The morning interview with her grandma and Sam’s watchful gaze had taken more out of Gracie than she cared to admit. She still hadn’t glanced at the date on her birth certificate. It seemed like a simple thing, just a few numbers—something she’d always wondered about—but just knowing the actual date would make the last week just a little too real. Already she was beginning to lose track of where Gracie Calloway ended and Katherine Hammond began.
Sam had sensed her need to be alone and reluctantly let her leave with a promise to go straight home. Her grandma had backed off when she said she had to pack for the trip to Montgomery to sign papers, which was the truth. But first she had to fix things with Alice.
Old Man Guilt had been following her around all day and wouldn’t leave her be. The image of Alice’s wobbly lips and dog-sad eyes kept popping into her mind. Alice had come out fighting for her, and she’d just stood there, tongue-tied like a fool with her mind looping around the sparkly image of her flesh-and-blood mama.
Gracie kicked off her sandals on Alice’s back porch and smoothed the wrinkles out of the yellow dress, hoping Clare had delivered her regrets and softened Alice up. Her girlish side had always admired Alice’s frilly kitchen in a moth-to-flame sort of way. It was practically a religious experience, complete with a hand-painted statue of a smiling Lord Jesus who stood guard over Alice’s row of fancy china cups and saucers.
The smells—a mixture of fresh-baked pies, coffee, and Alice’s lavender body powder—hit her as soon she stepped through the doorway. Gracie’s apology went still on her tongue.
Alice clutched a rolling pin in her right hand and offered it to Clare. “Now, if the piecrust isn’t kept chilled, it will get sticky, then hard as wood when it bakes. Might even break your sweetheart’s tooth. And he won’t thank you for it. Then you’ll have a toothless man smiling at you from across the table the rest of your days. Makes me shudder just to think of it.”
Clare looked up from what she was doing. “Your neighbor, Skip Evers, has a nice smile.”
Alice quickly swallowed her surprise, then beamed back at Clare. “Why, yes, he certainly does. Mind you, that’s because I told Millie Evers to make sure he brushes twice a day.” As sly a smile as Gracie had ever seen spread across Alice’s lips. “I hear he came by twice to check on you while I was at work this morning.”
Clare blushed. “He did, and the second time he brought me flowers. No one has ever brought me flowers before.”
“Oh my, but how sweet our Skippy is. Flowers, like teeth, are the mark of a true gentleman. Gracie is immune to his charms. But that’s just as well now that she has her fancy mama to make a fuss over her.”
Alice let out a sorrowful sigh, then reached over to guide Clare’s hands. “Roll it gently now, dear. Not too thin. There you go. Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it?”
“This is fun. I could do this all day.” Clare’s voice had a skip it hadn’t had when she arrived in Shady Grove. “What’s next?”
“Hand me that pie dish from the table, would you?”
Gracie stepped out of the shadows and hurried toward the dish. “Here you go, Alice.”
Alice’s hands flew to her chest as she spun around. “Lord Almighty, you scared the livin’ daylights out of me, child. Haven’t I told you not to sneak up on me when I’m in the kitchen? Clare, bring me my stool, would you? My heart’s nearly out my throat. I need to catch it before it runs off.”
Clare plunked the stool down beside Alice. “I can finish. Just tell me what to do.”
Alice reached for Clare’s arm as she lowered herself onto the stool. “Why, thank you. You are such a dear.”
“I’m just so happy to be here. I can hardly find the words.”
Alice tightened her grip on Clare’s hand. Gracie couldn’t believe her eyes … or her ears. Was that a drawl she’d heard slipping over her sister’s New England accent? Alice had turned Clare into her clone, right down to the calico apron hugging her sister’s waist. Where was the brave girl she’d been sharing secrets with just this morning?
Gracie felt her temper bump up a notch. “Are you feeling sickly? Do I need to call the doctor?”
Alice pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “I thought you’d be packing for your tea party at the Riverview.” Alice’s sharp gaze was taking in her new dress.
Gracie swallowed the inclination to snap back that she had nothing to pack. “Not yet. I’m only going for one day. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
Alice leaned toward Clare. “Tell me, dear. What do you think of Gracie in yellow? Did I choose the wrong color?”
Clare’s gaze did the jitterbug, flitting back and forth between Jesus and the teacups behind Gracie’s head. “Yellow turns my skin green, but on Gracie it looks great.”
Bless the teacups and the happy Jesus. The spell was lifted. The Clare she knew was back.
But Alice didn’t seem to notice. She was still considering Gracie’s dress with her finger propped against one cheek. “I suppose it will do for tea with your new mama.”
Clare dropped the rolling pin on the counter and shot Gracie a panicked look. “But I thought you said she’d gone home—”
Alice’s gaze was intent on Gracie’s. “She arrived at the crack of dawn with an entourage of paparazzi.”
“The press was here? Why didn’t somebody tell me?” Clare’s voice jumped an octave.
Alice didn’t seem to notice. She had her laser stare fixed on Gracie. “The street was cluttered with news vans of all sorts, just when that nice Mr. Fontana had told them to stay away. She brought them on purpose, I’ll bet.”
Gracie glared back at Alice. “You don’t know that for sure. She came to invite me to tea.”
“Most folks send a proper invitation.” Alice’s bottom lip jutted out, and her eyes narrowed behind the glare of her glasses. She was still on a snipe hunt.
Clare untied her apron and thrust it at Gracie. “If my mother finds out Lillian is still here, she’ll be right behind her … I’ll have to leave. Where will I go?”
Alice commandeered Clare’s hand and patted it gently. “Don’t worry, my dear. She wouldn’t dare come here, where she’s not welcome.”
Clare stopped dithering and sent Gracie a look of apology. They both knew Alice wasn’t talking about Clare’s mother, but Gracie’s own mama. Artie had been right: This wasn’t a battle Gracie couldn’t win without losing an arm or a leg. She’d only made things worse with Alice.
Gracie slammed through Ben’s kitchen and snatched up the envelope Kate Hammond had given her, then peeked into Artie’s room. He was lying in a sea of new pillows. The oxygen tube still ran from his nose. Playing cards were spread over the coverlet in front of him.
“Quit your spyin’ and get yourself in here. I ain’t had nobody but ornery women bothering me today.”
She’d spent endless hours playing solitaire with Artie: when it was too hot to move, then again when the rains came and they couldn’t go outside and play ball. Artie was the only one she knew who could beat Old Sol with any regularity. Never once had she suspected him of cheating, but Alice claimed he did.
Gracie perched on a stool and studied the cards. “You’ve reached a dead end. Time to fold.”
Artie worked through the cards in his hand one more time. Magically an ace of spades surfaced. Then there was no stopping him. One-by-one, the cards fell into place. A smile tugged at his lips. “You been draggin’ your sorry ass around too long, girl. Don’t you think it’s time for you to pull yourself out of it?” Artie set the last card into place with a snap.
“I’ll drag as long as I want. Besides, I’ve got reason.” Gracie fumbled with the envelope of photos she’d taken from her grandmother.
“Some folks would say you don’t … but they’re not standin’ in your shoes, so you just go on and wallow, now, you hear?” One of his gray brows lifted her way expectantly.
“I haven’t had time to wallow. I’ve got visitors coming out of the walls.”
Artie laid the two of spades on the ace, then shuffled the pile one more time. “That so?” You gonna tell me who, or are you gonna make an old man wear hisself out guessin’?”
“My sister showed up in her mama’s car with a trunk full of fancy new clothes. Now Alice is in her kitchen teaching her to make pies. And I’ve got a grandma who puts a whole new twist on the word Yankee.”
Artie was quiet for a minute, but Gracie wasn’t fooled; his thoughts were working at lightning speed, making connections. “I see you’s wearing Alice’s new dress—even though I knows you never liked yellow.”
“I can change my mind, can’t I?”
“I told you not to worry ‘bout Alice. She might fuss a bit coming out of the gate, but she’ll come ‘round.”
“There was no gate. She cut straight through the fence. All it took was one look at my mama, and she was like a fast horse heading down the track. I tried to slow her down by putting on this silly dress, but she just ran me down and stole my sister. I give up.”
“You know damn well you and Alice ain’t never seen anythin’ with the same pair of eyes. That’s been goin’ on long before this new trouble come along. Why you so worried about what she thinks now?”
Artie’s look told her he knew why, but he wanted her to say it out loud so she could hear the words for herself. What could she say? “My world is burstin’ at the seams. Alice is running off to marry the reverend. Who knows what’s going on between Ben and the Widow Perkins? Did I mention Jimmy is squeezing me out of my job? And you tell me you’ve already bought a space in the Big Man’s parking lot—” She didn’t even bother to add Sam Fontana to the list. “I got more rights than most to feel out of sorts.”
“Yes, you do. But some of those things that’s sucking up your smile is things you can’t change. Let those go. Worry about the things you can change. Facts is facts.” Artie reached for her hand and laced his fingers through hers. “Now, what about your new family? I suppose their faces are witchy and ugly like yours, long-nosed with warts. You bring them along?” Artie pretended to peer past her shoulder. Something told her he already knew the details. From the look on his tired face, she’d guess he’d missed his nap waiting for her to show up and spill the news.
Gracie tucked Alice to the back of her mind and offered Artie a smile. “Chantel’s been tattling, hasn’t she?”
Artie nodded, then released her hand and settled into the pillows. “She came over to brag about how that Yankee gave her time off, paid. That girl is so busy looking for easy street, she gonna miss the turn—unlike you. You’s gonna miss it ‘cause you gots your eyes shut so tight you can’t see where you’re goin’.” Artie’s gaze dipped to the envelope. “What you got there?”
“I mean, in that envelope you’s huggin’ so tight.”
“Oh, this?” Gracie lowered the package to her lap. “Just some old baby pictures. Nothing much.”
“Hand me my glasses, girl. I want to see if you were as ugly as I remember.” Artie cracked a smile, but it was a good twenty calibers weaker than his usual sassy grin.
Gracie’s heart seized up. He was fading right before her eyes. Reluctantly, she dumped the pictures into his lap, then reached for his glasses while she tried unsuccessfully to press the tears back into her eyes. “Here you go. Knock yourself out.”
Artie let her watery voice slide by without a second glance. “Well, look at you. Why, you weren’t nothin’ but a tadpole. I seen kittens born bigger than you. And this must be your daddy.” Artie moved the photo up and down until he found the right focus through his bifocals. “You got his chin. Must have a pair of mules in his britches, jus’ like you.”
Gracie resisted the urge to grab the picture away before Artie saw something she wasn’t ready to admit to. For some reason, the picture was painful for her to look at, but she’d wanted it more than anything. If her grandmother had refused to give it to her, she would have found a way to get a copy, even if it meant stealing.
Artie moved on to the next photo. Gracie held her tongue through his grunts, snorts, and nods. When he’d finished, he tucked the snapshots carefully into the envelope—all but the one.
Gracie reached for it, but he snatched it away.
Slowly he raised his one-eyed laser stare in her direction. “I figured this would be the one you’d like the best. I knowed, if it was me, it would be the one I’d pick. Makes me feel sorta like I gypped your daddy.”
Gracie swallowed the lump in her throat. “Why’s that?”
“Well, ‘cause he’s lookin’ at you like you could move heaven and earth. I’m thinkin’ he was a lonely man and you was his North Star.”
“Save your pity for someone else. He lived in this town, shopped in my store, sent me flowers, but he never told me who he was. I had a right to know, and he never said boo. Now I don’t know who the hell I am.”
“You’re Gracie Lynne Calloway—the girl who pitched three no-hitters in a row; the girl who spends her Thanks-givin’ deliverin’ food to folks who ain’t got none, and it wasn’t ‘cause Alice and her churchy friends made you. You’s still the same girl—except for them shoes. They’s some kinda ugly.”
“They’re yours.” Gracie blinked away her tears.
“I thought I taught you not to lie. They ain’t ever been on my stylish feet. No, siree. Arthur Dubois may be poor, but he gots his pride. You been fishin’ in Moses Day’s trash heap, that’s what.”
Gracie felt tears crowd her eyes again. She dashed them away with the back of her hand. “Alice burned my clothes.”
Artie laid the picture down on the coverlet. After a long silence, he nodded his head. “Me and Alice don’t agree on much, you know that. But I’m thinkin’ maybe this time she’s right.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Artie had always been on her side when Alice got pushy. “Right? About what?”
“That you need to leave the nest. Burnin’ your clothes is her way of shovin’ you out. Ben and me, we got too used to you doin’ for us. Don’t you see, this is your big chance, girl, to do something in a big way besides take care of two old men who smell more every year. Ain’t you got no dreams?”
Gracie stared back at Artie. No one had ever asked her that. The answer had to be yes, ‘cause everybody had a dream, right? She could feel Artie’s gaze hanging on hers, waiting for an answer.
But if she was still Gracie Calloway, not Katherine Hammond, like Artie said, then she was the same child who’d been left on the front porch. Even that girl had had dreams at one time—dreams of a fairy-tale mother who thought she was the cat’s meow. But she’d learned over the years just because she wanted something to be true, dreaming didn’t make it so. Gracie met his prying look with a stubborn frown. “I don’t have time for dreams, Artie.”
“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought. You’s been so busy worryin’ about other folks, you forgot all about little ol’ Gracie Calloway. I’m talkin’ about big dreams like the ones Martin Luther King and John Kennedy had.”
Gracie felt the day creeping up on her. Her arms and legs ached along with her head. She stared at the forgotten photographs in Artie’s lap, then shifted her gaze to Artie’s face. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”
“I’m askin’ ‘cause you ain’t, don’t you see?”
Gracie felt her voice go small in her throat. She propped one foot on her knee and toyed with the frayed shoelace. “I wanted to sing once. But we both know that isn’t gonna happen.”
“Ain’t that the truth. You got the singin’ voice of a crow. What else? There’s got to be somethin’.”
Sam and his grin skated uninvited into Gracie’s mind. Gracie tried to shoo the image away without success. As soon as one version of Sam was gone, another replaced it, until she felt a serious frown tugging at the corners of her mouth.
When she glanced up, Artie’s eagle gaze fixed on her face. Finally his eyes lit and he cracked that smug grin of his that made his ears crinkle along his cheeks. “You’s in love. Hot damn. About time.”
Gracie hopped off her perch on the bed. “You’re crazy. I’ve got to go pack. I’m going to Montgomery—just for a day, mind you. Don’t go getting any funny ideas about me and Mr. Fontana, because they’re just not so.” Gracie collected the envelope from Artie’s lap.
A broad smile curved his face. “I been prayin’ for this day a mighty long time. Yes, siree. My little chick is about to spread her wings.”
“Well, don’t stop, because it’s not here yet. I’m just going to sign some papers.”
“You go on, now. And get yourself some pretty new clothes while you’s there.” Artie started to cough. The raspy sound was deeper this time.
A rush of fear and lack of sleep the night before made Gracie’s head swim. She reached for Artie’s hand. “I can stay here. Sam can arrange for them to come to Shady Grove, if they need me so bad. I don’t give a damn about the money.”
“You met someone else you want to give it to? Someone who will do good with it? From what you tell me, that money could end up in the hands of some mighty shortsighted folks. I know you, girl. You’d never forgive yourself. It would eat at your socks. Seems to me, you gots some serious thinkin’ to do.”
“I’m beginning to think that’s the problem—too much thinking.”
“Maybe you’re startin’ in the wrong place. First off, you gots to know what your dreams is, ‘cause if you don’t, I don’t see how you can know what to do.”
They were back to that again. Gracie still didn’t have an answer—at least any she was ready to admit to. She prayed that as long as she was still looking for an answer, he’d be waiting. If Artie could trick Old Sol as many times as he had, he could trick the Grim Reaper just once.
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