned around, I checked to see if she sported fairy wings. Whoever she was, she was lovely. And the older woman was attractive, too. The possibility that they were sisters crossed my mind.
“Amanda, let’s order something in the room,” the older one said.
“I want to stay here, Mother.”
My relationship questions were answered. Mother and daughter. If I were a beauty contestant, I’d want my mother with me for moral support. Hey, given my druthers, I’d have my mom around for all occasions.
Karrie reclaimed the floor as she eased the candy to her mouth. She did it slowly, playing to her audience. She placed her perfect white teeth on the delicacy, and then she slowly bit the candy in half.
To my utter horror, the half she still held in her hand began to move. Hairy legs protruded, and the back half of a giant cockroach fell onto the bar and began crawling crazily around. Headless, it had no sense of direction.
Karrie froze. She stared at the half-a-roach, which wouldn’t accept its own death. The most intriguing expression passed across her face, and then she spat chocolate and roach all over the bar.
Shouts, shrieks, and screams of laughter erupted. Pandemonium ruled. Tinkie and I stood on our chairs for a better view of a fistfight between several of the contestants. Women shoved and trampled one another to get away from Karrie. Ingeniously, Tinkie clicked photos of the mayhem with her cell phone.
Someone pushed the candy to the floor, and in the melee, people stepped on the chocolates, freeing more roaches that had survived being dipped in chocolate and were understandably pissed off. The area around Karrie was an expanding disaster.
“Holy Christmas.” Tinkie was having a blast. “Can you believe that? Someone sent her chocolate-covered roaches. That is too creepy.” And then she burst out laughing. Karrie didn’t generate a lot of sympathy. At least not from Tinkie. Or me. I was enjoying the spectacle as much as she was.
I looked over to see Hedy’s reaction. She was gone. As were the mother-daughter duo. The roaches sent a lot of people scurrying, but a team of Alluvian staff arrived to work damage control.
“How hard would it be to chocolate-coat a roach?” I asked. “Maybe just heat a little chocolate—”
“You wouldn’t even have to do that. There’s a product that hardens instantly on cold surfaces. Someone froze those roaches—like fishermen do catalpa worms—then coated them in chocolate and got them over here before they thawed enough to eat their way out of the shells.”
“Someone really doesn’t like Karrie Kompton.” My smile was painfully wide.
“We’ll have to remember this. The day might come when we want to make our own chocolate delivery.” Tinkie loved mischief.
We raised our glasses and drained them. “Thank you, Tinkie. This was exactly what I needed.”
We’d just ordered another round when Tinkie’s cell phone rang. Cece had been delayed at the newspaper and would come the next eve ning for sure. When Tinkie relayed the roach episode, Cece wanted Tinkie’s photos for the newspaper.
Tinkie held the phone so we could share it. “Cece wants to hire us to cover the beauty contest until she gets here.”
For some reason, that appealed to me. “Sure.”
“We’re on,” Tinkie agreed into the phone. “I’ll get someone to help me send the photos from my phone. And, yes, we’ll buy a better camera.”
My aunt Loulane, my father’s sister, cared for me after my parents died in a car wreck when I was twelve. She was a Southern cook who could make a table groan under the weight of ham and sweet potatoes or cheese grits and homemade biscuits. There was not a day when I came in from school that a hot dewberry cobbler or a fresh apple pie wasn’t cooling in the kitchen window. She fed me like a prize steer headed for the state fair.
She mentored me in table manners, but she never taught me the basics of cooking. In my second class at the Viking Cooking School, I did my best to strain a lumpy mass of butter and flour through cheesecloth. I conceded that just because I could sometimes make Sawmill or Redeye Gravy, I had not mastered the French “sauce.” In my own defense, my stiff arm impeded my work. The break I’d suffered in my last case had healed at warp speed. Nonetheless, the arm was weak.
The “saucier” directing the morning lesson was a kind woman, but I could read my failure in her eyes. I managed to retain some facts: A famous French chef had categorized sauces into four families, each based on a mother sauce—béchamel, espagnole, velouté, or allemande. I hadn’t mastered the art of creating any of them, but I was learning. There were white roux, blond roux—some based on milk or brown stock, some requiring egg yolks and heavy cream as a binding agent. By lunchtime, my head was spinning with the many aspects of sauce.
“Taste mine,” Tinkie said.
I glared at her simmering pan of béchamel. It was neither lumpy nor watery. It was perfect. And it tasted good, too.
Covered in splotches of food, my apron askew, and my chef’s hat sunk low to my eyebrows, I was relieved when the class was done.
Tinkie’s cell phone rang. “Cece, darling,” she said, talking as we left the cooking school behind and stepped onto the downtown Greenwood street. She grabbed my uninjured arm. “The photos made the front page of the paper! Cece said everyone is calling in to say how great the story is.”
I gave her a thumbs-up. This vacation was something Tinkie and I both needed. My depression was still with me, but it had receded due to the frontal assault of fun and good cheer Tinkie aimed at it. I’d fallen out of my life and I didn’t know how to get back in, but the distance no longer seemed insurmountable. I was finally starting to heal emotionally, as Jitty predicted.
While Tinkie chatted away, giving Cece a blow-by-blow of her successful sauce morning, I took in the scenery. Greenwood had once been the heart of cotton production in the landlocked portion of the Delta. The cotton was ginned and baled here and then taken by rail to Greenville on the Mississippi River, where it was shipped far and wide.
Greenwood’s streets were paved with bricks, and railroad tracks crisscrossed the town. Both the Yazoo and Sunflower rivers swirled around the city, which boasted some of the finest antebellum “town” houses—in contrast to the working plantations—in the South. But Greenwood had fallen on hard times in recent years, like much of the Delta. The twenty-first century hadn’t been kind to agrarian cultures.
The Delta city was rebudding, though. The Viking Range headquarters, the Alluvian, the blossoming of Turnrow Books were all signs of downtown revitalization. Life had touched this Delta town, as it had Dahlia House. And me.
Tinkie took off to find a digital camera with a telephoto lens, and I went back to the hotel room and placed a call to Graf. They were wrapping the Western he was shooting in Northern California, and I hoped to catch him on lunch break.
In the four weeks since I’d been so savagely attacked during my last case, Graf had been back to Zinnia twice and called every day. He was worried about me. All of my friends were concerned—Graf more than anyone else.
“Hey, baby,” he said. “How’s cooking school?”
“I’m hell on appetizers, but sauces have whipped me.”
“Ah, a pun. A bad one, but an attempt at humor is welcomed. This sounds hopeful.” His voice, filled with relief, was supersexy.
I related the chocolate-roach incident and had him howling with laughter. I promised to get Tink to e-mail the photos to him.
“Your friend is a genius,” he said. “This is exactly what you needed, Sarah Booth. You sound like your old self.”
“I’m better.” A lump formed in my throat. “It’s difficult. But I’m getting better.”
“Whenever you feel up to coming out here, there’s work waiting.”
Panic squeezed my chest. “Not yet.” I wasn’t ready to try acting again. While my movie career wasn’t responsible for all that had happened, it had been the initiating factor. Or so it seemed.
“There’s all the time in the world,” Graf said softly. “I don’t care if you never make another film. I want you to be with me, working or not. I love you.”
“And I love you.” I turned the diamond ring on my left hand. “I miss you.” His absence was like a toothache, a low-key, throbbing pain. But sometimes, especially when I woke up in the middle of the night alone and scared, it was a sharp and angry sensation.
“They’re calling us back to the set. Another few weeks and I’ll be done. Maybe we could take a trip to Europe. Didn’t your friend Lee tell you about a horseback ride up the western coast of Ireland? That would be incredible.”
“You have an excellent memory.”
“Check it out and see if it would interest you. I want to spend some time alone with you in a beautiful place.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” When I hung up, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I was smiling, and it felt good.
Copyright © 2011 by Carolyn Haines
Carolyn Haines is the author of eighteen novels, including nine previous Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries. She is the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writing Award as well as the prestigious 2009 Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. Born and raised in Mississippi, she now lives in Alabama on a farm with more dogs, cats, and horses than she can possibly keep track of.