Ivy Leigh, seated next to me, grabbed my arm, and yanked me from behind my chair.
“Sit down,” she said, and I knew better than to argue.
I had applied those same strong fingers to the back of Agnes’ arm when she had the nerve to argue with Oliver Martin Farrell.
Pull loose? Not a good idea. I eased out my chair and sank down, heart pounding.
“What’s this about Willis?” Bridey asked, barely above a whisper—a behavior I had never observed in her.
“Who’s Willis?” Maybelle asked.
Bridey, almost breathless, replied. “He was my date to the prom my freshman year at Dennisonville High School.” She peered at me. “I dreamed of marrying him, but I never told anyone. How did you know?”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“I mean…it was so long ago…I’ve been in two books and you’ve never once mentioned—”
“Two books?” Bonny Bee asked. “Again…I’d like to point out—”
The doorbell rang. Maybelle, still miffed about Zeke’s mid-life crisis, pushed back from the table.
“I’ll get it,” she said.
“Willis went to the prom?” Ivy Leigh asked. “When he lived with us, I couldn’t get him out of his room, much less get him out of the house.”
“He never missed school,” Bridey said in his defense. “He was our valedictorian.”
Muffled voices came from the direction of the front door.
“I meant school activities,” Ivy Leigh said and turned to me. “You’re really doing a number on him. What was your little motto about characters and conflict? Drive them up a tree and—”
A faint aroma…almond…drifted in from the living room.
“Throw rocks at them,” I said. “And it wasn’t…” I sniffed. The memory unmistakable. Before I could turn around, Ivy Leigh jumped up and scooted behind me, rushing to welcome our guest.
“Muriel,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
Muriel Porter, the familiar white box in hand, had joined us. Ivy Leigh took the box and set it on the table.
Bonny Bee breathed in and sighed contentedly. “What is that wonderful smell?”
“Almond cookies,” I said, opening the box. “Heaven in your mouth. Muriel is famous for them.”
“I’ll have to get the recipe for Adelaide.” She stood when Muriel reached the table. “I’m Bonny Bee Rackham,” she said, extending her hand.
Muriel overlooked her outstretched hand and hugged her instead. “Oh, I know who you are. Peregrine Inn. ‘Open Arms. Open Hearts.’ I’ve always wanted a sign like that in my restaurants. I’d put it on my wall in a minute.”
Muriel sat between Maybelle and me.
“Coffee?” I asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Muriel said. “Is this Bridey’s fruitcake?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, heading for another mug. There was no need for another explanation.
Bridey did not offer to cut another slice of fruitcake. For the first time since she erupted onto the printed page, Bridey Ludlow had nothing to say. I was desperately uncomfortable. Her silence bruised me worse than Maybelle’s indignation.
I surveyed the gathering. They were all lost in thought.
Bonny Bee Rackham. Her mind was on Fitz. I knew that. I didn’t need to ask. I owed it to her to continue her story. Should I admit I had closed the door to the Peregrine for now, because the story would require hours of research on her world—food, dress, furnishings, not to mention piracy—and I lacked the confidence.
Maybelle Higginbottom was still reeling from my revelation about Zeke. Her whole identity was wrapped up in being a ‘farmer’s wife.’ Her life from sunup to sundown, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, was circumscribed by keeping the farm running well, sending Luke and Amos out to their chores, finding Juney Belle a suitable husband, making sure Ned and Zed stayed out of trouble and always had their homework done, and little Augusta…the only mention I had made of her was her unusual birth. She was the only Higginbottom child not born at home. Surely there was more to learn about her.
Ivy Leigh Ransom. Now Hampton. More than any other character, she had wrenched herself loose from my creative grasp, and defined herself. I recalled the scene. Agnes Quinn had just arrived at the Magnolia Arms. Ivy Leigh was showing her the house. They were on the second floor, on their way to the third, when Agnes asked about Posey Devoe and her singing. I typed some snide response from Ivy Leigh, intending to paint her as worldly wise, savvy, and superior…and realized (saying the words aloud, if I remember correctly), ‘She wouldn’t act that way. She’d never say that.’
And changed her…or rather stepped back while she took on a personality of her own.
Muriel Porter. Remarkable woman. Owner of the Drifters’ Rest in Plainview. She was the first person to give advice to Agnes after she started teaching at Brighton Park Community College. If it hadn’t been for Muriel, knowing all she did about Jonas Grinstead’s past, and counseling Agnes about how to win his friendship, Agnes might never have arrived at the Magnolia Arms. Without Agnes’ meddling, Olympia Pillburn…I didn’t even want to think about it.
“The coffee’s done,” Ivy Leigh said. “Come back to the table.”
I added low-fat milk, stirred, and placed the cup in front of Muriel.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
If, like the others, Muriel intended to complain about her backstory, I had no need to feel defensive or explain myself. I had spent hours constructing the timeline of the Bennett family: the three daughters of whom Muriel was the eldest, their growing up years, romances, marriages, careers. Muriel’s niece Pepper Phipps was a key player in the next book. Muriel adored Pepper. I was on solid ground this time.
Lifting her cup, Muriel placed a napkin underneath. When I was seated, Muriel glanced at Ivy Leigh, who gave a quick nod.
“Go on,” Ivy Leigh said.
Muriel complied. “It’s about Willis Oakley. This time you’ve gone too far.”