I was right about one thing. Bonny Bee was ready to go home. She stood and eased her chair under the table.
“I’ve so enjoyed meeting all you ladies,” she said, “but all this talk about this Willis boy has made me miss my own waifs and I should be home before they wake up.”
“You have young’uns at home?” Maybelle asked.
“Yes,” Bonny Bee said. “I didn’t give birth to them, but they’re mine nonetheless.”
Bridey reached for the fruitcake. “Hand me a napkin, Ivy Leigh. I’m going to wrap up a slice of cake for Bonny Bee to take home.”
Bonny Bee grimaced ever so slightly. This was one recipe Adelaide would never be privy to.
“I’ll get a sandwich bag for you,” Maybelle said, making her way to the pantry. “How many young’uns you got, Miz Rackham?”
“Two. Wilf Gregor was spared from a life of piracy and little Jenny was the daughter of my husband Calico Jack. Her mother Anne was rescued from…well, I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Let’s just say once we learned of the child’s existence, we brought her home to the Inn. She’s the joy of our lives…all of us.”
Maybelle returned with the plastic bag and Bridey slid the cake inside. Bonny Bee thanked her and started toward the front door.
“I’ll go, too,” Maybelle said. “I said what I come to say.” She zeroed in on me. “You’ve given me a heap to think about.”
“Same here,” I said. “I won’t forget.”
When we heard the door close, I asked the others, “Think that was the real reason they left?”
Ivy Leigh shook her head. “They didn’t want to intrude. Bonny Bee is the soul of propriety and Maybelle, though she’s rough around the edges, has a simple dignity about her.”
Bridey looked across the table. “Tell me one thing.”
“If I can,” I said.
“Is Willis happy?”
“Not right at the moment,” I said. “I’m only on the first chapter. But he’s better off than when I started.”
“I thought you’d already written two chapters,” Muriel said. “How can you be on Chapter One?”
“Actually, it’s because of Maybelle,” I said.
Ivy Leigh reached for the last almond cookie. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I was grateful for the diversion. Maybe…just maybe… I could waylay the conversation about Willis. Leaning back, I tried to appear nonchalant, feeling anything but.
“The irony is,” I said, “I had actually made up my mind to finish Maybelle’s story. I have all these random chapters…” In a burst of inspiration, I thought of a way to appeal to Muriel. “Like cake ingredients.”
Bridey eyed the fruitcake, mulling over the analogy. “I get that. You can put everything out on the kitchen counter, but until you put it all in the bowl…”
“In the right order,” I said, gleefully extending my metaphor.
“And so,” Ivy Leigh said, “that led you to—?”
“For some reason,” I said, “I got the idea a newspaper reporter could come to Hog Holler in search of a story. And then I thought, why would anyone look for ‘news’ there…a small town where the biggest event all year is the Vegetable Parade at the annual Harvest Pageant?”
“Vegetable Parade?” Bridey asked. “That sounds like fun. We might try that in Dennisonville at our next Founder’s Day.”
Muriel smiled benevolently. She knew as well as I did that idea would never fly with the Dennisonville Garden Club.
“Go on,” Muriel said. “Newspaper reporter.”
“And then I decided the assignment at Hog Holler would be a way to get her out of—”
“Her?” Ivy Leigh asked.
“Yeah, because of course, she had to become friends with Maybelle and I thought a girl would be more likely to turn to Maybelle for friendship.”
“The assignment would be…” Muriel prodded.
“Would be like an initiation …or maybe a reprimand because she’s ambitious and doesn’t want to work her way up. She keeps pestering her editor for better assignments.”
“I see,” Ivy Leigh said. “That makes sense.”
“And so I started writing the scene where she goes to her editor, and says she’s been working at the Press for ‘three-quarters of a year,’ and she was tired of writing about kids’ school parties.”
“So,” Muriel concluded, “Hog Holler is the assignment.”
“It was at first,” I said. With the pressure off, the lilt was back in my voice. “And I thought up a name and I gave the line to the editor. ‘You wouldn’t know real journalism, Pepper Phipps, if—”
Muriel sat bolt upright. “Pepper Phipps? My niece?”
I held up both hands to settle her. “She wasn’t your niece till later.”
“How did that happen?” Ivy Leigh asked.
“I was really happy with the scene,” I said. “And as usual, I had to stop right in the middle and get back to my real life. And then…later…out of nowhere, it hit me. Pepper was in the wrong story. She was exactly the character I needed for the next Magnolia Arms book.”
“You’re sending Pepper to Dennisonville?” Muriel asked.
“Yes. Her mother asks you to take her in for the summer. She’s going to work at your restaurant and live at the Magnolia Arms…while she ‘learns the value of a dollar.’”
“She won’t live with me?” Muriel asked.
“Agnes needs the money,” Ivy Leigh said. She was pacified.
I could tell.