Enjoy the twitter hashtag #ss #samplesunday and this freebie of Chapter One of my debut novel, Sweet Tea and Secrets. You can read more about this novel and others at www.NancyNaigle.com
Sweet Tea and Secrets :: An Adams Grove Novel
Jill Clemmons started each morning with Grandma Pearl’s favorite advice in mind: Live your life in such a way that when your feet hit the floor in the morning, Satan shudders and says, ‘Oh shit, she’s awake!’
Sometimes that was harder than it sounded. Like today.
Even though Jill was thrilled to be half way home to Adams Grove for Pearl’s surprise party, the trip hadn’t come without its own set of hurdles. Bradley was unhappy about her dropping everything to make the trip up from Savannah to Virginia. He’d stomped around and mumbled about it being just two weeks before the big fundraiser and putting the timeline at risk. But Jill was in charge of that timeline and, aside from Bradley’s foul mood, the Kase Foundation wouldn’t suffer one bit by her being gone for one day.
Technically, Pearl’s birthday wasn’t until June 27th, after the fundraiser, but keeping a secret from Pearl was next to impossible. If Pearl’s friends succeeded in surprising her, it would be the first time anyone had. There was no way Jill was going to miss this, even if it did mean making the trip up and back in one day. Pearl’s party might not be one of Bradley’s priorities, but it darn sure was one of hers.
The tension from the week evaporated as Jill got closer to Adams Grove, the place she considered home.
She could hardly believe a year had passed since she’d packed all her stuff in Piggly Wiggly bags and hit the road in her little red pickup. Jill never thought she’d live anywhere but Adams Grove. But on the rebound from Garrett Malloy, accepting the fundraiser position with the Kase Foundation had been a no-brainer. In fact, getting away from Garrett by moving to Savannah had been one of the biggest perks of the job. The only downside was being away from Pearl.
As Jill took the exit off I-95, she turned the air conditioner up a notch then fumbled for the button to lower the window of her new BMW. She’d never been one to give two hoots about a fancy car, but fancy cars, big houses and appearances were the be-all, end-all to Bradley Kase. Since he’d become more than just a boss over the past year, she’d let him talk her into trading in Ol’ Red for something he considered more appropriate. She missed that truck and its trusty crank-down windows.
Jill turned on Horseshoe Run Road and a bittersweet smile eased across her lips. She inhaled the scent of honeysuckle and mimosa that filled this stretch of road every summer. When the wind blew downriver, even Farmer Young’s smelly pigs couldn’t drown out the fragrance.
The gentle slope of the terrain had a way of making things seem to appear out of nowhere, but Jill had lived here her whole life so she knew the lay of this land. Just around the curve, the church steeple came into view. Stately oaks lined the road and colorful wreaths dotted headstones between the mighty trunks that framed the old cemetery next to the church.
Gravel crunched beneath her tires as she turned into the church parking lot.
Aunt Milly’s mission was to get Pearl to the party under the guise of preparing for a reception later that evening. They’d park near the kitchen entrance and, hopefully, Pearl would never be the wiser.
Jill pulled around to the far side of the church, near the fellowship hall, and parked among the thirty or so other cars already there. She grabbed a bag from the passenger seat, went to the locked door, knocked, and waited.
A pretty blonde girl Jill didn’t recognize opened the door, and rushed her inside. “Sorry. We’re trying to be sure Pearl doesn’t sneak up on us.”
“Good thinking,” Jill said.
“I’m Brandy,” the girl said and whisked Jill into the room. “I recognize you from the pictures Pearl showed me. I just moved here not long ago. I work for Floral & Hardy. That’s how I know your grandmother.”
“Well, welcome to Adams Grove. I’m sure you’ll love working for Ted. We go way back.”
“I know. Like everyone knows everyone around here. I love that. Well, I think I do. Anyway, it’s really nice to meet you.”
Jill scanned the room. A banner that read ‘Happy early 85th Birthday, Pearl’ was duct-taped above a long table filled with home-baked casseroles and desserts. Bright helium filled balloons flanked the banner and so many soared above the chair-of-honor that they threatened to lift it right off the floor.
The thought of her tiny grandmother whizzing around the room above all the guests made Jill laugh.
Brandy pointed out a stove-sized box heaping full of nonperishables set up near the cake. The food drive was Pearl’s pet project, and the cans, a perfect gift.
“She’s going to love this.” Jill hitched the bag up on her hip and added the canned goods she’d brought to the pile. “All this food’ll feed dozens of families for a good long while.”
“It was the best idea ever,” said Brandy, then hurried back to stand guard at the door.
Jill set a brightly wrapped package next to the cake, then took her camera from her purse and snapped a picture.
Mac’s Bakery had outdone themselves. This cake had those creations on Food Network Challenge beat hands-down. The three tiers stood over two feet tall. The top layer looked just like one of Pearl’s award-winning chocolate pecan pies; the bottom layer like a knitting basket full of colorful fondant-wrapped balls of yarn. Knitting needles rose high above it with a blue ribbon the size of a dinner plate attached. Just like the one Pearl had won last year. That honor would be up for grabs at the annual Festival Days Bake-Off on Fourth of July weekend. Everyone in the county vied for the coveted award, but Pearl’s pie had won the last three years in a row.
The room buzzed with excitement. Jill took pictures and exchanged hellos with old friends she hadn’t seen since she moved a year ago. Suddenly, the room went dark and a hush settled.
Jill wondered how good an idea it was for fifty people to yell ‘surprise’ at an eighty-five year old woman. But then Pearl wasn’t your average old lady either.
Aunt Milly and Pearl’s chatter echoed from the kitchen. Everyone listened intently for the magic moment. Then, 3-2-1, the door swung open. “Surprise!”
Pearl’s mouth dropped wide. She wagged a crooked finger across the crowd of friends lined up in front of her.
“You little devils,” Pearl said. “You sure know how to scare the puddin’ out of an old girl.”
Everyone cheered. Two young girls bounced up and down, still excited by the anticipation of it all.
Jill hung back, taking in the pleasure of seeing Pearl revel in everyone’s delight. She had her doubts that Pearl had been surprised, though.
“Oh, my. Is this? It is! You know the way right to my heart.” Pearl headed straight for the bin of food. “This will feed so many.” Her eyes twinkled as she turned around. “Thanks y’all. All y’all.” She swept a tear from the rim of her glasses. “So much.”
Pearl’s eyebrows suddenly shot straight up.
Now that was a surprised look. “Surprise,” Jill said.
Pearl marched over to Jill and kissed her on the cheek, leaving a bright magenta smudge that Pearl quickly rubbed in with her thumb. “Maybe I should smooch the other side and make it even.”
“It’s fine.” Jill hugged Pearl. “It’s so good to see you.”
“I knew it was going to be a perfect day today. There was only one contrail across the sky when we drove up,” said Pearl.
“That is good.” Jill and Pearl had made it a practice to count the condensation trails behind the jets that soared across the sky. Less than three or four was a rare and lucky day.
Pearl clapped her hands. “What are you doing here? You have that big shindig coming up. How did you get away?”
“Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. I can’t stay over though. I’ll be heading back tonight.”
Pearl raised a penciled brow, and tsked. “I’m not surprised. You work way too hard, my dear, but I’m delighted you’re here now.”
“I’ll be back once the fundraiser is behind me. I can’t wait to spend some time with you.”
Pearl squeezed Jill’s hand. “I’d love that.”
Jill lifted two plastic champagne flutes of sweet tea from the table. She took a sip from one and handed the other to Pearl. “Not as good as yours,” she whispered.
“No surprise there. We know the secret.” Pearl said, and then turned her attention to the voices blending into the best round of Happy Birthday ever. Only two candles stood tall on the cake. An eight and a five.
“Thank goodness someone was thinking. We’d need the volunteer fire department here if we had eighty five flames on this cake.” Pearl blew out the candles.
Pearl picked up the knife, then stepped back. “This cake is almost too pretty to cut.”
“I’ve got pictures,” Jill said, raising her camera. “Dig in.”
“Don’t have to ask me twice about desserts.” Pearl cut the first slice, and everyone lined up to get a piece of cake.
A loud knock from the fellowship hall door interrupted the moment.
Everyone’s attention spun in that direction.
“We locked that so you wouldn’t sneak in on us,” someone shouted. “I’ll get it.”
Pearl plopped a piece of cake on a small plate. “That’s probably Garrett. I asked him to come help move tables. I thought we were setting up for a reception.”
Jill froze. “You didn’t.”
Pearl licked frosting from her fingers and then wiped her hands on a napkin.
Jill leaned in. “I knew your hair looked a little too perfect. You knew about this party, didn’t you?”
Pearl didn’t deny it.
“You knew I was coming, and you didn’t invite Garrett to move tables, did you? You’re matchmaking again.” Jill turned to walk away but Pearl grabbed her by the wrist.
“Oh come on, dear,” she pleaded. “It’s my birthday. You two have to talk eventually.
What better time than over cake? It’s a party. Wait right here.” Pearl scurried toward the door.
A warm rush heated Jill’s cheeks. Maybe she was overacting. Maybe it wasn’t even him. Maybe it was just someone who was late. A singing telegram. A stripper. Anyone but Garrett.
But it was him.
She sucked in a breath. Why did he have to look so good?
Her heart pounded so hard the room began to swim. She turned and high-tailed it down the hall to the sanctuary without looking back until the door clicked behind her.
Out of breath, she stood clutching her chest.
She might have to talk to Garrett someday, but it wasn’t going to be today. The sound of rustling fabric rescued her from the thought of him. When she looked up, a bleached-blonde in an unfortunate red hoop-skirted bridesmaid dress stepped out of the choir room. A young man wearing a tuxedo t-shirt emerged behind her. Both froze when they saw her standing there.
“We just…we were getting something for the bride. She left something back here.”
I bet. Like what? Your virginity? Jill rolled her eyes. In church?
The two hurried out, slamming the door behind them.
Jill lowered herself onto the back pew and gazed at the huge white ribbons adorning the first few rows.
The wedding she’d always dreamed of in this beautiful church would never happen now. The day she and Garrett pinky swore their life-long commitment under the monkey bars in the fourth grade, she’d started filling notebooks with wedding details. She’d even sketched out the fancy five-layer cake she’d have Mac create just for her. Delicate pink rosebuds and soft green buttercream vines would climb the layers of shiny white fondant to a topper of double hearts made of sugar pearls. The bridal bouquet would be long stemmed flowers bundled by flowing pink ribbon.
All those sugar-plum dreams were history now. Just like her relationship with Garrett.
She squeezed her eyes closed and shifted her thoughts back to Bradley. He’d been dropping hints that something big was about to happen and she was sure he was going to pop the question, but he’d made it clear that his wedding would be quick and simple, preferably on a beach. The dress she’d dreamed of for her wedding day wouldn’t do well on a beach. Sand and salt water would ruin a beaded satin gown in a hurry, and she wasn’t about to spend that kind of money and then ruin her dress, even if Bradley would.
A cool hand rested on her shoulder. She turned to see Pearl standing there.
“You missed him,” Pearl said, sliding into the pew next to her.
Jill flattened her sweating palms against her pants. “I’m done missing him.”
Pearl harrumphed. “Milly was right.”
“I’m glad someone finally believes it’s over between me and Garrett.”
“No. Not that. Milly says you’re pigheaded.”
Jill sat up straight. “I am not.”
Pearl shrugged. “Yes, you are. Oh, don’t go looking all offended. Sometimes that’s good.”
Jill sat back in the pew.
“Not good this time, but sometimes.”
Jill looked heavenward. Pearl always won. Jill changed the subject. “You know, I think Bradley’s going to propose.”
“Oh honey, don’t do something crazy. You don’t want to marry him. You’re not in love with him. You’re in love with the idea of being in love and married.”
“He’s really good to me,” Jill said.
“Don’t confuse material things for love, honey. I know you and Garrett went through some tough times. Trust me, I know about the challenges true love brings, but you two are meant to be.” She tapped the top of Jill’s hand in time with each syllable that followed. “Better to fight for what you really want than to be left wanting what you didn’t fight for.”
Jill laid her head on Pearl’s shoulder. “Your matchmaker radar is off kilter when it comes to me and Garrett. He didn’t want a partner. He wants to plan his future down to the minute with a money-back guarantee before he takes one step forward. That’s not what marriage is about.” She couldn’t tell Pearl what Bradley had told her about Garrett or about the accusations Garrett had made. There was no sense dragging Pearl into that drama. Especially, not a year later.
“I seem to remember someone else wanting things her way, too.” Pearl patted Jill’s hand. “Here’s the good thing about the future. It comes one day at a time. Follow your heart each day. You’ll get where you’re supposed to go.”
“I love you, Grandma Pearl.”
“Aw, honey. You haven’t called me that in years.”
“I know. I’m suddenly feeling like a little girl again.” When Pearl took the role of parent and grandmother, Jill had started just calling her Pearl. Grandma Pearl was more special than a grandma could ever be.
“Forgive me for the stunt with Garrett?” Pearl asked.
“You know I can never be mad at you.”
“Good and when you come back, I’ll tell you the story of all love stories. You think you and Garrett had problems…” She raised her hand to Jill’s cheek. “Sometimes love requires great sacrifice.” Pearl brushed Jill’s bangs from her face. “Love’s kind of like sweet tea. The secret is all in having the patience to let it steep.”
Stories. Pearl had a million of them. Jill had a feeling Pearl made up most of them to suit her point, but it didn’t matter. They were always spellbinding.
Jill stood. “Come on. Let’s go back to your party. I brought you a special little something.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Oh, when you see what it is, you’ll know I had to. You’re going to love it.”
They walked back to the fellowship hall and filled plates with homemade goodies before sitting at one of the tables with a crowd of friends gathered together to celebrate.
Aunt Milly rushed toward them with her camera. “There you two are. I need pictures.”
Pearl tucked a raw broccoli floret behind her ear and leaned in with a huge smile.
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