Monday, October 5, 2015

First Chapter Reveal: A Peach of a Pair by Kim Boykin

Title: A Peach of a Pair
Author: Kim Boykin
Publisher: Penguin Random House/Berkley Books
Pages: 304
Genre: Southern Women’s Fiction

"Palmetto Moon" inspired "The Huffington Post" to rave, It is always nice to discover a new talented author and Kim Boykin is quite a find. Now, she delivers a novel of a woman picking up the pieces of her life with the help of two spirited, elderly sisters in South Carolina.

April, 1953. Nettie Gilbert has cherished her time studying to be a music teacher at Columbia College in South Carolina, but as graduation approaches, she can’t wait to return to her family and her childhood sweetheart, Brooks, in Alabama. But just days before her senior recital, she gets a letter from her mama telling her that Brooks is getting married . . . to her own sister.

Devastated, Nettie drops out of school and takes a job as live-in help for two old-maid sisters, Emily and Lurleen Eldridge. Emily is fiercely protective of the ailing Lurleen, but their sisterhood has weathered many storms. And as Nettie learns more about their lives on a trip to see a faith healer halfway across the country, she’ll discover that love and forgiveness will one day lead her home.

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Thursday, March 26, 1953

“Mail call,” old Miss Beaumont bellowed into the commons room, and a flock of girls descended on her like biddies after scratch feed. Except for me. Normally, I would have been right there with them, clamoring for news from home. But since Mother called right after the tornado hit last month to say everyone back home in Satsuma was still in one piece, there hasn’t been a single word from anyone. Not even Brooks.
It was bad enough that Hurricane Florence blew through in September and smashed much of Alabama to bits. Six months later, just when everyone was getting a handle on putting my hometown back together, a tornado roared through, undoing Satsuma all over again. And while I wanted Miss Beaumont to bellow my name, I was sure the folks back home were too busy with the cleanup to write.
On good days, the silence was unsettling, and on bad days, it turned my stomach inside out. But I knew better than to complain.
Three and a half years ago, I’d been dying to get out of the armpit of Alabama to study music and accepted a full ride to the most exclusive women’s college in South Carolina. Funny how, back then Satsuma, even Alabama herself, seemed too small for me. Now, all I can think about is moving back home, and it won’t be long, just eight weeks till graduation.
I missed my mother and Sissy like it was the first day of my freshman year. And if I let myself think of the very long list of the people I love who have stopped writing me since those awful catastrophes, I would never stop crying. And Brooks. Loyal, faithful Brooks, who loved me enough to let me go away to college, saying he would wait forever if he had to for me to be his bride. The thought of how much I loved him, missed him, made my heart literally ache with a dull pain that left me in tears.
I was sure Brooks was working himself to death, helping rebuild Satsuma, because that’s the kind of guy he was, always building something. At Christmastime, he proposed, a promise without a ring, but a promise from Brooks Carter is as certain as my next breath.
Miss Beaumont called the name of one of the catty girls who are jealous of me because I am the only ’Bama belle at Columbia College. Maybe in the whole state of South Carolina. She cut her eye around at me, waved three letters, relishing the fact that I had none. My roommate, Sue, had one clutched to her chest, praying for more as hard as I’ve prayed for word from home. Something. Anything.
Sue had badgered me to call home. Collect. I knew my family would accept the charges, but I was afraid of the news that must be so terrible, nobody could bring themselves to call the pay phone in my hallway. So I waited for letters. I craved them as much as I dreaded them.
Since I went away to college, Mama and Sissy, who just turned nineteen last month, have written me every week, sometimes twice a week. Nana Gilbert and Grandma Pope wrote just as often, always slipping in a newspaper clipping from home, sometimes a dollar bill, whenever they had it to spare. With nineteen cousins who are all tighter than a new pair of shoes, I could always count on letters from them. One day I received twenty-two, a record at the college; it was better than Christmas. And Brooks, my beloved one true love, his letters were always like Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one.
Brooks loves and knows me better than anyone. He should; we’d been sweethearts since the fourth grade. While it has been a little rough with my studying music and education here in Columbia, and him back home in Satsuma, Brooks has been the most wonderful, understanding man in the world. Of course when I got the scholarship, he wasn’t at all happy, but he knew I was working toward our future. Me a teacher, maybe even a church pianist too, him running the feed store his daddy left him.
Lots of girls here have diamonds and are getting married the moment they graduate. But Brooks and I are waiting until next summer. He said it would be a good idea to get a year of teaching experience under my belt before we’re wed. He’s always so sensible like that, forward thinking, which I am not.
“Sue Dennis,” Miss Beaumont yelled. Sue snatched the letter from her and cocked her head at me, reminding me to be hopeful. But I knew there would be nothing for me, not until Satsuma was put together again. And it must be bad back home, much worse than Mother let on for the news from home to have stopped altogether. As awful as that was, the worst part was knowing in my heart why.
I shook my head at Sue and forced a thin smile.
“Nettie Gilbert,” Miss Beaumont called like the world had not just ended. I kept my seat on the kissing couch in the common’s room. Sue jumped up and down for me, squealing, but for the life of me I couldn’t move. She grabbed the letter from Miss Beaumont’s withered old fingers and flew to my side.
“It’s from Brooks,” she gushed. “I just know it is.”
But I knew it’s wasn’t. Mother’s letter-perfect handwriting marked the front. I turned it over to see the flap she always sealed with a tiny mark, xoxo, but there was nothing. Someone was dead, their long obituary folded up inside. Someone so precious to me, no one, not even my own mother, could bear to break the news to me.
“Open it,” Sue said. She’d already read her first letter, from her beau back home in Summerville. Her face was still flush. Sometimes we read our letters to each other, but lately, she’d kept the ones from Jimmy to herself since she visited home last. Even though their June wedding was right around the corner, I suspected they did the deed the last time she was home, and her letters were too saucy to share.
On the last night of Christmas break, I’d wanted to go all the way with Brooks and would have if Sissy hadn’t fetched us from the orange grove. We’d taken a blanket there to watch the sunset. It was a perfect night. As crisp as a gulf night can be in December. The perfect time, the perfect place, but Sissy, who could never leave Brooks alone, insisted we play Parcheesi with the family. When I protested, all it took was a Mother said from her, and Brooks was folding up the blanket, putting it back in the knapsack along with my chance at becoming a woman.
“I’ll be at your graduation before you know it,” he promised when I gave him a pouty look. “And next summer, you’ll be my June bride,” he whispered like it was naughty. His breath sent chills down my thighs and made me hate Sissy, just a tiny bit.
At Christmastime, I saw the devastation from Hurricane Florence firsthand, but after the tornado roared through Satsuma a few weeks ago, I knew it was much worse. When I’d called, Mother had sworn everyone was okay. But I knew if something were wrong, if someone were terribly injured, she’d try to keep a tight lip, at least until I graduated. Partly for me because she loved me, and partly because I would be the first on both sides of my family to get my degree.
Mother had tried college, and then got married the summer after her freshman year. But I also know part of my mother was still angry at me for going so far away when I could have gone to ’Bama, which did not have a decent music program.
“Come on, Nettie, read it,” Sue chided. But my heart refused to let my hands open the letter; I passed it off to Sue as she drug me back to our room.
“Sit,” she ordered, pushing me gently down onto my bed. “You’re being silly. It’s something wonderful, I’m sure of it,” she gushed, reaching for her letter opener. She slit the top of the envelope, pulled out a small white card, and offered it to me again.
Tears raced down my face, my neck. When I pushed it away, a sheet of lined notebook paper folded into a perfect rectangle escaped from the card and fell to the floor. Sue snatched it up while scanning the card. Her smile faded, and her face was ghostly white.
“Oh, Nettie,” she whispered, unfolding the letter from my mother.
“It’s Brooks, isn’t it?” She nodded. “Oh, God.”
I threw myself across the bed, sobbing. Brooks was dead. I would never see his beautiful face. Hear his voice rumble my name. Feel his arms wrapped tight around me, making me feel adored. Safe. Loved. The life that we’d planned would never amount to anything more than just words whispered between two lovers.
“Nettie.” Sue lay down beside me, stroking my hair. “My sweet Nettie, you need to read this.”
I couldn’t. I buried my face in my pillow. She whispered how strong I was, how life wasn’t fair, how very sorry she was my heart was broken to bits, and held me until I was all cried out. After I don’t know how long, I shook my head and looked at her. “I just can’t believe Brooks is dead.”
Sue gnawed her bottom lip the way she did when she was taking a test. “He’s not dead, Nettie.” Her hand trembled as she put Mother’s letter in my hand. “He’s getting married.”
“What?” I jerked the page away from her, and the card fell onto my lap. Neat white stock with two little doves at the top. Mother might have been a farmer’s wife from Satsuma, but her well-worn etiquette book sat atop the Bible on her bedside table. And as far as Dorothy Gilbert was concerned, they were one and the same. Except the invitations weren’t sent out months in advance. They’d been done so quickly, they were not even engraved, and the wedding was four weeks away.
Brooks’s name should be below mine, but it was below Sissy’s—Jemma Renee Gilbert, glared at me, cordially inviting me to her wedding. Worse yet, the parents of Brooks and Sissy were cordially inviting me too.
“This must be some kind of a sick joke,” Sue whispered. “How can they do this to you?”
She read my mind and uttered the words I could not bring myself to say. How could they? How could Brooks?
My hands trembled so hard it was difficult to read the impeccably neat handwriting.
Dear Nettie,
It might seem cruel to send this letter along with a proper invitation, but I couldn’t bring myself to call you, and I wasn’t given much notice regarding this matter. I also know you well enough to know you would have to see the invitation to truly believe it. Although I do regret not having enough time to have them engraved.
I’m sorry to be the one to give you the news about Brooks and Sissy. I love you, Nettie, and I love your sister. I’m not condoning her behavior or the fact that she is in the family way, but you are blood. You are sisters. No man can break that bond, not even Brooks.
There’s money and a bus ticket paper-clipped to the invitation. I’ve checked the schedules. You should be able to leave Columbia on Thursday the week of the wedding after your morning classes and get back by Sunday night. I know how you hate to miss class, and if you are also missing some wonderful end-of-the-year party, I’m sorry. So very sorry.
But the milk has been spilled, Nettie. Come home and stand up with your sister. She needs you. She’s a wreck, and it makes me worry about the baby.
Just come home.

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