The construction of Cherico’s cutting-edge library has been an epic struggle worthy of War and Peace. But the Grand Opening Ceremony is scheduled at last—for the Fourth of July no less—featuring lakeside fireworks and a concert by country singer Waddell Mack. Maura Beth has even devised a cooking contest among area chefs and aspiring Julia Childs to crown the Queen of the Cookbooks. Yet even Maura Beth’s careful plotting can’t prevent some glitches…
Between a furniture fiasco that requires some creative problem-solving, and front-desk clerk Renette’s major crush on Waddell Mack, there’s equal parts drama and comic relief. Once the ribbon has been cut and the delicious recipes are judged, the Queen of the Cookbooks will take her crown, and the Cherry Cola Book Club, along with Maura Beth and her staff, will have the library of their dreams. But it’ll take luck, loyal friendships, and the shared love of a powerful story to make this a truly happy beginning…
Praise for The Cherry Cola Book Club novels
“An intrepid librarian, a book club feast, and a cozy, heart-warming Mississippi mystery—what's not to love?” --Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
“Lee’s buoyant David-versus-Goliath tale zestfully illuminates a real problem confronting libraries and cities of all sizes.” --Booklist
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Queen of the Cookbooks
By ASHTON LEE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Ashton Lee
All rights reserved.
Out of the Rain
Would it ever stop raining in Cherico, Mississippi? First, the winter storms had come with a vengeance, never letting up, even bringing occasional fits of ice and snow. After all, this was the extreme northeast corner of the Magnolia State — might as well have been Tennessee as the crow flies. Then, March and April had rolled in with the promise of a letup, but no such thing had happened. There had been the usual clashes between the warm air of the Gulf and the Alberta clippers that had roared down like freight trains with tornadic results. Fortunately, Cherico had avoided the physical damage but not the thorough soakings. Lake Cherico, where Maura Beth McShay's new state-of-the-art library was struggling toward completion, was as high and muddy as anyone could remember in recent memory. Fishing had become somewhat of a lost cause, at least until the water table was lowered and the fish could see the lures.
So here it was May, and the rain was continuing, as if sticking its tongue out at Maura Beth's plans for her long-anticipated Grand Opening on the Fourth of July. There was so much riding on the celebration: an elaborate, hour-long fireworks display, followed by a concert, thanks to the generosity of sexy, young country music star Waddell Mack. It was he who had secured the location of the Spurs 'R' Us cowboy boot plant in the town's new industrial park, thereby reversing Cherico's recent economic spiral; even if the rainy weather was also slowing down construction of the manufacturing facility itself. Worse yet, having the library ready to open to the public was beginning to seem doubtful at this point, and Cherico's favorite young redheaded librarian was letting her nerves get the better of her.
"I have to get away from all this. I mean — we have to get away," she told her husband, Jeremy, one rainy May evening at the dinner table inside their Painter Street cottage. "No cell phones, no texting, no way for anybody to get in touch with us — we just leave the Cherico universe behind for a while. Something tells me it's vital that I do this right now."
He looked up from cutting the fried green tomato on his plate, grinning as if he'd just heard some inside joke. It was part of the playful ribbing they had developed since they had become a married couple. "Tell me the truth. You aren't hearing voices in your head, are you?"
Like the good husband that he was, however, Jeremy knew when to stop kidding around and take his wife seriously. "How long have you been thinking about this, Maurie, and where exactly do you want to go? Do you have one of those Triple A itineraries mapped out?" He dipped the manageable bite of tomato into his reservoir of remoulade sauce and happily munched away at the down-home appetizer his wife had managed to perfect in recent months.
She had even given her sudden interest in cooking a name — My Post-Honeymoon Recipe Period. She had christened it with a perky smile one afternoon in her bright yellow kitchen with the potted palms that she had inherited from the previous owner — Miss Voncille Nettles — now Mrs. Locke Linwood. Where the impetus had come from, she could not say. But suddenly, all she wanted to do was try out new dishes on her husband of nine blissful months. He would be her culinary guinea pig, and so far nothing she had prepared for him had backfired on the two of them: grilled fish, pork and beef, stir-fries, casseroles, overstuffed sandwiches, sorbets, cookies, cakes and pies. Of course, the reality was — everything always tasted good where true love was involved. To a point.
"No, I don't have any definite place in mind. I just mean I absolutely need a day off," she continued, tapping her index finger on the table for emphasis. "Every time I go out to the construction site all full of energy and hope with a vision of the library being completed on schedule, all I get is more bad news — or rather no news that amounts to anything from The Stump."
Maura Beth leaned back, making him wait just a bit for the payoff. "Oh, that's what I've decided to call that sweaty, tobacco-spitting foreman, Kyle Hoskins. Every time I ask him a question about anything, he never has an answer. 'When will that new flashing for the roof be in?' I'll ask. And he'll say, 'Not sure, ma'am. Last time I called about it, they just hemmed and hawed.' And then he'll spit. Or I'll ask him, 'What about the furniture?' And he'll mumble, 'Still can't say, ma'am. There's been some mix-up at their warehouse, they told me.' Then he'll spit again." Maura Beth narrowed her eyes, looking like a hungry feline about to ambush her prey. "He's not just always stumped, I believe he's as dumb as a stump."
Jeremy snickered, screwing up his handsome features in the process. "The official saying is 'dumb as a fence post.'"
Maura Beth frowned at first, but her features eventually morphed into a skeptical smile. "You high school English teachers. You have to nitpick the language to death, don't you? Anyway, getting back to my original thought. What would you think of just taking a day off, jumping into The Warbler, and driving somewhere — not particularly caring where it is."
Jeremy beamed at the mention of his souped-up yellow Volvo, which he considered his one and only guy-toy, finished the last of his fried green tomatoes, and sat with her question for a while. "Do you want to spend the night and then get under the sheets and make a little of our rockin' good lovin'? I'm always up for a session of that big-time, you know."
"Depends on how far away from home we end up. What I really want to do is play it by ear. Be totally spontaneous. No cataloging, ordering books, reading reviews, or doing anything related to being a librarian for just one day. Because the truth is, all this waiting around for the new library to open makes me feel like I'm going to give birth, if you catch my drift."
He nodded with a brief smile, but then a hint of consternation flashed across his face. "You know, maybe I should go out to the construction site with you next time. I wonder if The Stump would be a little more forthcoming if a man asked him all the questions you've been asking. Sounds to me like he doesn't take you seriously. Do you think he might actually be one of those male chauvinist pigs who doesn't want a woman within shouting distance of his daily routine? And God forbid there should ever be a female on his sacred crew."
Maura Beth shook her head and abruptly held up her right hand like a school crossing guard trying to prevent a restless child from darting into traffic. "The last thing I want is for you to start anything up with that quick temper of yours. I didn't marry you because of your macho qualities. I mean, I know you have them, and there are times when they've come in handy, but it's the man who kisses me on the eyelids before he makes insane love to me that I'll proudly claim."
"I won't turn that compliment down."
"I'm sure. Besides, I can always go to City Hall and ask our dear Councilman Sparks for the inside story."
Jeremy's features hardened at the mention of the man's name. The time-honored phrase "fightin' words" flitted across his mind, and his fingers curved inward slightly as if he were getting ready to make a fist. "I can remember a time when Councilman Sparks made a career out of keeping you in the dark on everything. You were his everyday obsession. You know, it still definitely gets under my skin that he wanted to get rid of the library so you'd have to come and work as his secretary with those good ole boy perks for him on the side. What a sleazebag!"
"But that didn't happen, and those days of him trying to intimidate me are over. I think Waddell Mack bringing Spurs 'R' Us to town has given our fearful leader a new outlook on life with all those jobs and new people on the horizon. I really think he's finally called a truce."
"If you say he's waved the white flag, then fair enough," Jeremy said. Then he leaned in, returning to the issue as yet unresolved. "So when did you think you wanna get outta Dodge?"
"As soon as possible. Let's say — tomorrow. Renette handles Saturdays just fine — she always does. She's wise beyond her nineteen years — well, except for ..." The pregnant pause was not lost on Jeremy, who had observed more than once what an asset the efficient, sweet-natured teenager had become to his Maurie as her chief assistant and most-reliable front desk clerk.
"Except for what?"
Maura Beth exhaled quickly and made a dismissive gesture with her hands. "Well, I haven't made a big deal out of it, but our little Renette Posey has had this mad crush on Waddell Mack since he first came to Cherico last year. You might remember that I got her a seat at that dinner our Periwinkle threw for him and his band down at The Twinkle. Renette's been gaga over him ever since. Says she's bought all his CDs and has a poster or two of him hung on her bedroom wall."
Maura Beth paused, lowered her voice, and began talking out of the side of her mouth. "If you ask me, she's become a genuine Waddell Mack, country music, long-distance groupie."
"That can happen with nineteen-year-olds. I assume it's not interfering with her work?"
Maura Beth brought her napkin up from her lap and dropped it to the side of her plate. "Well, no. I suppose her fascination with him is harmless enough. I guess I worry about her a little too much. She confides in me all the time at work, and it's mostly unsolicited. The thing is, I've discovered she doesn't have a very good relationship with her parents. They're very judgmental, hard-line churchgoers. One of those really quirky, generic-sounding denominations that I've never heard of before — Church of the Eternal Something-or-Other, if I recall. It's tucked away out in the bushes somewhere, but I can vouch for the problems she has with her parents. The Poseys came to the library once but haven't been back since. After they'd browsed around for a while, they approached me and said they'd found certain books on the shelves they didn't approve of — even thought should be removed."
"This should be good. Such as?"
"Would you believe Harry Potter for starters?"
"No, I wouldn't. You mean to tell me that a boy wizard fighting for justice set them off?"
Maura Beth turned slightly toward one of the potted palms Voncille Nettles Linwood had left behind in their bright yellow kitchen, as if searching for inspiration and the strength to continue. The Poseys had worked every nerve in her body. "They claimed all the Harry Potter books were promoting witchcraft. Of course, I'd read about that line of reasoning before — if you can call it that. Then, they ranted and raved about our books on Halloween for the same reason. Even innocent little books on making original costumes and planning children's parties kept them going. They wanted those gone, too, since they were the work of the Devil, they said. I suppose I've been lucky in that I've yet to have a challenge to anything in our collection before that little encounter with them. You'd think it would be something of a more serious, reasonable nature, though. But I told them that while I respected their right to their views, I could not in good conscience remove those books for the reasons they'd given me. I told them as nicely as I could that the overwhelming majority of our patrons simply didn't feel the same way they did."
"And what did they say to that?"
"They actually threatened to picket the library. Both the old one and the new one when it opened up."
Jeremy gave her an incredulous stare. "Ambitious, aren't they? Well, how did you handle that?"
"I was rather proud of myself, actually," she told him, with an imperious grin. "I invited them to browse the collection and find books that appealed to them and their views and check them out. 'Our books on religion and spirituality are quite diverse,' I told them. And then I finished with, 'If there's a particular book you don't like, no one will force you to check it out, I can assure you.' "
"Did they buy it?"
Maura Beth shrugged. "Who knows? I did what I could do. I directed them to the two hundreds. Then I walked away, thanking them for their input and hoping that I'd put out the fire. Although something tells me I haven't heard the last of them. What a can of worms that is — letting any of your patrons censor what's available to the public. The last time we discussed her parents, Renette said they definitely didn't approve of her new interest in country music. Told her they thought it was 'trashy,' I believe she put it, and that the only kind of music she should be listening to was hymns sung by a choir in church. Anything else was just way beyond the pale."
Jeremy had a distasteful look on his face. "So? She doesn't have to live with them. She has her own apartment, right?"
"Yes, but you've gotten to know Renette a little. She wears her heart on her sleeve. When she gets enthusiastic about something, her emotions just spill over. She probably never should have told her parents about the Waddell Mack thing. She says the last time she went over to their house for dinner, they practically gave her the third degree about the kind of music she was listening to. She told me she lied to them and said she'd thrown all her Waddell Mack stuff away, and they just bowed their heads and said, 'Ay-men. Our little girl is saved.'"
Jeremy was shaking his head vigorously now. "Wow! That sounds like a train wreck of a relationship. But as long as it doesn't affect her job performance, I guess she's still good to go with you."
"I've come to think of her as a daughter in a way — even though I'm only ten years older than she is."
He put a finger to his lips thoughtfully, knowing exactly where he wanted to go. "Hold that maternal thought, Maurie. I think it's a safe bet that you'll need it eventually."
Lately, they had seriously discussed the matter of her getting pregnant. Was it too soon, or did they want to wait a little longer to become parents? Both her parents, Cara Lynn and William Mayhew, as well as his, Paul and Susan McShay, had been pressuring them not so subtly on the subject of becoming grandparents. When could they all expect a blessed event? Would it be sooner rather than later? Oh, and please let them know the minute they knew! They had booties to knit and names to suggest and a hundred other things to consider that were always the purview of grandparents. It was high time they perfected the art of spoiling, Cara Lynn, for one, had pointed out.
"We could start playing the ovulation game seriously. I've had all that down for some time now," she had told him at one point recently. "That is ... if you really think we're ready."
Jeremy had told her that he thought they should wait until she was good and settled in the new library — the Charles Durden Sparks, Crumpton, and Duddney Public Library, it was going to be called. But although Cherico's scheming head councilman and its three most generous female benefactors — Mamie and Marydell Crumpton, along with Nora Duddney — had donated the money to make the library's construction possible, it was Maura Beth who had had the tenacity and vision to force the issue and bring Cherico into the twenty-first century. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that Jeremy was right — she needed to put this baby by the lake to bed before she considered taking on one that would involve a lifetime commitment of a different kind of love and understanding. Everything in its time. Still, there was a part of her that was definitely warming to the idea of being pregnant, and she couldn't envision herself being the least bit upset if it happened sooner rather than later.
"All right, then, you've convinced me," Jeremy continued at the table, sounding very much like the man in charge that he was. "We'll load up The Warbler and head for the hills ... or the swamps ... or the Delta ... or whatever part of Mississippi we happen to end up in tomorrow. We can pack our lunches together. And if you say you need to get your mind off dealing with The Stump, you're way golden with me. Just remember — if you think he needs a little man-to-man talking-to, you let me know, and I'll take care of it pronto."
She sat back, eyeing him with a bit of a territorial attitude and looking thoroughly pleased with herself. She had always been attracted to his intensity, even if he occasionally got too carried away and into trouble because of it. Intelligence was certainly something to admire, but a woman also needed to know that her man would stand up for her in a physical way when necessary. "I knew there was a reason I married you. A man who likes to listen to a woman is a rare treasure, you know. Matter of fact, a man who likes to listen period is rare. I have to say, you've done a pretty good job of it as we've been sitting here."
He cupped a hand around his right ear playfully. "Hey, it's what I do for a living — I listen to all those teenybopper students of mine all day long and try to cope with the fallout. I think I've gotten pretty good at it, if you ask me."
Excerpted from Queen of the Cookbooks by ASHTON LEE. Copyright © 2016 Ashton Lee. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - Out of the Rain,
2 - Out of the Woodwork,
3 - Free-for-All,
4 - Couches and Cushions and Chairs, Oh My!,
5 - Great Day in the Morning,
6 - Food Fight,
7 - Coronation of a Queen,
8 - Dressed for Fireworks,
9 - Jailbait,
10 - The Rabble-Rouser,
11 - Three,
12 - Signs of the Times,
13 - Pigeon Peas, Please!,
14 - Buns in the Oven,
Recipes: And the Winners Are ...,
QUEEN OF THE COOKBOOKS,