“If you’re satisfied,” James Garland’s lawyer, Vance Wayne, began as he removed his glasses, “then I’ll turn the will over to the probate judge.” Dressed in a pale blue seersucker suit, this lawyer looked nothing like the ones with whom Gray had dealt in California. On the West Coast they were glib, quick, and always in a hurry.
Wayne leisurely gnawed on a toothpick as he’d poured over every word of the will. Grayson was named sole heir. She felt a sense of triumph that it had doubtless pained the old man to leave it all to her. In spite of all her successes, he’d called her a wastrel.
Gray didn’t allow herself to be too amused, especially when she remembered the creditors and the stack of bills waiting once she arrived back in California. Maybe she needed to sell Cypress Bend to cover her debts. “Do you have any idea what the house and land are worth?” she asked.
The lawyer shook his head. He grunted as he leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers over his paunch. “You’d need a new appraisal for that, I’m afraid.”
Grayson pushed the errant strands of hair off her forehead and nodded. “About how long will it take with the probate judge?”
“Oh, about six months or so. Depends on how long Harry decides to spend at his lake camp this summer.”
Gray pursed her lips to keep from complaining. She’d truly forgotten how slow life moved in the South. “I don’t guess I have a choice, do I?”
He chuckled. “Nope.”
She wished she could speed things up a bit. She wanted that old man laid to rest once and for all, and dragging out all this court business was only going to keep the ghost alive just that much longer.
She came to her feet and reached across the desk to shake Wayne’s hand, ignoring the once-over her male attire got.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Grayson,” he said, stretching across the desk to grip her hand. “Just wish it could have been under better circumstances.”
“Thank you,” Gray said, not even trying to disguise the impatience that was evident in her voice. “If that’s all…”
He picked up a pipe and began to pack it with tobacco. “Will you be staying at Cypress Bend?”
The thick cherry scent nauseated Gray. “For the time being,” she said with disdain, thinking Marjorie Silverstein was about to get her wish.
Maybe the editor was right. Maybe Gray did need to revisit this place so she could get out of her writing slump. It’d be easy to retreat to Cypress Bend, to let Minnie take care of her. Especially now that she had the place all to herself.
The crazy thing about it was that, in spite of Gray’s reputation as one of the premier Southern authors of her time, Gray detested it here. She hated the drawls even though hers was still evident. She hated the look of the land, the rural quality of it all. The slow, deliberate ways of the people who lived here thoroughly frustrated her. Booze could be hard to come by. Compared to Hollywood, Alabama was like stepping back in time a quarter of a century. Perhaps her aversion was the magic that made her writing intense and devoid of hypocrisy.
Grayson started toward the door but stopped and turned back to the lawyer. “Hey, by the way, is that little café still down on Main Street?”
“Stowbridge’s? Yes, it’s still there. Right next to Kroger’s.”
Gray strode out into the stifling, muggy Alabama heat. She’d parked right in front of the lawyer’s office but thought the walk two blocks down Main Street to Stowbridge’s would be good for her.
Still the same.
A few new stores had sprung up here and there, but mostly the same unchanged establishments lined the unaltered, quiet streets. The same old family-owned department store stood tall on the corner. Canvas awnings fluttered in the sultry breeze. Men and women on their lunch breaks scurried in and out of the five-and-dime. The aroma of griddle-cooked food filled the air, causing Gray’s stomach to grumble. How long had it been since she’d had one of Stowbridge’s famous chili dogs?
She crossed the street, stepping over the tracks that once carried a streetcar from the river to Mercer College. A sense of nostalgia tugged at her heart. As a child she’d loved riding that streetcar and wished it still carried passengers through the town. Change always made her sad that things disappeared, leaving only memories behind.
“Sentimental bullshit,” she mumbled aloud.
She slipped on her sunglasses and walked under the store awnings as much as possible to avoid the glaring sun. She knew the black glasses only made her look conspicuous, but her attire was no less inconspicuous—and possibly illegal here in Alabama. Her short-sleeved, black silk shirt and khaki trousers stood out in striking contrast to what the local women wore. They were all trussed up in skirts, frilly blouses, and stockings. Gray eyed one particularly attractive lady as she strolled by. And hats. They all wore hats, Gray noticed as her gaze traveled from the woman’s shapely posterior up to the dainty white hat perched over her perfectly coiffed hair. What a head turner!
Grayson turned heads too. Not because she possessed a certain amount of fame but because of her unconventionality. In Hollywood few people looked askance at a woman who looked more male than female. Here in Alabama she had to force herself to keep from daring curious onlookers to stare longer than was polite.
She pushed open the heavy glass door at Stowbridge’s Café and walked into a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of people waiting to get a table or a seat at the lunch counter.
The appetizing smell of the grill hung thick with the stifling odor of cigarette smoke, dragging Gray twenty years back in time. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” she muttered, eyeing a little boy on his knees at the counter who waited impatiently for a white-uniformed waitress to hand him an ice cream cone.
Gray resisted the self-deprecating smile that trembled on her lips. There was something so deceptively innocent about this place where she’d grown up. She pushed her sunglasses on top of her head.
Stowbridge’s hadn’t changed a bit. The same mirror still spanned the entire wall behind the lunch counter. The same menu hung on the wall. The hand-lettered items remained constant. Gray noticed the prices had changed, but not much by the California standards to which she’d become accustomed. Her gaze caught the table in the front window where Horace’s name was no doubt still carved into the black surface. She caught herself and forced her attention back to the heart of the cozy diner where a woman sat alone in one of the booths. Papers littered her table. A pencil had been tucked scholastically behind her ear.
Grayson nudged through the throng and made her way between the tightly placed tables to the back before sliding uninvited into the woman’s booth.
The woman’s gaze lifted. “I’m sorry…si…ma’am.” Her lips formed the slightest of indulgent smiles. “I’m waiting for someone.” Her gaze flicked to her dainty wristwatch.
Undaunted, Gray grinned. She shifted on the bench. Up close the woman was even prettier, and fresh in spite of the sweltering summer heat. Gray’s gaze slid down to where the woman’s white silk blouse gaped to reveal the curve of a voluptuous breast. A string of pearls skirted the woman’s neck. Three strands. Fake, of course. But classic. Her black hair had been swept off her face, accenting fine cheekbones that made her green velvet eyes even more penetrating. “Please…” she said insistently.
“He’s late, isn’t he?” Gray asked, glancing over her shoulder at the door and then back into the woman’s eyes.
“Yes, he is,” she said with an amused smile. “Forgive me. You’re quite welcome to sit here. If you’ll excuse me, however, I have these essays to mark.”
DELLA WENT BACK to her paper grading as the strange woman who’d plopped into her booth ordered something to eat. She’d never seen a woman like this one before. Her hair was a sort of brown…no. That wasn’t right. Brown was far too common a word for the color that described this woman’s close-cropped hairstyle. Trimmed short in the back and sides and left slightly longer on top, her hair seemed to possess all the myriad shades of a rippling creek. Streaks of black. Highlights of russet and bronze. If anything she looked like an effeminate boy, but her fine jawline, full lips, and luminous blue eyes with their wealth of sooty lashes left no doubt of her sexuality.
Her confident swagger and coltish figure deceived the eye, but up close there was no mistaking her femininity.
“Yeah, I’ll have a chili dog and a Coke,” the woman told the waitress.
Della glanced over the top of her reading glasses at the patrons. Heads had turned. Everyone was staring and whispering, doubtless because of the woman’s inappropriate attire. Trousers were considered risqué for a woman and almost unheard of in public. Heat colored Della’s cheeks. The idea of this strange woman intrigued her in a way that disturbed her. It made her restless. She uncrossed and then recrossed her legs, careful not touch those of her booth mate.
Any thought of finishing grading the compositions had vanished. She lifted her gaze to the woman’s once more, stunned by the intensity of her striking blue eyes that masked some sort of hidden carnal passion. Butterflies flitted in Della’s stomach.
“You came, and I was longing for you. You cooled a heart that burned with desire.
” Sappho’s words intruded and played through her thoughts.
“What are you doing?” the she-male asked, placing her elbows on the table and resting her chin in her palms.
“Trying to grade these compositions,” Della replied impatiently, perturbed at her fascination with this person. Tapping her pen nervously on the table, she turned her attention back to her papers. Something about this woman raised thoughts and questions Della didn’t want to answer.
“English teacher?” the woman asked, craning her neck in order to read upside down. “Miss
Della repressed a smile. She should be annoyed. She wasn’t. “My, aren’t you observant?”
The woman chuckled and pulled the paper out from under Della’s hand, then held it up to scan it.
Della gnawed her bottom lip as she watched the woman seemingly trying to hide her amusement. She was…attractive, in an odd sort of way, disarmingly charming with nice, white teeth and the hint of dimples at the corners of her plush mouth. She chuckled softly.
Did she find a college sophomore’s critique of a Grayson Garland novel humorous? Granted, Della’s students weren’t Pulitzer Prize winners, but this little gal had very likely never heard of Garland, much less possess the expertise to find the essay lacking.
Della cocked her head to the side and placed one hand on her hip impatiently. Where in the hell was Will? It was already a quarter after. He knew she only had a thirty-minute break.
The woman looked at Della as if trying to figure her out, and then she reached across the table and took the pencil from behind Della’s ear. Della’s heart skittered at the too-intimate motion, but her surprise was quickly replaced with annoyance. The audacious woman began to underline sentences, circle words, correct punctuation, even going so far as to make notes in the margins.
Della gaped, disbelieving. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded and tried to snatch the paper out of the woman’s hand, but to no avail.
The woman laughed and pulled the essay just out of Della’s reach.
“Wait,” the woman said, continuing to scratch away with the pencil. “If you don’t agree with my assessment, I’ll buy your lunch.”
Della’s eyes narrowed. “Who do you think you are?”
The woman handed her the paper, a childishly proud expression illuminating her face.
Della sneered and pushed her readers up on her nose to see what sort of mess this strange person had made of the essay. Her brow furrowed. She read aloud. “’Have you considered Garland might have intended the character of Todd to represent staunch Southern mores that haven’t changed since before the Civil War?’” Della looked over her glasses at the woman. “This is good. Even I’ve thought about it this way.”
At the bottom of the page, she’d written, The character of Jenny is likening this situation to something that happened to her in the past. Even as an adult, she is no more than a child who is being forced to keep a terrible secret.
Della absorbed the comments before turning her attention back to her strange lunch mate.
Smug, the woman leaned back in her seat, her mouth full of hot dog. “What’d you think?” she asked, her voice muffled, her cheek bulging on one side with the food she chewed.
Della began to gather her papers and shove them into her bag. Something she couldn’t define irked her. Besides, she had barely enough time to walk back to Bibb Graves for her next class. “Your comments are intuitive, but I doubt Grayson Garland intended for the reader to see it that way.”
The woman swallowed quickly and then laughed out loud.
Della’s face flushed red at the attention the raucous laughter had drawn to her. Why on earth was everyone staring? “Excuse me,” she said, standing.
“Wait,” the woman said. “Miss Boyd…what’s your first name?”
Della blinked. Give this odd character her name? She wasn’t sure she wanted to.
The woman’s expression became suddenly serious. “Formal introduction.” She offered her hand.
Della looked down at the extended fingers. Her eyes narrowed. Was that ketchup or chili? She made no move to shake hands.
“Shit,” the woman said and hastily wiped her hands with a paper napkin. “I’m Grayson Garland. I should have introduced myself earlier.”
“Yes, of course, and I’m Margaret Mitchell,” Della replied acidly before she hefted her satchel on her shoulder and edged her way through the crowd. Her face flamed. The strap of her bag hung on the back of someone’s chair, and she fought to free it. The woman’s resonant laughter pealed as Della apologized to the lady whose chair she had upset.
Shame burned her cheeks as she swept out of the café. Everyone was staring. Rome was a small town. Her lunch date with that unsavory character would spread like wildfire. Della should care. Certainly everyone realized that woman was unstable. Introducing herself as Grayson Garland. The very idea!
But then, Garland’s father had passed away…
Della pushed the thought from her mind. Grayson Garland wasn’t the type woman who cavorted about in men’s clothes. She’d been lying. Grayson Garland was much more sophisticated than to show up in public dressed like a…a revolutionary.
Della briefly squeezed her eyes shut. The few moments she’d spent with that strange woman had left her discombobulated. Confused. Della couldn’t decipher the odd feelings the encounter had inadvertently awakened in her.
When she’d walked halfway back to campus, Della realized she’d forgotten to pay for her lunch. Exasperated, she blew out a sigh. That woman had upset her to no end. Della considered returning but decided she’d just have to make it up to Stowbridge’s later. There was no way she was going back in there and chancing running into that insufferable woman again.
Breathless, Della arrived at her second-story classroom just in time. Her students had already assembled, and most had their literature books open, ready for the lecture. Her hands shook as she fumbled in her bag for her book and the roll call.
“I’m sorry I haven’t quite finished grading all the essays. I promise I will have them next time,” she said.
Only a few grumbles rose as, distracted and unable to focus, she began discussing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
, but her thoughts kept returning to that odd woman in Stowbridge’s. Why had the encounter disturbed her so? Della pondered that it could have been the audacity of the woman to make marks on a student’s paper. Perhaps it was the strange attire. The way the woman had looked at her unnerved Della. There was something unwholesome about it, something Della didn’t want to admit.
A student’s question snapped her out of her reverie. “Miss Boyd? Miss Boyd?”
Della’s focus zeroed in on a young man with a white-blond flattop. “I’m sorry, Maxwell. You were saying?”
“How can the fall of the Sutpen family be compared to the fall of the South?” he asked.
Della blinked. “A great question,” she said. “Which would make a wonderful assignment.”
A chorus of complaints rumbled in the classroom. “One page,” Della told them. “I’ll even dismiss early so you can get started on it.”
As the students filed out, she gathered her things and hurried to the sanctuary of her office.
It had been a horrible day.
First Will had stood her up and left her at the mercy of that woman. She hadn’t finished grading those comps. And then she’d been unable to teach a simple class! She sighed and dropped her forehead down on her desk.
“Del?” Will’s voice brought her to attention.
She raised her head. “Where were you?”
“You’re angry,” he said, coming inside and closing the door. “I got held up. The dean needed to see me and—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she interrupted. “I’m not in the mood.”
Will sank into the chair across from her desk. “I heard, however, that I was replaced.”
.” Did the whole town know already?
Will arched an eyebrow. “Well, it’s not every day that one of my faculty members has lunch with Grayson Garland.”
Della swallowed. No. That awful thing? It couldn’t have been. Her stomach plummeted. She’d just made a colossal ass of herself. “Stop kidding. I have a splitting headache.”
“I’m not kidding. The whole school is talking about it. Talking about you and Grayson Garland and how cozy you two looked in a booth at Stowbridge’s.”
“No.” She shook her head and smiled. “I don’t know who that woman was. But she definitely was not Grayson Garland. She was some…revolutionary. Some…”
“Del, come on. You don’t have to be coy with me. I don’t care if you had lunch with her.”
“I’m telling you that she was not Grayson—”
Will cut her off. “Della, for Pete’s sake. Bob Dover saw you together.”
Della’s lips parted. Her breath froze in her lungs. That woman could not have been the most famous contemporary author in the South.
Realization crossed Will’s features. “You didn’t know? You really didn’t know?” He laughed heartily. “My God, Della. What kind of fool did you make of yourself? The woman is in town for her father’s funeral. You do read the papers, don’t you?”
Every unkind, stupid word she’d said to the woman came back to haunt her. She bit her bottom lip and looked into Will’s eyes. “Oh hell. She must think I’m an idiot. I was so rude.”
“I think it’s rather humorous myself,” he said, seeming to be delighted, but for what reason, Della couldn’t figure out.
“You forget, I’ve known her all my life. My sister attended school with Miss Garland. Your assessment of her as a revolutionary is not far off the mark,” he said.
“Is she a Communist?”
Will chuckled. “Probably. But that’s not what I’m getting at. You couldn’t tell?”
His patronizing smile broadened. “She doesn’t…shall we say…care for the male sex.”
Della stared. Was he insinuating that Grayson Garland was a lesbian? Suddenly his implication irritated Della. “What does any of that have to do with her writing?”
Will shrugged. “I’m sure her…inclinations…aided in the book deal she signed.”
Della scoffed. Garland’s talent spoke for itself. Will was wrong, and Della even detected a hint of jealousy in his accusations. She closed her eyes and sighed. She wanted to cry, to put her head down and bawl, but she remained composed. If Will hadn’t stood her up, none of this would ever have happened. But she couldn’t quite blame him. She should have known the woman who looked so out of place in town was Grayson Garland.
Della felt sick. She’d even left Grayson with the tab. Della dropped her head back down on the desk. How could she ever redeem herself?