The Pepper In The Gumbo: A Cane River Romance

Table of Contents
 

The Pepper in the
Gumbo

By

Mary Jane Hathaway

 

 

 

 

All rights reserved. © 2014 by Gumbo Books and Mary
Jane Hathaway.

Cover art provided by Steven Novak

 

Editing provided by Kathryn Frazier

 

Dedications

To Mrs. Gaskell, who wrote her books standing in the
kitchen, while her five children ran through the house. Your romances
captivated a generation. Your passion for social justice shaped my moral code.
North
and South
, the story of a ruthless mill owner and a fiery
minister’s daughter, will live forever in the hearts of your readers.

To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote some very
fine love poetry, but considered her life’s work to be fighting child labor
even though she lived in a time that didn’t allow women a political voice.
Virginia Woolf said it best when she said, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning rushed
into the drawing room and declared that here, where we live and work, is the
true place for the poet. The heroine’s passionate interest in social questions,
her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the
true heroine of her age.”

Also to Christalee Scott May, who will never stop
trying to bring me into the twenty-first century. 

Chapter One

If we continue to develop our technology without
wisdom or prudence,

our servant may prove to be our executioner.

―Omar N. Bradley

 

 

            “Van
Winkle, scoot. You’re taking up half the desk.”

            Alice
Augustine brushed aside piles of receipts and set down her steaming cup of
coffee, but the sleeping gray cat didn’t budge from his spot in the sun. Alice
gently slid the kitty to the left and angled into her chair. She loved Mondays,
loved the pale light of early morning illuminating her workspace, loved the way
her little bookstore creaked and rustled like an old lady waking up from a long
winter’s nap. Or at least, she loved every Monday other than the last Monday of
the month. Then it was sixteen kinds of terrible.    

            Balancing
the accounts was becoming an unpleasant task. That far column of red numbers
was growing at an alarming rate. She pulled her cardigan tighter against the unseasonable
late-summer chill, and reminded herself that the store survived the last ten
years of economic downturn and it wasn’t going to fail now. Not on her watch. Not
after Mr. Perrault kept it afloat for fifty years and made it one of the most
famous bookstores in Louisiana.

            Opening
her laptop, she took a slow breath, letting gratitude for the place win over
the nagging worries that fought for her attention. Her store was in the National
Historic Landmark District, a local treasure at the very end of the
thirty-three block stretch along Cane River. The rows of tidy shelves showcased
the best in rare and vintage volumes. Customers traveled from around the state
to spend the day in By the Book, sharing stories of the eccentric former owner,
Mr. Perrault, and his wife, Angeline. Alice was proud to be the owner and so
very grateful for every day she came to work. Usually.

             
Mr.
Perrault
. Alice paused, waiting for the ache in her chest to ebb. Mr. Perrault,
the man who didn’t snap at a surly teen girl who wandered into his bookshop and
argued that Elizabeth Barrett Browning should not be placed next to her husband
Robert just because they shared a name. He didn’t laugh, even when she said Robert
Browning was an overeducated blowhard whose collection should be used as a
doorstop. No, Mr. Perrault spoke to her as if she were a poetry expert and a
person. He took notes, offered her coffee, and asked her to come back to chat. Alice
had spent so long being angry that she didn’t even notice for the first six months
of Saturday literary debates that she’d made a friend. She wasn’t just the
annoying little sister of four boys, all being raised by their grandmother and haunted
by the accident that took their parents.

            She
could never get away from the pitying glances of the people of her small town.
Natchitoches was one of the oldest communities in the south, and the people
made it their duty to never forget anything, good or bad. Alice was not just
Alice. She was “poor, sweet Alice, whose parents are dead.” But not to Mr. Perrault
and not to his wife. With them, Alice felt like she was someone apart from all
of that, someone who had read more widely than anyone she knew. To them, she
was a reader and a friend.

            Mondays
always made her pensive and she slipped the fragile chain out from her shirt,
touching the two gold rings that hung there. Those simple, plain gold bands had
once signified the marriage of her parents and the unity of her family.

            “Darcy,
come on down. You’ll get all dusty,” she said more from tradition than any real
expectation that he would listen. Darcy didn’t answer to anyone. The large
black cat stayed high up, his perfect pink nose in the air. He came down to eat
only after the other cats had wandered away. He was happy there, far above the
fray, and there was no reason to coax him down. Her employees poked fun at
Darcy’s antisocial habits, but Alice felt a secret kinship with him.

            A
bright tinkle sounded from the little brass bell that hung from a faded red
velvet ribbon on the door.

             “Good
morning,” Alice called out. She added a wave although old Bix Beaulieu was so
nearsighted he wouldn’t know the difference. In fact, he shouldn’t be driving
himself to work. Somehow he kept passing his renewal test. Alice harbored a strong
suspicion that had something to do with Bix’s great niece working at the DMV. Like
a moving landmark, it had been the cruel end of nativity scenes, award-winning
rose bushes, and too many pink flamingos to count. The people of Natchitoches
had learned to watch out for Bix and his bright green Cadillac of Doom.

            “Mornin’,
sha
,” he called back. It made her smile to hear him use the endearment
her Papa used. Alice was always “dear”
to Bix. Stark white bristles sprouted
from under his old straw hat, and his World War II, Navy-issue raincoat was
buttoned to his chin. It hardly ever rained, but Bix hated to be unprepared. “I
thought I’d come in early and rearrange those bottom shelves of paperbacks.”

            “Would
you like some coffee?” Alice could think of ten things more worthwhile than
rearranging the paperback section. Customers sorted through them like folded
T-shirts on sale at the mall. It was a waste of time to even put them on the
shelves. She should just shovel them in mountains labeled
Romance
,
Thrillers
,
and
Mysteries
, and not worry any more about it. But Bix did what he
liked, when he liked. It could be aggravating, but Alice loved it a little bit,
too.

            “Thanks,
but I got a cup at The Red Hen.” Bix placed a paper bag on the desk and Alice
inhaled the heavenly scent of fresh beignets. The Red Hen served hot Beau Monde
coffee and the area’s best bakery items. Bix’s dark brown eyes crinkled at the
edges, his face creased with a grin. “I figured you’d appreciate a little pick-me-up
while you crunch the numbers.”

            Alice
murmured her thanks as she opened the bag. She hated that Bix knew the
bookstore was losing money. The man was pretty observant for being nearly blind.

            “Louis
asked after you,” Bix said.

            Alice
took a large bite of still-warm beignet and chewed slowly. Louis Guillorie was balding,
short-tempered, twice her age, and most definitely not Alice’s idea of a
romantic partner. The day she graduated high school, he’d asked her out by
telling her he had a thing for green-eyed Creole girls. She’d almost cried,
trying to let him down easy, afraid to bruise his ego. After nearly ten years
of searching for the gentlest way to get through, she decided it wasn’t her
problem if he wouldn’t face the facts. Now she just pretended the owner of The
Red Hen didn’t exist. It was a whole lot easier than feeling guilty about
hurting his feelings.

            “Wanted
to know if you were still seeing that short Yankee with the horsey laugh.”

            “He’s
not short. He’s three inches taller than I am.” Eric was a perfectly nice guy
who made great money as the area’s only dentist. She didn’t argue about him being
a Yankee or the laugh. Eric didn’t laugh much, so she could almost forget about
his unfortunate affliction.

            “I
told him to bide his time. Horse boy won’t last long. He don’t even take you
out. A girl’s gotta get out of the house once in a while.” Bix took off his
straw hat and unbuttoned his coat, as if he weren’t being rude in the
slightest.

            “He’s
lasted four months,” Alice said. “And I’m a homebody. I don’t mind.” Eric was
more than a little boring, but she was no rock star herself. Her
mamere
called
her curvy, but that was just a nice way for her grandmother to say Alice loved
beignets a little too much and didn’t love exercise quite enough. Her hair was
so curly it had a life of its own, her mouth was a little too wide, and she
wouldn’t ever be called anything more than pretty. Add in the fact that she
owned too many cats and a bookstore that was hemorrhaging money, and Alice
figured she wasn’t one to point fingers.  

            “You’ve
got to get out more, especially since you’re up there all alone now. I felt
better when that family was living in the other half. This is such a big old
place. You could slip in that claw-foot tub, crack your head, and nobody would
find you for days.”

            Alice
tried to ignore the visual that popped into her mind. “A possibility, I
suppose.” If she fell and hit her head while getting in the tub, she certainly
wouldn’t want her neighbors to come rescue her. Then again, she couldn’t think
of a single person who would be really right for that job.

            A
short-haired tabby crossed the floor toward the back door, sending a glance at
Bix that seemed to say she was highly offended but would suffer silently, as
usual. “Jane Eyre wanted one of those maple-cured bacon slices you brought last
time,” Alice interpreted. “And Eric is a perfectly nice boy, whether or not he
likes to go out.”

            “
Boy
.
See? There’s your problem. You need a man,” Bix said, punctuating the phrase
with a thump of the chest, his wrinkles magnified with a scowl. It would have
been funny if he hadn’t been so serious. “Louis wants to take you to the zydeco
festival this weekend. He sure is sweet on you.”

            Alice
loved zydeco music and the festival ranked as one of her favorite parties of
the year. Her parents had met at a dance hall, her
mamere
sang in a juke
band when she was young, and Alice had been listening to zydeco all her life.
She could probably dance the crazy combination of swing and foxtrot in her
sleep. But although Eric vowed he’d rather drill his own teeth than go, Alice
wasn’t about to accept Louis’s invitation. “Yes, I’m aware. Well, we better get
―”

            “You
could do worse than Louis, you know. He makes a mean croissant, and he’s a morning
person. My first wife was a bear in the morning. I love me some passion, and I
gotta have a woman who puts a little pepper in the gumbo, but I didn’t make
that morning mistake twice. When she passed away and I was ready to look again,
I said to myself, ‘Bix, you get yourself a woman who won’t bite your head off
if you talk to her before noon.’ Of course, Ruby is always real affectionate in
the mornings so I had to adjust to―”

              “Oh
my, look at that dust!” Alice swiped a hand over the bookcase next to her. She
cringed at the awkward interruption, but didn’t want to hear any more about Ruby’s
morning affections. Every Sunday morning, nine o’clock, Ruby and Bix sat in
front of Alice at the cathedral. If she heard any more, she would never be able
to look the woman in the eye again.

            “Dusty?
That reminds me. My niece asked if you needed someone to come pass the mop once
a week or so. She started a cleaning business all by herself called
Nettie’s
Nettoyage
.
She’s got five employees and two big vans. Maybe you seen them,” Bix said.

            Alice
glanced around. She would have died of embarrassment if anyone told her that By
the Book was dirty, but apparently she’d just said as much herself and there
wasn’t any way to deny it. “I suppose. Maybe I don’t even see it anymore. I’m
thinking it’s clean while the dirt is just staring me in the face. You can give
her my cell phone number.”

            “I
already did. She said you never answer. I explained how you’re against modern
inventions.”

            “I
am not,” Alice protested. “You can’t possibly say that when I’m sitting in
front of a laptop. I just believe all this technology has a place.”

            “And
that place is not in your pocket, right?” Bix smiled. “Everything here is outdated.
Just look at that radio. It’s ancient.”

            Alice
laid a protective hand on the faded red radio. “This is a 1955 Admiral. People
pay a lot of money for these.”

            “Mm-hmm.
And they pay more for something with stereo. My grandson has a little gizmo
that holds fifteen hundred songs and fits in his pocket.”

            Technology
was meant to be a tool, not a crutch. The entire world had become dependent on
gadgets for entertainment and personal happiness. But it was silly to argue
with a man who was wearing a raincoat he got in 1944. Instead, Alice pulled out
a folded sheet of newspaper from under the stack of receipts. “I’m not against
the digital age, I’m really not. See here?” She tapped the headline and several
inches of column underneath. “There’s some guy who’s uploading rare books to digital
e-book platforms. People are rediscovering the classics, poetry, old myths.”

            Bix
cocked his head, the light reflecting off his thick glasses. “Those books have
always been around. You go to any ol’ tag sale and you’ll find a bunch of old
college text books.”

            “Right.
At tag sales. Not when you need them and not in perfect condition. If they’re
copyrighted, they’re usually in print. If not, they can be impossible to find. Anyway,
this guy, he scans them, checks for formatting issues, writes a bit of a
commentary, and puts them online.” She leaned over the article and read aloud,
“An e-book of lesser known works by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was published
last month was received enthusiastically and shot to the top of the bestseller
lists.”

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