In High Cotton – Denise Grover Swank

o you have plans Saturday night?” If my boyfriend Jed had been the one asking, my answer would have been a wholehearted “spending the night with you,” but this was my brother Joe. Four weeks ago, he’d started dating the woman from hell, and she and I hadn’t exactly taken to each other. “Depends on why you’re askin’,” I said, taking a sip of my coconut milk chai latte with nutmeg and cinnamon, as I shifted back in my seat at our two-person table in the middle of The Daily Grind. He’d blown me off a few times in favor of the aforementioned girlfriend, Dena, but over the last two weeks, he’d put more effort into spending time with me. The tongue-lashing I’d given him likely had a thing or two to do with it. This was the second week in a row we’d had a breakfast coffee date at the shop a few doors down from the landscaping office where I worked with my best friend Rose. Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. “Why, Neely Kate Rivers, are you screening my invitations?” “The last time you invited me to something, we painted your kitchen and Dena complained the entire time.” “I wanted her to see how much fun we have paintin’.” Considering our first big fight had been over Joe blowing off our “painting party” at his house so they could see a movie with her friends, I understood his motivation. He’d wanted to prove to her we really did have fun working on his house. Too bad it had backfired big-time. “We both know how that went,” I said, picking off a piece of my blueberry muffin and popping it into my mouth. “When she left, she hated me more than before we’d started.” “You didn’t have to get paint on her shirt.

” I held out my hand. “Who wears nice clothes to paint?” “She told you she wasn’t paintin’,” Joe said. “Then why did she come to a paintin’ party?” His eyes lit up with mischief. “You have a point.” “Thank you,” I said in a smug tone. He chuckled. “Well, at least I’ve introduced you to who I’m datin’. You’ve been seeing someone for weeks and I have no idea who he is.” “I’ll tell you when I’m ready.” “And when will you be ready?” When hell freezes over would sound too adversarial.

“When I feel like it. On to more important things, like what you’re invitin’ me to.” His smile faded, and he leaned forward, resting his forearm on the table. “I’ve been thinkin’ about something you said… that I was embarrassed to let people know you’re my sister.” My good mood instantly vanished. This had been a huge source of contention between us. Joe and I had only discovered we were half-siblings back in February. His wealthy, influential, and sociopathic father’d had an affair (if you could call it that) with my thenseventeen-year-old mother. Since J.R.

Simmons didn’t leave loose ends lying around, my mother had run away. She’d never told anyone, including me, the truth. I’d found out from Rose’s mother’s diary, and the information had been confirmed by Kate, my unstable half sister. She was now locked up in a psychiatric ward, though she still attempted to control my life like a puppet master. The situation had ended up in the papers, but my peripheral involvement had not. Very few people knew the truth of my parentage, and Joe had insisted on keeping it that way, even though people had begun to notice how much time we spent together. At first, I’d assumed Dena was unpleasant to me out of jealousy, thinking Joe and I were romantically involved, but Joe had apparently told her I was his sister on their second date. “Now hold up, Neely Kate,” he quickly added before my irritation could escalate into a tirade. “Hear me out. I keep telling you I’m not embarrassed of you, and I’m not, but I can understand why you have trouble believin’ it.

So I want to fix that.” I shot him a scowl. “Go on.” I suspected his idea of fixing it was completely different from mine. “You know my biggest concern is that you’ll be hurt once people find out. While we knew our father was dirty and shady, it’s still big news to the rest of the world.” And a big scandal too. J.R. Simmons had been the most powerful, influential man in Arkansas, both in business and in politics.

Joe made a face, then continued. “I guess I didn’t take into account that not tellin’ people was hurtin’ you too. Either way I’m hurtin’ you, Neely Kate, and it kills me.” “The only way you can hurt me is to ignore me,” I said. “Like after we first found out. And when you picked Dena over me.” “I know, and I’m sorry for being such a fool. It was wrong of me to make the decision for you. It should be your call, not mine.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“You’re kiddin’.” “I’m not, and if you’re up to it, I want to take you to a fundraiser dinner in Little Rock on Saturday night. It would be your debut as a Simmons kid.” “You’d tell people that I’m your sister?” I asked in shock. “You won’t introduce me as your friend?” “I’m not sure you realize how big this is. It’s likely to make the paper, so I want you to be certain this is what you want. People will probably stare and whisper about us at the dinner. Do you think you can take it?” My back straightened. “Of course I can.” He gave me a sheepish grin.

“I know you can. You’re strong enough to withstand anything. I guess what I should have asked is if it’s really worth it to you. Is it worth facing so much scrutiny? Maybe you should think about it. It’s a big decision.” He was right. Why did I want this so badly? I wasn’t sure, but it felt like I’d been missing a piece all my life and Joe had just handed it to me. I shook my head. “There’s nothing to think about. I’d love to go.

” He grinned. “Great. I thought we could head up to Little Rock around three. I still have my apartment, so we can get dressed there. The dinner’s likely to go late, so we can stay in Little Rock overnight and come home on Saturday.” Spend the night? That made sense, but two things gave me pause: One, my boyfriend Jed and I usually went to Little Rock together on Sundays. And two, Rose was going away for the weekend with Skeeter Malcolm and I’d promised to watch her dog. “What bothers you about that?” he asked, studying my face. “Nothing,” I said, concealing my thoughts. I wasn’t about to tell him about Jed, and Rose’s relationship with Skeeter was both brand new and top secret.

When you decided to start sleeping with the king of the local crime world, it helped to keep it on the down low—especially when your best friend’s brother was the chief deputy sheriff. But Rose saw a different man than the rest of the world, and she swore that one of the reasons he kept his position was because he worried what would happen to the county if someone else took over. Turned out Skeeter Malcolm had morals. “I guess I’m still shocked that you changed your mind.” He leaned back in his chair again, giving me a cocky smile. “Maybe your good sense is rubbing off on me.” I laughed at that. “You’re probably the third person to tell me that.” His brow rose. “Rose being the first? Who was the second? Witt?” I just grinned.

Jed was the other one who’d said it, but I knew Joe wouldn’t approve of me being in the same room as Jed, never mind dating him. Jed had been Skeeter Malcolm’s right-hand man for years, which meant he’d dirtied his hands in plenty of Fenton County messes. Even though he’d turned his back on that world and was starting fresh, he needed more time and distance before Joe would be willing to accept him. Joe’s phone rang, and he made a face as he pulled it out. Shooting me a quick look, he turned off the ringer and set his phone facedown on the table. “Not important?” I asked. “It can wait.” He tried to look relaxed but failed miserably. I released a soft sigh. It was obvious who’d called him, and equally obvious he felt guilty for not answering.

Either he wanted to be with me or he didn’t. I picked up my cup. “I need to get back to the office.” “We haven’t even been here ten minutes.” “You have things you need to get back to.” Defeat filled his eyes. “Neely Kate…” “That’s not a relationship, Joe,” I said, trying to keep my temper from flaring as I stood. “Sit, Neely Kate,” he said, grabbing my wrist and tugging me down. “I told her I’d be here with you at least a half hour. She can wait.

” “Obviously she can’t. Have you told her about taking me to the dinner?” “Yes.” He released a nervous laugh. “Paid for that one, huh?” “She understands.” I highly doubted that. “Joe, I say this as someone who’s been in your shoes, so please listen before you respond, okay?” His shoulders stiffened, but he said, “Okay.” “I know you’re excited to find someone you’re interested in, but have you noticed the similarities between your relationship with Dena and the one you had with Hilary?” His ex-girlfriend had taken manipulation to a new level, but this thing with Dena had just started. She had time to catch up. “What?” “Dena’s controlling. She knows we’re having coffee together, yet she’s calling you ten minutes in.

She’s threatened by me.” “And perhaps with good reason,” I heard Dena say in a snotty tone behind me. “Especially when his sister is trying to turn him against me.” Joe looked horrified. I turned in my seat, slightly embarrassed, but then I reminded myself everything I’d said was true. Her very presence was proof of that. “Hello, Dena. I didn’t expect to see you here.” “Obviously.” Joe cleared his throat.

“Dena. What are you doin’ here?” “My coffee maker’s broken, so I decided to come over and get a cup. I tried to call you to ask you to pick one up for me before you left, but you didn’t answer.” Her gaze dropped to the phone on the table, then lifted in accusation. “I’m sorry I missed it,” he said, guilt washing over his face. “We were deep in conversation.” “I can see that,” she said, but it didn’t come off as bitchy as I would have expected. She made it sound almost sweet. “Do you think you could get me one now?” She gave him an innocent look and batted her eyelashes. “Neely Kate was in the middle—” “Of talking about me.

I caught that.” She pulled up a chair from the empty table next to ours and sat down. “I can see that Neely Kate and I got off on the wrong foot,” she said with an apologetic smile. “And I completely admit that it’s my fault. If I were in her shoes, I’d do the same thing. She’s just being a good sister.” I stared at her in disbelief. Dena covered Joe’s hand with her own. “If you’d get that coffee for me, I’d like to start over with your sister.” I wasn’t buying this act for a moment, but poor gullible Joe was looking at me like an eager puppy.

He wanted to believe it, and so he did. Mostly. In his defense, most men probably would have bought it too. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’d love to start fresh.” Then, for good measure, I gave him a beaming smile. I was eager to find out what she was up to. Indecision wavered in his eyes, but he stood and walked over to the counter. Dena’s face lit up with a bright smile. “Neely Kate, I’m sorry we’ve struggled to find a common ground.

” She sounded genuine enough, but she looked a little too eager to win me over, especially considering the stink eye she’d given me at the end of our paint party. “Seems to me that Joe’s our common ground, so I think this is actually a turf war.” Her smile wavered, and she cast a glance at Joe. “I know that Joe wants to spend more time with me, but you…” She stopped and seemed to collect herself. “He feels guilty that he’s not spending as much time with you.” She must have expected to get a rise out of me, but I took a sip of my coffee and waited her out. Irritation flickered in her eyes. He’d only been gone for a half minute, and already her claws were out. “I realize that you’re lonely, Neely Kate, but maybe you should focus on getting a real boyfriend and not a pretend one instead of monopolizing all of Joe’s time. It’s not his responsibility to babysit you.

” She punctuated her sentence with a broad smile. “A pretend boyfriend?” “It’s okay,” she said in her fake understanding voice. “Joe’s still buying it, but I know better. Why else won’t you tell him who it is?” I made sure to hide my irritation. “Joe’s welcome to spend as much or as little time with me as he pleases. The only thing I asked him to do is stop canceling on me.” Her smile slipped, but she plastered it firmly back into place. “Joe told me he was going to invite you to the fundraiser dinner on Saturday.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, I hope I didn’t spoil the surprise, although I told him you’d say no.

” “Why would I say no?” “Because you’d feel out of place.” She grimaced. “All that dinner protocol. I went to cotillion up in Magnolia and learned dinner and dancing etiquette, but you . I figured you’d be worried that you’d embarrass yourself or Joe.” I cocked an eyebrow. “I’ve been to a dinner before, Dena. I know how to use silverware.” “But do you know which fork to use for dessert? Or where your water and wine glasses sit? Because Joe knows those things in his sleep.” “Then Joe can help me.

” “Do you really think Joe wants to babysit you at the dinner? He’s going to be worried enough about what people will think.” “Joe says he’s not worried about that.” “Joe couldn’t care less what people say about him. He’ll be worried about you.” I was about to respond when Joe walked up with her coffee. She stood and took it from him, reaching up to give him a kiss. “Thanks for the coffee, Joey. And thanks for givin’ me time to chat with Neely Kate. Oh,” she added, making it sound like an afterthought, “I hadn’t gotten around to asking if I could go dress shoppin’ with her yet.” “Dress shoppin’?” I asked in confusion after I got past the fact that she’d called him Joey.

Then it hit me—dress shopping. Oh, my stars and garters, Joe hadn’t proposed already, had he? She released a chuckle. “You’ll need a formal dress for the dinner.” Thank you, sweet baby Jesus. But one moment of sweet relief was followed by a sinking feeling. Crap. I’d forgotten I’d need a new dress, and the look on her face told me she knew it would be a problem for me. “That might be fun,” Joe said with a hopeful look. I was pretty sure Joe didn’t want to hear “When monkeys fly out of Dena’s butt,” so I smiled and said, “I think I have something that will work.” Joe beamed.

“That’s great. Maybe another time.” Yeah, when monkeys flew out of my butt. I C H A P T E R 2 checked my phone and saw I had a message from Rose’s sister Violet. Can you run by the nursery this morning? There’s something I need to talk to you about. Violet and I weren’t usually on texting terms, but I quickly sent back: Of course. Anything to get out of here. I stuffed the phone back in my purse. “That was a text from Violet. There’s something I have to take care of right away.

” Joe looked worried. “Is everything okay?” We both knew it wasn’t. Violet had incurable cancer. Time wasn’t on her side, which made her request feel more urgent. “I think so, but she asked that I come by this morning, so I need to go before my next appointment.” Dena gave me an amused grin. “Is it a landscaping emergency?” “We actually have those,” I said as I stood. “Sometimes Bruce Wayne decides a plant in the design won’t work or he needs more or the owner substitutes things at the last minute. Bruce Wayne and his crew are pretty booked, so any delays can mess up their schedule.” Why was I explaining this to her? And why was I so grumpy? Part of it was definitely Dena, but I was also worried about Violet’s text.

What could she possibly want to talk about? “Are you sure you have to go?” Joe asked, sounding disappointed. I let my gaze drift to Dena for a fraction of a second before shifting it back to him. “Yeah. We’ll talk later.” Then I spun around and hurried out before I could say anything I’d regret, like pointing out that Dena had created a bogus excuse to come over and interrupt our coffee date. I’d done all I could do to make Joe see the light. He had to figure things out for himself. I slid behind the wheel of my car and, crossing my fingers, turned the key. My cousin Witt was a mechanic and had stumbled upon a used transmission that he thought might buy me more time before I was forced to get a new car. It had worked so far, but I’d had enough bad days with the hunk of junk that it felt like Russian roulette every time I turned it over.

The engine roared to life, but before I could pull away from the curb, I saw Joe heading out of the coffee shop with Dena clinging to his hand. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and shifted into reverse as he released her hand and headed my way. She stayed back, but it was clear she didn’t like it. “Neely Kate, wait up.” I would have loved to pretend I hadn’t heard him, but the a/c was out in my car, so the windows were already down—I’d almost pay someone to steal it—and he was standing on the curb about four feet away. “I have to go, Joe.” He walked to my driver’s door and squatted so his face was level with mine. “I’m sorry our coffee date got interrupted.” “Are you?” I asked dryly. “What’s that mean?” I shook my head in disgust, then repeated, “I have to go.

” “Wait.” He gripped the door through the open window as though he could keep me from backing up. My car was such a piece of crap, I was giving him fifty-fifty odds. “Joe, I don’t want to talk about this.” “Then we’ll talk later, but I need to know that you’re still good with Saturday night.” Oh God. Had he invited Dena to come to that too? He must have seen the confused look on my face. “You’re still planning to come with me?” “It’s just the two of us?” “Of course.” But for how long? “Look,” I said with a sigh. “I don’t want to be that person, but I’m gonna put it out there—if she’s coming, I’m not.

If it’s just you and me, then I’m still in.” “I… She knows it’s just the two of us. She wouldn’t…” “She found a really great excuse to crash our coffee date. She would.” I softened my tone. “I’ve got to go. Despite Dena’s skepticism, there really are instances that are semiemergent.” He frowned. “She didn’t mean—” “She did.” I sounded sadder than I’d intended.

“I’ve got to go.” Then I backed out, refusing to look at him. The further I got from him, the bitchier I felt, but I was so tired of feeling I had to compete for attention. Was it so wrong to want someone to simply love me and want to be with me and not have to fight for it? I had that with Rose, but our relationship was strained lately, and I knew it was completely my doing. I was keeping secrets from her and they were coming between us. I was nearly ready to tell her everything, but I kept finding excuses to stay silent. Six years ago, I’d killed a man, and then I’d buried his body. I wasn’t afraid of losing her love—I knew I could tell her the whole ugly truth and she’d still love me—but I was afraid of losing her respect. I’d done everything I could to become a woman who would never fall prey to a man again. And yet there was no erasing the fact that I’d been weak.

A strong woman wouldn’t have allowed her boyfriend to use her as a sex slave for nine months. A strong woman wouldn’t have let herself get into a situation where killing a man was the only way out. I couldn’t handle the pity I’d see in Rose’s eyes if she found out—or how devastated she’d be on my behalf. Rose had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and once she found out what I’d gone through, it would break her. But part of me needed to tell her. I wanted her to know the whole me. Thank God I had Jed to help me work through it. Except I’d begun to realize he had secrets of his own. He’d been cagey about something the last couple of weeks, going off and doing things that he couldn’t share with me. And while he was a very attentive boyfriend when we were together, we still hadn’t slept together.

I knew there were plenty of men who waited before sleeping with a woman, but I knew for a fact that Jed Carlisle wasn’t one of them. So why wouldn’t he sleep with me? He’d told me he wanted to wait to prove I was special, but combined with his secrets, I was beginning to wonder if he’d changed his mind, especially since he’d pulled away from me the last couple of times we’d kissed. Maybe he was feeling stuck, like we’d shared too many secrets for him to ditch unstable, needy Neely Kate. That kind of thing happens when you move a body with someone. Then there was the fact that we’d agreed to keep our relationship secret. I couldn’t risk Joe finding out, and Jed was worried that Skeeter’s enemies would hurt me to hurt him. It was for the best, but what kind of life could we lead if we kept each other a secret? And some part of me worried he didn’t want anyone to think he was sleeping with Neely Kate Rivers Colson…even if he wasn’t. I pulled into the nursery parking lot, pleased to see several cars in the lot. August was supposedly a slow month for landscaping businesses, but Bruce Wayne and his grounds crew were busting their tails to keep up with demand, and Rose and I usually had at least one consultation a day. I started to open my door when my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize.

I sure didn’t know anyone with a 469 area code. Figuring it was a robocall, I silenced the ringer and stuck the phone in my pocket as I climbed out. Maeve, the store manager, was ringing up a customer at the counter, and I could see Anna out back talking to a customer. Violet was sitting in a chair in the back of the store. Violet and Rose had started the Gardner Sisters Nursery together, and my brother Joe was now a partial owner after having bailed them out of a financial situation that had nearly ended their business last November. Violet had been diagnosed with some kind of aggressive blood cancer in February, and she’d come home last month after a long stay at MD Anderson in Houston. We’d all thought she was cured, only to find out there was nothing more they could do to save her. A couple of weeks ago, she’d been so weak Rose had feared she would die any minute, but Violet had gotten strong enough to come work at the nursery for a few hours every day. The nursery had been Violet’s dream and being here made her happy. She smiled when she saw me and waved me back to the cozy corner Anna had set up for her.

“You’re lookin’ good, Violet,” I said as I walked toward her. She reached a hand up to the light pink scarf tied around her head. I squatted in front of her and grabbed her wrist, gently pulling her hand down to her lap. “Stop. You’re beautiful.” Tears swam in her eyes. Violet once had the most beautiful blond hair before it had all fallen out from her chemo. She was self-admittedly vain, so I knew it bothered her to lose it. Her gaze dipped to her lap. “Neely Kate.

” The way she said my name, so gentle and a little sad, reminded me of the last time we’d spoken on our own. She’d called me after my miscarriage in January. While no one else had known what to say to me, she’d told me the one thing I needed to hear: She understood. Turned out she’d lost a baby too, before Rose’s niece was born. “I never thanked you,” I said softly. Her eyes lifted. “What on earth for?” “For bein’ there for me after I lost my babies. We weren’t really friends, yet you were the one person who actually made me feel like I’d survive it.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed. “It’s a sisterhood, albeit a sad one.

I knew how much you wanted those babies.” My miscarriage hadn’t just sent me reeling; it had also led to the end of my marriage. The doctor had removed one of my fallopian tubes with the ectopic pregnancy and said the other tube was hopelessly scarred from my previous multiple STIs. I was lucky to have gotten pregnant in the first place, and it was unlikely to happen again. I’d hidden most of my past from Ronnie, and it turned out he couldn’t handle being married to a slut, especially one who couldn’t give him babies. He’d run off a week later and I hadn’t heard from him since. Now I just wanted to serve him divorce papers and be done with the man, but no one knew how to find him. “You know there was a reason we weren’t friends before,” she said. “I was jealous of you.” “Jealous of me?” “You replaced me in Rose’s heart.

” My eyes flew wide. “No, Violet! I—” She squeezed my hand tighter. “Stop. I missed my sister, but it was my own stubborn fault. I chased her away. You’re a good friend to her, Neely Kate.” A tear fell down her cheek. “I asked you to meet me here because I need you to make me a promise.” I nodded, fighting my own tears. “Of course.

” “You don’t even know what it is yet.” She grinned even as more tears fell. “If I’d known this dyin’ thing could get people to agree to just about anything, I would have started tellin’ people I was dyin’ years ago.” I started to gasp, then laughed instead. Turned out honesty was a new trait Violet was trying on for size now that she was dying. “I think I like you, Violet Beauregard.” “I like you too, Neely Kate Rivers.” She placed her palm against mine and laced our fingers together. “Which is why I want you to promise me you’ll always be there for my sister.” “I love Rose.

Of course I will.” She shook her head, tears streaming now. She squeezed my hand tighter. “No. I mean till death do you part. You’ve been more of a sister to her than I’ve been lately. You two have a bond that she and I never had. She’s gonna need you more than ever, Neely Kate.” Her voice broke. “She’s been through so much in her life.

So. Much. The things Momma did to her …” She started crying harder. “I can’t stand the fact that I’m leaving her alone.” I pulled her head to my shoulder and wrapped an arm around her back, feeling every rib through her thin shirt. “You put that worry to rest, do you hear me?” I whispered fiercely. “She’s not alone. I won’t let that happen and neither will Maeve, or Joe, or Jonah, or a whole host of other people. We may not be her blood kin, but we love her just the same.” I grabbed her face between my hands and stared into her eyes.

“You hear me? She’ll never be alone.” “I’ve asked her to do something hard after I die. I need you to stand with her then.” My heart skipped a beat. “What have you asked her to do?” “She doesn’t know what it is yet. It’s in my will.” “What do you want her to do, Vi?” I pressed. She shook her head. “No. All in good time.

” She released my hand and leaned back in her chair, looking exhausted. “I know she’s seein’ someone. Do you know who it is?” I hesitated, caught off guard. “Why do you think she’s seein’ someone?” She gave me a look that suggested I was a fool. “Because she has that glow a woman gets when she’s being adored by a man and is gettin’ lots of sex. Do you know who it is?” “I… uh…” She waved a hand. “Never mind. You don’t need to tell me. I’ll find out soon enough on my own. I plan on peerin’ over the edge of heaven and spyin’ on all y’all. I’ll find out who it is then.” I couldn’t help laughing. “I’d like to get to know you better before I die,” Violet said, turning serious. “I know it’s a morbid way of puttin’ it, but it’s true. I feel like I wasted time I could have spent bein’ your friend too. But maybe you’d rather not make the effort seein’ as how I don’t have much time left.” If I hadn’t known she only had months to live, I would have been warier. Violet was a manipulator in her own right. But what purpose would it serve now? Call me a fool, but I believed that she was trying to make amends. “Don’t go bein’ all pouty,” I said with a grin. “Tryin’ to guilt me into bein’ your friend.” She grinned back. “Is it workin’?” “You had me at dyin’, Vi,” I said, my breath hitching. “Of course I’ll be your friend.” “Help me up. I want to show you something.” I stood and offered her a hand. “What is it?” “You’ll see soon enough.” “Now you sound like my granny.” Violet took my hand and I pulled her to her feet, surprised she weighed next to nothing. “Hopefully I don’t look like your granny.” “No. She has more hair than you do.” Violet burst into laughter and then started coughing. Maeve had stuck close to the register after her customer left, giving Violet and me space to talk, but she made a move toward us now with worry in her eyes. Violet held her hand up and forced out words through her coughing fit. “I’m fine.” Maeve stayed in place, but her worried look stuck around too. “I’m fine. I’m not dyin’ yet,” Violet said, then took a deep breath without coughing. “I’m takin’ Neely Kate out back.” “Okay,” Maeve said, though she didn’t look like she thought it was a good idea. Violet walked without assistance, which was a one hundred percent improvement over her condition a couple of weeks ago. Rose had practically had to carry her around. We went out the back door and she led me into the greenhouse where all the shade loving plants were kept. “Do you know what these are?” she asked, pointing to a flowering plant. “Impatiens,” I said in confusion. From her dramatic declaration, I’d figured she wanted to show me something important, not a bunch of plants. “That’s right. Can you plant them in the sun?” “No,” I said slowly, drawing out the word, “they like shade.” “They do like shade, but you actually can plant them in the sun if you want to.” “Vi… maybe we should go inside.” “Don’t be a whiner, Neely Kate, and listen to what I’m teachin’ you. If you’re gonna work with Rose, you need to know this. I won’t be here, so you need to take my place and help her. Impatiens can go in the sun, but you need to work your way up to it. If you just plop ’em in the sun, they’ll dry up, but if you introduce it to them slowly and give them a lot of water, they’ll acclimate. What else can you tell me about impatiens?” she asked. “Do you need to deadhead them?” I blinked. “No…?” “That’s right. They clean themselves up quite nicely, something I hope Mikey learns to do sooner than later,” she said about her two-year-old son with a grin. “Now, what else do you know about them?” “They like lots of water.” She grinned. “That’s right, but if they wilt, they tend to bounce right back once they’ve had a good drink. One more thing—some of the older women like to call them touch-menots. If you don’t know what they’re talkin’ about, they’ll turn right around and walk out the door. How about over there?” She pointed to some begonias. “What are those?” She spent the next half hour grilling me over flowering plants, peppering in questions about my personal life. “How are things goin’ with Joe? I hear he’s datin’ the cupcake shop owner.” “Dena,” I said, trying to keep the hostility out of my voice. “I don’t want to talk about her.” “Is Joe still keepin’ you a secret from the world?” I gaped at her. “Did Rose tell you that?” “No, Joe did just the other day.” She gave me an ornery grin. “Oh, my stars and garters, did you have something to do with him changing his mind?” Her grin spread. “I may have suggested it wasn’t his decision to make.” I stared at her in disbelief and her eyes twinkled. “Not all my meddling is bad.” She had a point. “He asked me if I wanted to go to a fundraiser dinner in Little Rock on Saturday night.” “What did you tell him?” she asked as she inched closer to the asparagus ferns. “I told him yes, but Dena’s makin’ me have second thoughts.” She rested one hand on the table and the other on her hip. “What on earth for?” “Well, she reminded me that I don’t have a dress to wear.” I lowered my voice. “I don’t have money to get a new car. I sure as Pete can’t afford to be wastin’ money on a fancy dress.” “I have a closet full of fancy dresses,” Violet said. “And shoes too. Just come over to my house and pick one out.” “I can’t do that, Violet.” “Why on earth not? I won’t be wearin’ them anytime soon. Bring Rose with you and we’ll make a party out of it.” I flushed. “Okay. Thanks.” “See? Problem solved.” “Not entirely,” I said. “Dena also pointed out that I don’t know anything about eatin’ at formal dinners. “So you learn,” she said. “Joe may have been born with a silver spoon, but he didn’t know if it was a soup spoon or a dessert spoon. He learned at cotillion.” “Rivers kids didn’t go to cotillion.” Her mouth twisted to the side. “No, but a Rivers woman can still learn.” Then, without saying another word to me, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and placed a call. What was she doing? “Mary Ellen, it’s Violet… I’m fine, but I’m not calling about me. Do you still have those etiquette classes?” My mouth dropped open. “Tonight?” She raised her eyebrows at me, and I found myself nodding. “Surely you can make an exception for me. Just this once.” Violet grinned. “Reserve two spots. No, not for me. They’re for Neely Kate Rivers and my sister Rose.” Rose? “Seven o’clock and I hear you. They won’t be late. Thank you, Mary Ellen.” She hung up the phone and tucked it back into her pocket. “I think our lesson in the greenhouse is done for today. You and Rose need to be there promptly at seven, so I suggest you plan on getting to Mary Ellen’s house five minutes early. She gives a series of four classes and you’ve missed two, but tonight’s lesson is about tea and dinner etiquette, so the timing is serendipitous. She doesn’t usually let people in midcourse, so I need you two to be on your best behavior.” “Why Rose?” “This is a best friend kind of thing. You two’ll have fun.” I was pretty sure that Rose already had plans for tonight, and it didn’t involve how to use spoons.

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