Maybelle rose from her chair and joined the congregation at the kitchen sink. She pulled open the silverware drawer and took out a knife.
By then Bridey, still perspiring, had peeled away the foil from the fruitcake and stood back to admire her handiwork, only slightly burnt around the edges.
Ivy Leigh, the lecture about the workings of modern refrigeration concluded, closed the freezer.
Bonny Bee turned her attention to the fruitcake.
“What’s in it?” the proprietress of the Peregrine Inn asked.
Bridey took the knife from Maybelle and began sawing through the cake. “Pineapple, cherries, and walnuts. I’ve never cared for citron or raisins and don’t get me started on PE-cans. Way too hard to shell. Give me a nice walnut every time.”
Maybelle had stepped backward to the cabinet and brought out five more glass plates.
“PE-cans?” Bonny Bee asked, eyes twinkling. “You mean ‘puh-CAHNS,’ don’t you?”
Bridey whirled to face her, still brandishing the knife, coated with crumbs. “Where you from, little lady?”
“Lenford. North Carolina.”
“No, I mean originally.”
“How did you know?” Bonny Bee asked.
Bridey plopped an inch-thick slice of fruitcake onto the plate Maybelle held out. It was not my imagination—Maybelle struggled to hold the plate even as the weighty wedge came to rest.
I did not say a word, but my raised eyebrow was not lost on Maybelle, who wisely retreated to the table, her serving duties concluded.
Bridey cut another slice of cake and slid it onto a plate on the counter. “No self-respecting Southern woman says, ‘puh-CAHN. You must be from—”
“Boston,” Bonny Bee said.
“Oh, Boston,” Bridey said. “No wonder you’re so—
Ivy Leigh spoke over her. “So, Bonny Bee, do you serve fruitcake at the Inn?”
Ever the lady, Bonny Bee picked up the chunk of cake Bridey had provided. “Yes, Adelaide makes an excellent Christmas cake with currants and molasses.”
At the mention of Adelaide’s cake, I closed my eyes and sighed profoundly. Oh, to be at the Peregrine Inn at this moment—pirates or not.
Ivy Leigh cut a paper-thin slice of cake and took the chair next to Bonny Bee. Bridey had taken my chair, so I retreated to the opposite end of the table.
“Now, where were we?” Maybelle asked. Her second bite of fruitcake was noticeably smaller than the first.
“Backstory,” Bonny Bee said.
My fork clattered to the floor. I thought we had moved past that topic. I should have known better. Bonny Bee had a mind like a steel trap and a staggering intellect. One of the rules of the Peregrine Inn was that dictionaries were never to be returned to the shelves.
“You all have coffee,” Bridey said, pushing back from the table. “Where’s the pot?”
I jumped up. The last thing I needed was another lecture on the Keurig and its “one cup at a time” capacity. I scooted around Ivy Leigh and Bonny Bee and snatched a mug from the cabinet and then waited by the counter while the coffee dripped.
“Backstory?” Bridey asked.
“What we were doing before our names are first mentioned,” Ivy Leigh said.
I added three teaspoons of sugar to Bridey’s coffee and set it in front of her. Then I returned to my place and stationed myself behind my chair as if at a lectern. Might as well get this over with.
“Okay,” I said. “You want to know about the men you love? Here it is in a nutshell.” I peered at Bonny Bee. “Fitz was a pirate. He didn’t mean to become a pirate. He was forced into it by economic necessity. When he told Quentin Drake he wanted out—”
“Quentin Drake?” Maybelle asked, shoving the fruitcake gingerly toward the center of the table.
“The dread pirate Quentin Drake,” I said. “He’s the reason Fitz’s hands are scarred.”
Bonny Bee winced at the mention. “And how was Fitz forced to become a pirate?”
“His father had left home to join Drake’s crew. When his mother got sick, Fitz went in search of his father. He found Drake, but his father was long dead by then. Drake lured Fitz on board, knocked him out, and set sail while Fitz was still unconscious.”
“Fitz never told me that,” Bonny Bee said.
He couldn’t have, I thought, because I just made it up.
“And Zeke?” Maybelle asked.
“I haven’t told you before, but…the truth is Zeke never wanted to be a farmer.”
She shook her head. “No, that can’t be right. The Higginbottom farm has been in the family for generations. Zeke is a born farmer.”
“That may be,” I said, “but he really wants to be a radio announcer. I wrote a whole story about a man named Happy Jack Williams coming to Hog Holler to open up a radio station called WHOO and Zeke applied for a job.”
Maybelle folded her arms. “I don’t believe you.”
“Mid-life crisis,” I said. “Can happen to anybody. Even Zeke.”
“What about me?” Bridey asked. “And my husband?”
By now I felt invincible. “You married him on the rebound.”
She sat bolt upright. “I did not. He was my first love.”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“Asa and I grew up in the same neighborhood in the poor section of town.”
“True,” I said, “but your first love was Willis Oakley and you know it.”
The color drained from Ivy Leigh’s face.