Read Magnolia Online

Authors: Kristi Cook

Magnolia

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For my University of Southern Mississippi Phi Mu sisters, who know all too well that you can take the girl out of Mississippi but you can't take the Mississippi out of the girl

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Enormous thanks to:

Jennifer Klonsky, who somehow saw the potential in this book in just a few scant pages.

Nicole Ellul, whose editorial brilliance made it a much stronger book. A million thank-yous and a hearty round of applause.

Amalie Howard, BFF and critique partner extraordinaire. I couldn't do it without you! Seriously. I mean
seriously
seriously.

Cindy Thomas, for patiently listening to me moan and groan, and then cracking that whip and making me Just. Do. It. What would I do without you?

Melinda Rayner Courtney, for being my sounding board for all things Mississippi, and for sending me pictures of
real
Mississippi. I'm proud to call you sister!

The HB&K society (you know who you are!) for helping me figure out my plot, and for listening to me wax poetic about AJ McCarron.

My agent, Marcy Posner, for everything, all these years.

Ella, for reading all the dialogue in that super-authentic (ha!) southern accent. You made it fun!

Lastly, to my family—Dan, Vivian, and Ella (yes, again)— for keeping me sane. Love you!

ACT I

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

—William Shakespeare, 
Romeo and Juliet

ACT I
Scene 1

G
lancing out my window, I hold up my finger and thumb, creating a little frame around Ryder Marsden, who stands outside on the lawn below. I close one eye to get the illusion just right and then pretend to squash him.

Take
that
.

I let the curtains fall back against the glass, effectively blocking the view of my nemesis standing there beneath the twinkle lights, looking way too hot in his charcoal-colored suit. It would be
so
much easier to hate him if he didn't look so good. And I want to hate him; I really do.

You know those tragic stories where two kids from feuding families fall in love? Okay, flip that inside out and turn it on its head and you've got
our
story, Ryder's and mine.

It all began like this: On April 6, 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh, Captain Jeremiah D. Marsden—that's Ryder's ancestor—took a minié ball in the left kneecap. Corporal Lewiston G. Cafferty—that's mine—picked up Captain Marsden and carried him off the field of battle to safety.

On his back. More than a mile. Barefoot.

At least, that's how the story goes. Frankly, I'm a little skeptical, but whatever. The point is, the Marsdens and the Caffertys have been like
this
ever since.

And when I say like
this
, I'm talking complete and utter familial devotion. Our families' lives are so intertwined it's sometimes hard to remember who belongs where and with whom. We do everything together—church, backyard barbeques, even vacations. One of my favorite stories is about the time my uncle Don was somehow left behind with the Marsdens after a trip to the coast and no one noticed for two weeks. Seriously.

The Marsdens and the Caffertys play out their drama right here in Magnolia Branch, Mississippi, population 2,190. This little slice of heaven boasts one traffic light, six churches, a library, and a picturesque town square. The only nod to civilization is a Ward's just off the highway, and you wouldn't believe how hard some of the locals fought it when they first proposed it, back before I was born.

If you're wondering what it's like to grow up here, just
consider this—there are
six
choices when it comes to places of worship, but only
one
when it comes to fast food (the aforementioned Ward's). Need I say more? By the way, if you want to see some real Shakespearean-style feuding, look no farther than First Methodist and Cavalry Baptist—they've been going at it for years.

Truth be told, not much has changed here in Magnolia Branch since the war—and when anyone around here says “the war,” they mean the Civil War. Yeah, a hundred and fifty years and several other wars later.

The Marsdens still live at Magnolia Landing, an old, antebellum-era plantation house on two-hundred-plus acres down by Flint Creek. It looks just like you'd imagine—pristine white and perfectly symmetrical, with huge columns and a half-mile-long drive shaded by a canopy of ancient oaks dripping Spanish moss.

And we Caffertys still live just down the road in a house that once served as Magnolia Landing's overseer's cottage. The house has been added on to several times throughout the years, giving it a haphazard, rambling look. Even so, I think it's perfect—whitewashed brick and clapboard with wide plank floors and sleeping porches. Unlike Magnolia Landing, our house looks comfortable and lived in. Visiting the Marsdens is like visiting a museum—and really, who wants to live in a museum?

Anyway, our families have been desperate to unite through matrimonial bliss for as long as anyone can remember. But as fate would have it, they were always out of sync. Or totally
in
sync, depending on how you look at it. Either way, in all these years, there hasn't been a single eligible male-female pair who could get the job done.

Until Ryder and me, that is.

We were born exactly six weeks apart, a perfect match, agewise. You can imagine what it's been like since our mothers first plopped us into a crib together, rubbing their hands in conspiratorial glee as they planned our wedding. Playdates followed where the adults smiled and cooed as they watched us dig in the sandbox, where Ryder tugging on my pigtails was a sure sign of his adoration, where me throwing sand in his face only proved my devotion.

Star-crossed love? Ha! Not even close. Mostly, I try to avoid him whenever possible. I'm not sure how I'm going to accomplish that tonight, though.

Because tonight is the annual Magnolia Branch Historical Society Gala. Think huge, formal party where the who's who of Magnolia Branch gather to rub shoulders and gossip while they sip champagne and eat fancy food. My mom is this year's chair and hostess, which means I have to smile and make nice and mingle with the guests. And yes, Ryder Marsden is one of the guests.

“Ugh,” I groan, peering out the window at the growing crowd. The party is in full swing out on the lawn, and I'm sure my mom is wondering where I am. Reluctantly, I leave behind the comfortable cocoon of my bedroom and hurry down the stairs and through the front hall. Smoothing down my pale blue dress with damp palms, I step out onto the front porch and take a deep, calming breath.

The first thing I notice is the oppressive heat. It must be close to ninety degrees, the air warm and heavy even though the sun set a half hour ago. The full moon has risen over the horizon, casting a silvery glow on the scene before me. The effect is magical, and I shiver despite the heat.

The yard has been completely transformed, every tree wrapped with bright twinkle lights, colorful paper lanterns strung between them. There's a wooden dance floor out in the middle of the lawn, the band set just behind it. The strings are playing something slow and pretty while the rest of the musicians ready their instruments.

My mom has set up the buffet beneath the tallest, broadest magnolia tree, long tables filled with silver chafing dishes and manned by servers wearing crisp white aprons. She's rented real china dishes for tonight—I'd helped her pick out the pattern, plain ivory with a bamboolike border.

Round tables are grouped around the dance floor, all draped in cream linens. Each table is lit by an ivory pillar candle in a
hurricane vase, colorful hydrangeas arranged artfully around the base. It's beautiful, all of it.

I search for my mom and find her standing beside the buffet with Laura Grace Marsden, Ryder's mom. They are BFFs, of course—sorority sisters at Ole Miss, mutual maids of honor. Mama spies me and waves, gesturing for me to join them.

“Jemma!” Laura Grace calls out as I make my way toward them, my silver flats silent on the thick grass. “You look like a princess, honey. Come here and give me some sugar.”

I hurry to her side and allow her to wrap me in a Shalimar-scented hug. “You like the dress?” I ask her.

She grasps my shoulders and eyes me at arm's length, her gaze scanning me from head to toe. “It's gorgeous! Vintage?”

Grinning, I nod. “From 1960-something. Lucy helped me fix it up.”

We'd had to cut away most of the ratty blue tulle and replace the skirt, along with adding a new zipper. But the original satin bodice was intact, and it's beyond gorgeous.

Laura Grace touches one of the pale pink rosettes at my hip. “You and Lucy should go into business together. Folks'd pay a fortune for a dress like this.”

Mama smiles archly. “I told you so.”

I ignore that. “Have you seen Morgan and Lucy?”

She points to her left. “Down by the creek with the boys. If you find Daddy, send him over here, okay? I think that strand
of lights is coming loose.” She glances up at the twinkling limb overhead.

“Sure,” I say, though the lights in question look fine to me. Good thing, since my dad is a doctor, not an electrician, as he likes to say. Apparently, it's a Star Trek thing.

And by “doctor” he means the PhD kind—he's a physics professor over at the university.

“Oh, and, Jemma?” Laura Grace offers me a dazzling smile. “You make sure to save a dance for my son.”

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