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Southern Charmed

Chapter 1

I slammed the car door and flinched, not because it was loud but because if Mom had heard it she was going to give me her “You know better than that” look. Guidrys do not slam doors. But maybe if she’d had a day like mine, she’d know that I had earned a good car-door slam. It had helped a tiny bit, in the way Bible swears did, but what I really needed was a head or two to catch in the slamming. Like, for example, a wedding belle’s head. Maybe Jorie’s since her wedding was up next and she was therefore driving people the craziest.

Sundays were supposed to be a day of rest, but once the sacrament was passed, it became the most aggravating day of my week, which was saying something for a high school teacher.

I climbed the front porch and inhaled as I passed the jasmine creeping up the columns on either side of the veranda. Purest form of aromatherapy, right there in Mom’s climbing vines.

I set my church bag on the antique sideboard in the foyer and called out, “I’m here, Mom.”

“In here,” she said from the kitchen, but I was already heading there. She always cooked up a beautiful Sabbath dinner, even though it was just the two of us now that Brady was on a mission and Logan was back at BYU–Idaho. I wasn’t used to that yet. Since Dad had died two years before, the ritual of the weekly dinners was one of Mom’s only anchors, so I ate, even when my throat wanted to close up every time I glanced at Dad’s empty chair.

I winced at the serving bowls and dishes covering the counter. It was more than either of us could eat between now and Wednesday. I kissed her on the cheek and sniffed the air. “I thought you were making a roast. I smell crawfish.” I eyed the cast-iron skillet on the stovetop and tried not to hope.

“Good evenin’ to you too, Lila-girl. I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it home for supper.”

“My presidency meeting ran late. I texted you.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Just pick up and call me. You know I hate fooling with texts.”

“You’ll learn.”

“What’s the point of being Relief Society president if you can’t end those meetings when you want to?”

“It was Jorie. I tried to talk about increasing class participation during lessons, and she started talking about the ballroom dance lessons she and Del are taking for their first dance.”

I plucked a warm jalapeno cheddar biscuit from the bread bowl and popped a piece in my mouth. “It’s sad how happy food makes me.”

“You wouldn’t turn to biscuits if you’d get yourself married.”

Jalapeno cheddar biscuit were the upside to Sunday dinner. Marriage lectures were the major downside. I engaged in evasive maneuvers. “You were going to tell me about the crawfish.”

She quirked an eyebrow at me but let me get away with it. “I decided to do a crawfish étouffée.”

“Is the bishop coming for dinner?” She usually only made it for him or for out-of-town dinner guests she wanted to give a taste of Louisiana cooking.

“Can’t I make it because it’s your favorite?”

“Gumbo is my favorite.”

“I’m not feeding twenty people,” she said, slapping my hand as I reached for another biscuit. “Gumbo’s too much trouble for a little ole dinner, and you know it. Take that bread bowl out to the deck. It’s nice enough to eat outside.” She scooped up the salad bowl and waited to follow me. “Now, if you want a gumbo, find a husband and make me some grandbabies, and I’ll cook a gumbo every week to feed all y’all.”

“So you’re saying rather than make one and freeze the extra in Ziploc bags, the easiest way for me to get gumbo is to raise enough children that we don’t have leftovers.”

“Yes, sass mouth, that’s right.”

Sometimes we could go back and forth about this for an hour, but I sighed and told her what she wanted to hear just to get it over with. “Of course I want to get married, Mom.” I opened the french door to the deck. She shooed me ahead of her, but I spoke to her over my shoulder so we could be done with this when we sat down to eat. “I want to get married the way LSU wants another football championship, but it’s not like I haven’t tried.”

Someone clearing their throat stopped me cold, and I whipped around to see Max Archer rising from the beautifully set patio table. I nearly dropped the bowl of biscuits. Had he heard me? Because even a non-SEC-dwelling football amateur like himself knew that no one wanted anything more than the Tigers wanted the national championship. He refused to meet my eyes as he looked past me to Mom. Great. He’d definitely heard me. For a split second, I considered walking down to the lake and sticking my head in it.

“Can I help you bring something out, Sister Guidry?” he asked, still not looking at me.

“Oh, no. You’re a guest. Sit back down.”

“Actually, could you go get the mashed sweet potatoes?” I asked. “They’re on the counter in the kitchen.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Sure he does, Mom. You’re always doing too much.”

“I’ll be right back.” He almost sprinted for the kitchen. Smart guy.

“What is he doing here, Mother?” I asked.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, Lila Mae.”

“What tone do you think I’m taking?”

She marched past me and set the salad on the table.

“Mom? If my tone sounds like I’m trying to figure out the best place to set these biscuits while I strangle you, then I sound exactly like I mean to sound. Why would you invite him here?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Lila. Maybe it’s because you didn’t you tell me he was back in town. Maybe if you’d kept me up to date on that, I wouldn’t need him to come over so I could catch up on how he’s doing.”

“He’s doing fine. Can we give him a biscuit and make him leave now that you know?”

“Oh, I’m not even close to done with that young man.” The door opened behind us, and Max stepped out with the crock of sweet potatoes. Mom smiled at him. “Set those on the trivet and have a seat. I’ll go get the étouffée. You two go on and catch up while I get dinner.”

If Brady had been here, I’d have bet him twenty bucks that she’d take longer than any human had ever taken to transport a pot from the kitchen to the patio. I sat and gave Max my fakest smile. “Don’t make fun of the étouffée.”

“Why would I make fun of it?”

I only stared at him.

He sighed. “I know you teach history, but you have to know enough math to realize my Louisiana bashing days are ten years behind me, right?”

“How did you know I teach history?”

“Your mom told me.”

Another panic-worthy thought struck me. “How long have y’all been waiting for me?” He could have come over right after church, and who knows what Mom had been telling him while I was gone. I mean, not that she could tell him anything more embarrassing about my desperation to get married than I’d blurted out myself.

“I’ve been here since five.”

“Sorry I made you wait for dinner. She didn’t tell me we were having company. I hope she’s been making you comfortable,” I said. I traced through the sweat on my glass of lemonade, wishing I had a way to ask exactly what they’d been talking about before I’d shown up. Her fears that my ovaries would shrivel before I could produce her first grandchild? How few dates I went on and how much she worried about it? The possibilities were endless. And horrible.

“Of course. Sister Guidry is awesome. She’s always been awesome.”

“You remember coming over here?” I kept my voice neutral, my biggest life victory in weeks. Dad had been the Young Men president for the three years the Archers had lived in our ward. Because we had a whole acre, plus a boat docked at the lake, the quorums would plan for at least half of their activities to be at our place. The older I’d gotten, the less I’d minded. Except for Max. I’d always minded Max. His family had lived in our ward while his dad was the president of the Baton Rouge Mission. The rest of the Archer kids were pretty cook, but Max had hated it here and had made that very clear. He’d been a punk, and from everything I’d seen since he’d shown up in the YSA ward two months before, he was quieter but still a punk.

Unfortunately, he was the only guy near my age who I hadn’t dated, and I’d known Mom would do exactly this if I’d told her he was back in town, which is why I hadn’t said a word. I guess all I could really do was thank my lucky stars that the grapevine had worked slower than usual.

“Yeah. Your dad showed me how to use a jigsaw for my eighth-grade science fair project. He had a cool workshop. I was sorry to hear he died.”

“Thank you,” I said, even though the word died jolted me. Max was always like that though. Where we spoke of someone passing, Max used hard words like died. Where we said someone had gotten sick after a Church social, he’d flat out say they puked. He’d thought our manners were stupid, most especially our way of phrasing things.

The Archers were from Philadelphia, and even though Baton Rouge had over a half million people, he never missed a chance to tell us how backward he thought we were, like we were a hick town and not the capitol of the state. In high school, everything had been about how Philadelphia was better and their teams were better and how Baton Rouge didn’t even have pro teams. That had gotten him in trouble with the boys.

But the girls . . . Max was a tease, a mean one, making fun of everything from our accent to the way we dressed. He’d talked to us in an exaggerated redneck drawl, a corruption of the soft Southern lilts I’d grown up listening to. He’d been a jerk. And by the time I’d gone to my first stake dance, he’d taken even massive jerkdom to a whole new level.

I didn’t have the energy to dredge up that memory. “I don’t remember you loving your time here. Why come back?”

“Work.”

“Taggart Industries, right? They’re huge. Too bad you got stuck here when they have so many other offices.”

“I’m not stuck,” he said. “I chose this assignment.”

“Why?” I asked way more bluntly than I would have in front of Mom.

“It’s a good step in my career right now.”

“You must really care about your work if you’re willing to come back and put up with us hicks.”

“I don’t think you’re hicks.”

“Yew shore about that?” I drawled in my best hick voice as Mom stepped back outside with the étouffée.

“Speak like you appreciate the education I paid for, Lila.” She set the pot down and didn’t see Max’s grin at her scolding. But I saw it and dug my fingers into my armrests. He may have fooled Mom with his nice manners, but I’d seen him week after week in sacrament meeting, aloof, refusing to engage with anyone, still acting like he was above it all.

“You’ve had crawfish étouffée before, haven’t you?” she asked him.

“No, ma’am.”

Ma’am? Hm. I’d give him one brownie point for that. He’d gotten a truckload of demerits at school for not saying sir and ma’am because “No one in Philly worried about stuff like that.”

“How is it possible that your family lived here three years and you never had étouffée?” I asked.

Light pink dusted the tops of his cheekbones, then faded. “A lot of people offered it, but I was a pretty stubborn kid, especially about food.”

“You’ll try it now though.” Mom didn’t phrase it as a question.

“Looking forward to it. I served my mission in Madagascar. That cured me of my picky phase.”

“Oh, Madagascar!” Mom loved hearing about mission experiences, especially now that Brady had been out for a year. “Tell us about that.”

He did, telling her about a time they’d gone tracting at a house at dinner time and ended up eating mofo, which was some kind of sweet fritter thing. While he spoke, he watched me scoop rice onto my plate before ladling the étouffée over the top, the creamy tomato sauce full of juicy crawfish bits. By the time everything had been passed to him, he dished his plate like he’d eaten étouffée a hundred times.

I watched him to see how he liked the crawfish. It was about an eighty-twenty split when the missionaries came over. It sort of depended on how they felt about shellfish in general, but eighty percent of them popped their eyes wide after the first bite, like the étouffée was a revelation, and barely held back shouts of praise. The other twenty smiled politely and powered through it, but you could tell it was a chore, bless their hearts.

I shook my head. I would never understand not loving crawfish. It was one of nature’s best gifts.

“Sister Guidry, this is honestly amazing. I wish I could go back in time and slap myself for not eating any when we lived here.”

I wouldn’t mind going back in time and slapping him myself, actually. I owed him big time.

Mom ladled more étouffée over his rice, even though he’d taken only a few bites. He didn’t look like he minded in the least. If he was faking, I couldn’t tell. I listened while he answered Mom’s questions about his job. It sounded like he enjoyed what he did—something about being a plant operations manager. He ate his whole plate of food, plus two biscuits, a heaping serving of sweet potatoes, and an ear of roasted corn in between answers.

“Well, that’s just fascinating,” Mom said, patting at the corner of her mouth with her napkin before setting it down and pushing her chair back. “I always respect when someone loves their job. Like Lila. She’s such a gifted teacher. You should ask her about it.” She stood to pick up the nearly empty bread bowl, and both Max and I rose to help her, Max nearly knocking his chair over in his rush.

“Y’all sit down,” she said. “It does me good to fuss over you. Rest a little.”

She disappeared into the house, and not even cricket chirps broke the silence she left in her wake. All I could hear was the distant lap of the lake against the shore.

He cleared his throat again, and it reminded me of the same awkward sound he’d made when I’d burst onto the porch blabbing about wanting to get married. I didn’t realize I was glaring at him until he gave me a small smile, and I forced my face into a more neutral expression.

“So you got stuck after church today?”

“Yeah. Meetings. I love meetings.” I’d recently calculated that I spent roughly twenty percent of my time in meetings, between school and my Church calling. That was about eighteen percent more time than I felt like spending.

“Elders quorum presidency meetings don’t tend to go very long. Or at least they didn’t when I was in there.”

“Good for you.” Mine wouldn’t go so long either if Jorie wouldn’t constantly derail us with wedding chatter. She was a force of nature, specifically a wedding tornado.

He grimaced. “I wasn’t implying that I was the reason mine were short. Our president was really efficient. I think he made it his life goal to have the shortest meetings possible.”

Was he for real? “Guess I have a new skill to look forward to developing.”

He rubbed his forehead. “That didn’t come out right either. I meant that in general you girls—uh, women—put way more into your Relief Society callings than I think we do as guys sometimes, so it makes sense that you would have to spend a lot more time planning and . . . whatever.” He’d obviously decided he’d better stop talking before he choked on his foot.

I shrugged. Fine. He didn’t mean to be insulting. I wasn’t going to give him a medal for it, especially since I’d watched his disdain for my city and our ward simmer barely beneath the surface for the last eight Sundays.

Mom stepped back out, intent on getting more dishes to wash. This time I was determined to escape him. “I’ve got it,” I said, lifting the half-empty pot of étouffée from the table. “I mean it. I’ve sat all afternoon between church, meetings, and dinner. I want to move.”

She lifted the pot from my hands. “You two go on a walk. Take Max to the pier. It’s a beautiful evening.”

The time had changed the week before, giving us an extra hour of daylight, but we weren’t even close to long, lazy evenings of mellow sunset yet. It was already dusk, and lights winked on across the lake every few minutes. “It’s too dark,” I said.

“Don’t be silly. Your daddy and I loved sitting there, watching everyone’s lights come on. It kind of reminds me of stars. Go on ahead. I don’t mind doing the dishes.”

I couldn’t stare her down with Max standing right there, so I smiled as I figured out how to get around her. “Would you like to go on a walk, Max?” It was the perfect chance for him to excuse himself to go home.

“Sure.”

“I unders—wait, you do want to go on a walk?”

“Yeah. Sounds relaxing. When my mom calls tonight, she’ll be happy to hear I did something besides work and sleep.”

I slid my shoes off and set them beside my chair. “You’re probably going to want to do this barefoot. It’s muddy down by the water, and I wouldn’t want you to mess up your church shoes.” Undeterred, he slipped his shoes off and tucked his socks inside them.

Great.