At the exact moment the cash register dings and I open my change purse, the chain of bells on the front door of the coffee shop bangs together with a brassy clatter. I hear the sound of voices raised in greetings, a loud and hearty hello in response, and the bells jangling again as the door closes. Curious to see who’s making such an entrance, I glance over my shoulder. When I see that it’s Son Rodgers, my face flames and my heart pounds. On top of everything else that’s happened today, I go to the coffee shop for lunch, and who do I run into? One thing for sure: I have to get out of here before he sees me. It would be embarrassing for me and him and the dozen or so other folks enjoying their afternoon coffee. Instinctively, I duck my head and pull my arms close as if to make myself invisible.
Barely turning my head, I look over my shoulder again to determine the distance between me and the front door. No way I can get out that way without him seeing me; I’ll have to exit through the bookstore. Now I wish I’d driven to town instead of walking, even though it would’ve been ridiculous to drive so few blocks. But my getaway would have been easier. I could have gone through the adjoining bookstore, gotten nonchalantly into my car, and put the pedal to the metal. Instead, everyone in both stores will see me running out of the coffee shop right after my best friend’s husband has walked in. I can only imagine the talk that will follow, since our small town has talked of little else all summer except what’s gone on in the Rodgers household. I can hear it now: “Did you know it’s gotten so bad that Clare sneaked out of the coffee shop to avoid Son? Poor Dory!”
Making my getaway is turning out to be more difficult than I thought. The lethargic, bespectacled teenager behind the counter is new --- his first day, he told me proudly --- and he doesn’t know the ropes yet. He takes his time wrapping the two slices of carrot cake in parchment paper, placing them in a flat white box, then bringing the edges of the box together. When I see him searching for tape, I say, “It’s fine. Don’t bother taping it,” and hope that my voice doesn’t sound as flustered as I feel. But he shrugs me off and says no problem, it’s no trouble at all. He rings it up wrong for the second time, muttering, “Oops.” After canceling out the sale, he punches in the numbers again, glances at me over the top of his glasses, and mumbles, “Uh, that’ll be eight fifty-three.”
It hits me that I used all my change by counting out the exact amount for the veggie wrap and iced tea I had for lunch, plus a tip; I left the money on the table, anchoring my ticket. On my way out, I decided on impulse to take a couple pieces of carrot cake with me, and I stopped at the counter to place my order. I have nothing but a twenty to pay with. Another glance over my shoulder, and I toss the twenty-dollar bill at Pokey. In a low voice, I say, “If you could hurry, I’d really appreciate it. I’m running late for an appointment.” Of course, I speak too softly, trying to keep Son from hearing my voice, and Pokey tilts his head sideways to say, “Ma’am?”
“Hurry with the change, please,” I hiss.
From the corner of my eye, I see that Son is working the room like a politician running for reelection, slapping backs and grinning like the Cheshire cat. His greetings are met with cries of “Hey --- look who’s back in town!” and “Son! How was your trip? When did you get home?” I watch him lean over to kiss the cheek of a plump, white-haired lady who coos and giggles and puts both hands to her face in something resembling the ecstasy of Saint Teresa. He then joins a couple of businessmen from the bank who get to their feet to shake his hand and pound his back with great vigor, buying me a few seconds. Son throws back his head to laugh at something one of them says, which gives me a chance for a furtive study of him. I haven’t seen him all summer, the longest span of time since he and Dory married, and that was twenty-five years ago.
Son is casually dressed in crisp, pressed jeans and a white oxford-cloth shirt, the sleeves carelessly rolled up to reveal brown, well-muscled arms. Usually he’s in a shirt and tie, as befitting such a highly regarded and important hotshot. I guess he hasn’t yet gone back to work in his real estate business, since he and Dory have been home only a couple of days. Even though he has a hand on the shoulder of one of the businessmen and appears to be listening with great interest, I notice that his eyes occasionally search the room to make sure he’s kissed up to everyone there. When his gaze comes my way, I turn my head quickly, almost dropping the bills and change that Pokey is counting into my outstretched hand. When he miscounts and starts over, I’m tempted to tell the poor fellow to keep it, even if it would make me the biggest tipper in town. He’d probably be so surprised that he’d ask me to repeat myself yet again, and I’d end up getting caught by Son after all.
With his scrutiny of the coffee shop, it’s unbelievable that Son hasn’t recognized me yet, even with my back to him and the counter located at a helpful angle. It occurs to me that he hasn’t seen me since I’ve had my hair cut. From the first day we met, Son has gone on and on about what great hair I have. It’s nothing but his usual empty flattery, the only way he knows to relate to women. The truth is, my long, heavy hair has always been unruly and difficult. After struggling with it all my life, I gave up and had it chopped off a few weeks ago. Everybody tells me I look like a different person with my mass of hair gone, which must be true. Even so, I’m not taking any chances, not with the way Son keeps looking everyone over, so I drop the change into my briefcase instead of in my purse. Thankfully, the door of the adjoining bookstore is only a few feet away.
I’ve taken a step away from the counter when the young man clears his throat and says in a loud voice, “Uh --- ma’am?” My cheeks burning, I turn to see him holding out the box with the carrot cake in it. I yank it out of his hand so quickly that his eyes widen in surprise and his Adam’s apple jerks up and down. I feel bad for him, but not as bad as he would feel if Son saw me and caused a scene in the crowded shop. It would not be a good way to end his first day at work.
In the Page and Palette bookstore, a glance assures me that the salesclerk is helping a customer in the back, so I step behind a revolving display of paperbacks in order to peer into the coffee shop, making sure I got away without being seen. To my relief, I’ve escaped: Son is still standing with the two businessmen and running his mouth, with a big grin on his face. The three of them bend their heads together as he relates something, and they all laugh appreciatively, slapping backs again. Satisfied that I’ve escaped undetected, I sling the strap of my briefcase over my shoulder and tuck the box of carrot cake under my arm, then head toward the front door.
Once I’m outside, I’m surprised to find the sidewalks still crowded with shoppers and sightseers, which is unusual for early fall. Anxious to get away from the coffee shop, I mutter my apologies as I make my way through, wondering if there’s a tour bus in town. Although off the beaten path, Fairhope is becoming more and more of a tourist attraction, and it’s not unusual to have several tour buses in town during the summer, but not this time of year. In an effort to avoid a cluster of people blocking the sidewalk in front of one of the street’s many art galleries, I cut through a group of charming and colorful little shops that make up the area known as the French Quarter. And that’s where I run into Rye Ballenger, quite literally. If I hadn’t been hugging the bakery box so close, carrot cake would have gone flying.
“Clare!” he exclaims at the same time I gasp, “Rye!” Then both of us say together, “What are you doing here?”
I link an arm into his and continue my walk, pulling Rye along with me down the brick-paved lane. Out of the corner of my mouth, I say to him in a low voice, “I’m trying to get far enough away from the coffee shop so I won’t be seen by a certain person who just walked in.”
Rye plays along with me, matching my stride. “Who is it?” he whispers dramatically, looking around in mock terror. “An ex-husband of one of your clients?”
“Actually, you’re close,” I say with a groan. “It’s Son.”
“Son!” Rye comes to such an abrupt halt that I almost trip over a protruding brick. “Did he say anything to you? Tell me the truth.”
“He didn’t see me, thank God. I hightailed it out of there as fast as I could. Something tells me I’m not on his list of favorite people right now.”
With a frown, Rye studies my face. He disengages my arm in order to take my hand in both of his and squeeze it tight. “Why don’t you go back and confront him, sweetheart? I’ll go with you, by God. I don’t like the idea of him bullying you, and he needs to hear that.”
“Your problem is, you’re much too gallant,” I say with an affectionate smile. “Charging in on your white horse and defending the honor of the poor maiden.”
He snorts with indignation, his color high. “I’ve never been on a horse in my life, and have no intention of ever doing so. But I hate missing the chance to give Son Rodgers a piece of my mind.”
“All I want to do is avoid him,” I assure him. “I’m not interested in a confrontation at this point. Especially now, with him and Dory back together.”
“Still no idea how that miraculous event came about?” Rye asks, watching me curiously.
I shrug. “None whatsoever. But I’ll see Dory tomorrow at the group meeting, and she’s promised me that we’ll talk beforehand. Have you”
Before I realize what’s happening, Rye has grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me out of the way of a large gray-haired woman who barges past us, then turns back to scowl at us for blocking the sidewalk. As we watch her walk away, I send up a thank-you to whatever gods were responsible for sending Rye strolling through the French Quarter at the very moment I turned the corner. From the first day I arrived in Fairhope, the sardonic and irreverent Rye Ballenger has been one of my dearest friends, and there’s no one I’d rather see now, after the near miss with Son. Certainly no one else understands my history with Son better than Rye does.
He and I move to stand under the jasmine-entwined arbor of a café, then Rye leans toward me to whisper in my ear, “Lord God Almighty, would you look at that! How ghastly.” He nods toward the retreating woman, who’s clad in a hot-pink T shirt with flowered capri pants stretched way too tight across her very ample rear end. “I can promise you that she hails from north of the Mason-Dixon line.”
“What gives her away?” I ask with a grin, pushing my sunglasses on top of my head. “The camera hanging around her neck or the Gulf Shores T shirt?”
Brow furrowed, Rye shudders and says, “Come on, Clare. No self-respecting Southern belle would be caught dead wearing white socks with sandals, and you know it. It’s a disgrace, that’s what it is. If they are going to run us off our lovely streets, the least they could do is dress properly.”
“You’re such a snob,” I say fondly. “But you know what? I think you love it. You work hard at being the biggest snob in Baldwin County, don’t you?”
Pretending to be offended, he pulls back and drawls in his melodious, honey-toned voice, “I just happen to have my standards, is all.”
When I first met the courtly Ryman Ballenger, a cousin of my former husband’s, I thought he had to be putting me on. He has the most pronounced Southern accent I’ve ever heard, and on the Eastern Shore of Alabama, that’s saying a lot. It suits him, though, just another of his many charms. In addition to being the most breathtakingly handsome man I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, Rye is also the most elegant. He’s always seemed out of place in this offbeat, artsy little town. He should be strolling the lavish grounds of an English estate instead, trailed by a bevy of manservants and Cavalier King Charles spaniels.
“It’s strange that I ran into you just as I was running out of the coffee shop,” I say, gazing up at him. Rye is one of those people I enjoy just looking at, in the same way I might stop by an art gallery and admire a painting. “Don’t tell me you walked to town.” In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him walk anywhere. He’ll get into his big old silver Mercedes to drive a block.
He looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “Me walk to town? In this heat? I should hope not.” With a nod, he indicates a place across the street. “My car’s over there. I almost never found a parking place in this damn mob.” He points out a small shop on the corner. “I came down to pick up a print that Lou framed for me. But the mat didn’t suit me, so I had her redo it.”
“Not up to your standards, huh?” I tease him.
Rye studies me through long dark lashes, and his fine gray eyes go soft. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you. I called your cell phone not five minutes ago.”
With a grimace, I admit that I turned it off when I left the office. “You know how hard it is for me to close shop on Friday afternoons. Etta had to stand in the door to keep me from returning for some unfinished paperwork. If I’d kept my cell turned on and one of my clients called, having a crisis, I would’ve had to go running back to meet them there.”
He clucks his tongue in reproach. “Ah, Clare, what am I going to do with you? You promised me that you’d stop giving your private numbers to your clients!”
“I know...” My voice trails off, and I look up at him helplessly.
He places a hand on my shoulder. “When you didn’t answer your cell, I got concerned about you, after what happened this morning.”
“You concerned about me? That’s a switch, since I’m officially the one who gets to worry about everybody else. It’s in my job description.”
“You can worry your pretty head off about whomever you want, my dear Clare, but I’m in charge of you.”
“How very touching,” I say, trying to keep my voice light. “I assume you’re referring to a certain letter in this morning’s paper?”
“So you’ve seen it?” With a worried frown, Rye reaches into his pocket and pulls out a clipping. “I have it with me, so if anyone dares to say anything about it, I can tell them what a bunch of hogwash it is.”
“I’ve seen it,” I tell him dismally. I arrived at my office early this morning, bringing the local paper to read while waiting for my first client. Like most weeklies, The Fairhoper is the perfect antidote to the grim headlines of the national news. Unless we’ve had one of our infamous hurricanes, the articles are full of small-town dramas that can be heartwarming but are more often unintentionally comic. Dory and I will call each other to read some of the more priceless ones aloud. Her favorite remains the obituary written about a certain Mr. McMillan, who is said to have died in his sleep so peacefully that it didn’t wake him or Mrs. McMillan, either one. The human interest stories are usually pretty good, but last month I was embarrassed to find myself named Fairhope’s Citizen of the Month. To my further embarrassment, one of this morning’s letters to the editor, which I read in dismay, referred to my award:
This letter is written to protest your choice of August’s Citizen of the Month, a self-proclaimed divorce “coach.” The honor was based on the national attention that has come this woman’s way, praising her innovative methods of divorce recovery. I have to wonder if those retreats of hers, held right here in our own conference center, actually do more to promote divorces than to help people get over them. Surely if folks were encouraged to work on their marriages instead, the disgracefully high divorce rates in our country would go down. I hope next month’s choice will better reflect the ideals of our community and country. The letter was signed by Oscar T. Allen, a “concerned” citizen whom I’d not had the pleasure of meeting, fortunately.
Rye stands with his hands on his hips, scowling. “I can’t tell you how furious I am. And you’ve got to be, too, though you won’t let on. I know how you operate. In spite of all your degrees, you hide your feelings like the rest of us.”
“You know better than that.” I can’t resist adding with a sly smile, “I’d never hide my feelings from you.”
“Ha!” he scoffs. “You could’ve fooled me.”
“You’ve lived here all your life, and you know everyone in town, so tell me who Oscar T. Allen is.”
“He’s a damned nitwit, that’s who he is. The good thing is, no one will take him seriously, because we all know he’s batty.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Well, I have to say I’m glad to hear that he’s a crackpot. It could’ve been a pretty damaging indictment otherwise. The reference to the conference center makes my work sound sleazy, like those fly-by-night operations that breeze into town and rent a seminar room at the Holiday Inn. Calling me a divorce coach, which I’ve never been, implies that I find confused, unhappy women and teach them the secrets of pulling off a successful divorce, feathering my nest in the process.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Rye agrees, his eyes blazing. “But don’t even think about it harming you professionally. You’re too highly respected for that. The newspaper allowing the letter to be printed is what made me so mad.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m surprised that this is the first attack I’ve had.”
“I don’t like anyone going after my girl,” he says gently. “As soon as I read the paper, I called Clyde Ayers and gave him a piece of my mind. I’m sick of him giving voice to every ignorant Bible thumper who picks up a pen. Clyde proceeded to lecture me on First Amendment rights. Me! Can you imagine? I reminded him that I have a law degree from Ole Miss, then hung up on him.”
“Oh, Rye.” Frowning, I put a hand on his arm. “You and Clyde Ayers have been buddies forever. I don’t want you losing any friends on my account. It’s not that big a deal.”
“Just as I thought. You’re trying to blow it off.”
“I’m not!” I tell him, giving his arm a shake. “As soon as I ran into you, so to speak, I knew you’d make me feel better, and you already have.”
He regards me for a long moment, then says in a soft voice, “You know I’d do anything for you.”
“You’re such a dear friend.” It’s difficult to meet his gaze without blushing like a fool. In addition to everything else that went on this past summer, Rye and I had a rather unsettling evening that neither of us has mentioned since. We need to discuss it at some point, but I chicken out every time I see him.
“And then there was the other thing, in Miss Dingbat’s column,” Rye goes on. “I can only imagine what your reaction was to that one.”
“After the letter, I didn’t read any further,” I admit. “What’s she done this time?” The society column, “Fairhope’s Fairest,” is penned by a woman who uses the moniker Ernestine Hemingway, apparently with no idea that it makes her sound like a drag queen. Guess she figures it gives her more literary credibility than her real name, Ima June Hicks.
“Oh, her column was worse than usual.” He glances around before taking my arm and pulling me closer to the shelter of the little café. “While Dory and Son were in Europe, he sent a postcard to Ernestine, and she quoted it in her column. It was all about Fairhope’s favorite couple spending the month of August on a second honeymoon in France. Ernestine went on to say that they were taking in the sights but mostly gazing into each other’s eyes. It was beyond nauseating.”
“Oh, Lord!” I wail. “It’s pure propaganda on Son’s part. No, I take that back. ‘Propaganda’ is much too long a word for his vocabulary.”
Rye regards me sternly, his head tilted to the side. “I’ve told you, Clare, that Son will get the best of you if you keep dismissing him by claiming he’s not very bright. It’s all a part of his good-old-boy act. He’s crazy like a fox. Have you seen Dory since they got back?” When I shake my head, he lowers his voice conspiratorially and says, “I ran into the happy couple last night, having dinner at the Yacht Club, and she seemed fine, in spite of all he put her through last year. She looked more beautiful than ever.” His gray eyes are suddenly dreamy. “But Dory always does, doesn’t she?”
“I’m sure Prince Charming was working the room, kissing ass all over the place, just like he was doing a few minutes ago at the coffee shop.”
“Even worse,” Rye says in disgust. “With Dory back by his side, he was beaming like he’d just scored the winning touchdown in an Alabama–Auburn game. He held on to Dory’s arm and didn’t let her out of his sight all night.”
“Hovering over Dory? That’s so unlike Son,” I say sarcastically.
“When I approached their table to welcome them back, he did something that really surprised me.”
“Told you that scientists have discovered someone with a lower IQ than he has?”
Rye sighs in exasperation before telling me, “He jumped to his feet and hugged me like a long-lost brother.”
“Oh, please!” I groan. “Thank God I wasn’t there. A performance like that would gag a maggot.”
He regards me with a troubled expression. “I know how disappointed you were when they got back together. Both of us were.”
“After the last stunt Son pulled, I thought for sure that she was through with him. Dory may be perfect in every other way, but her taste in men leaves something to be desired.”
“You expect too much of people, my dear. Of all of us. You always have.” Rye says it casually, without censure, but it stings anyway.
“Maybe I do,” I reply weakly.
We avoid each other’s eyes until I say, “Listen, I’ve got to go. Dory’s coming to the group tomorrow morning, and I’ll let you know how it goes, okay?” Before putting an arm around his shoulder and kissing him goodbye, I add with real regret, “If only she’d had the good sense to marry you, instead of Son, when she had the chance! You wouldn’t still be looking for the one who got away, and Dory would’ve had a good man instead of a pain in the butt like Son.”
With a seemingly nonchalant smile, Rye shrugs. “You’re right about one thing: I’ve spent my life searching for the right woman.” We fall silent, then he says wistfully, “Why don’t you change your mind and come to the party with me tonight? Be good for you.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you,” I say breezily. “Think what it’d do to your social life to be seen with Fairhope’s most notorious homewrecker.”
“It’d be worth it.”
“I’m busy tonight and couldn’t go even if I wanted to. Which I don’t.”
He takes me by the arm as though to lead me to one of the wrought-iron tables of the outdoor café. “Let’s sit down,” he says. “I need a smoke bad.” At my expression, he flinches. “No lectures, sweetheart. Eventually I’ll honor my promise to quit, but not now. Smoking calms my nerves.”
“You’ve been saying that for years, Rye! You ought to have the calmest nerves in the state of Alabama. I’ll put that on your tombstone: ‘He died of calm nerves.’”
“Okay, okay. I won’t have a cigarette, then --- we’ll get a glass of sherry instead.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to get home.” Twisting my wrist sideways, I look down at my watch. “Oh, Jesus, I’m running late as it is.”
He eyes me suspiciously, tilting his head. “You’re two-timing me, aren’t you, Clare? Running off with your new boyfriend, that Yankee sea captain. He’s the real reason you won’t go with me tonight, isn’t he?”
“I told you why I didn’t want to go,” I say flippantly. “If I had to get all dressed up, then make small talk with that snooty crowd you hang around, I’d jump off the municipal pier.”
“You’re not only heartless, you have no manners, either.” Following my lead, Rye goes back to his playful bantering. “It’s rude to say that you don’t want to go. You should make up an excuse that won’t hurt my feelings.”
Leaning over, I brush his cheek with my lips, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, phooey. Nobody in their right mind likes going to cocktail parties. Well, except you, maybe.”
Returning my kiss, he smells delicious, his shaving lotion like rare spices. Holding me close for a minute, he whispers in my ear before releasing me, “You’re not fooling me, you know. On my way into town, I drove by your house. Your sea captain is already there. That god-awful vehicle he drives is parked out front.”
“Good. We’re going to the Landing, and as you well know, we’ll need the Jeep. I’m leaving now, my friend. Have a good time at your snotty party tonight. Oh --- and by the way, you don’t fool me, either. I’m sure you won’t be going to the party alone.”
“Anytime I’m not with you, my dear girl, I might as well be alone.” He says it with that devastating smile of his, the one that’s left a trail of broken hearts all across the South.
“Oh, God,” I groan. “With that corny line, I’m definitely leaving. See you later, okay?”
At the corner of the alley leading out of the French Quarter, I turn to wave goodbye. Rye’s still standing on the sidewalk, his hands thrust into the pockets of his straw-colored trousers as he watches me leave. When I wave, he mouths, “Two-timer,” and I chuckle, rolling my eyes before turning onto Church Street, toward my house.
Excerpted from QUEEN OF BROKEN HEARTS © Copyright 2011 by Cassandra King. Reprinted with permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.
Queen of Broken Hearts