READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Koush Hollow, by Leigh Goff
“Beauty is a curse on the world for it keeps us from seeing who the real monsters are.”
In just a few days, we'll get to follow Jenna Ashby, a recently fatherless teen who has no choice but to relocate to Koush Hollow—a bayou town outside New Orleans, steeped in mysticism and deadly secrets...
Read the first two chapters today and be sure to pre-order your copy for release day, THIS TUESDAY!
Koush Hollow, by Leigh Goff CHAPTER ONE
After a savage farewell party in Atlanta two nights ago with drunk Hayley, Jessie, Jayson, and Max all dressed in cosplay and a six-hour drive yesterday to my mother’s house in Koush Hollow, I woke up in my new, old bedroom in tears. I’d seen my dad in the dream. I’d seen his ghostly gray eyes trying to convey a message to me I couldn’t understand. I peeled myself out of bed and stared at the window, white with fog that had condensed on the outside from the drenching Louisiana humidity.
You need to chill, Jenna, I reminded myself. It was August. I’d been allowed to stay in Atlanta to finish studying for the SAT chem exam and now the exam was over. So was my life in Atlanta.
I wiped my eyes and sighed. I was back in Koush Hollow where life moved as slowly as nuclear decay.
I shoved the grief-filled thought from my mind and turned around. I stared at the crumpled, purple bedspread that I had to have when I was five. It was still in good condition and the star pattern matched the curtains around the window. Ivory walls surrounded me and a plush ivory rug covered most of the hardwood floor. The antique white dresser was something Rayna had picked out, but I’d set my science “trophies on top to counter the fancy. And on the matching night table sat the kitschy mambo doll that Dad had given me years ago. I picked it up and lingered over it for a moment before setting it down and heading into the attached lavender bathroom. I showered and dressed before heading downstairs for breakfast.
The two-story, plantation-style house possessed a grand foyer, a sweeping staircase, and an elaborate front door just like something from Gone With the Wind, except with air conditioning. Outside, an old-fashioned portico supported by tall, alabaster columns stretched across the front. The museum-like, white interior was adorned with expensive paintings and intricate woodwork, although I had noticed spots of dry rot in the moldings where the paint had chipped away. There were six Beaux-Arts fireplaces on the main floor and an addi“tional two upstairs, not that they were ever lit because winter temperatures in Louisiana never dipped below sixty degrees.
In the quaint white kitchen that had everything a cook needed, the days-old smell of bacon and onions clung to the air. The wood floors were clean with only a few water damaged spots and the white marble countertop that once shimmered like glass had dulled over time.
Next to the coffeemaker, I spotted a pastry box from Beck-N-Call Café. I peeked inside at the fried dough pillows topped with mounds of delicate powdered sugar. I really was back. I heated up a mug of strong, black tea and sipped.
“Good morning, Jennifer. I had beignets delivered this morning for you.”
I spun around and coughed. A spurt of brown liquid trickled out and over my lower “lip, and I wiped it off with the back of my hand.
Rayna stood there in her work outfit, a black pencil skirt and buttoned-up, gray silk blouse. Her appearance was smooth and perfect, just the way she liked it. She always dressed professionally, even on the weekends, which worked for her since she had no idea how to chill. She stared at me patiently with pale eyes. “Napkin, please.” She had her voluminous, brown hair cut in a stylish bob and her strong shoulders were set squarely upon her frame.
I reached for the tea towel hanging by the sink and wiped.
“We don’t wipe, we dab and use a cloth napkin, not the kitchen towels.”
She was a stickler for good manners.
I leaned against the countertop. “Hey, Rayna, thanks for letting me stay with Chloe the last few months, so I could finish the prep course in Atlanta.”It was easier to finish the prep course in Atlanta.” I couldn’t believe she’d allowed that one. Chloe, my dad’s girlfriend, wasn’t at the top of any of Rayna’s good lists.
There was an icy pause. “You know I don’t like that.”
Oops. I’d gotten used to referring to her by her first name when I was living in Atlanta. She wasn’t the warm and fuzzy kind of mother so it seemed more natural to call her by her first name, even though she hated it. “Sorry, Mama.”
“Well, Atlanta’s behind you now.”
I knew it was, but I couldn’t say it out loud. “I plan to stay in touch with my friends, and I’m still dating Max. It’s just gonna be long distance.” Regrettably.
“Maybe it’s time to focus on making new friends at your new school.”
At least school would be a distraction from what she had planned for me. She’d hinted at it the last few months on the phone. “I’m not giving up my Atlanta friends because I have to live in Koush Hollow.”
“You’d be surprised what Koush Hollow has to offer a Diamonds & Pearls legacy.”
I scrunched up my face and thought about the two vodka minis from my farewell party that I’d tucked into my top dresser drawer when I unpacked. I knew I’d need them. On top of grieving, Rayna had plans for me and there’d be no getting around them. Alcohol would be my only escape. It would be temporary, but I’d take temporary over nothing. I pulled out my phone and shot off a quick text to Hayley and Jessie to thank them for the minis.
“Speaking of our club.”
"You mean your club and how could I forget?” The Diamonds & Pearls was an old, southern social club that had been headed by the women in my family for generations—a tradition, no, a tortured requirement that I wanted nothing to do with.
“The ladies are thriving. Ms. Marjorie Thibodeaux’s two daughters are both Pearls now along with Ms. Melanie Chen’s two daughters. Oh, you should have seen the gowns they wore to last year’s Royale Regatta Ball.”
Her voice was tinged with expectation. However, all I could think was, Yeah, their gowns are so much more chat worthy than me being captain of the Eco Green Team.
“What were Ms. Melanie’s girls’ names? Maisy, Daisy, something like that?” It had been a while since she’d mentioned them.
“You mean Maisy and Madeline.”
“Ah, that’s right. She named them after kiddie book characters.”
“No, she didn’t.” She paused. “Please spare me your sarcasm.”
I quietly chuckled. “I didn’t mean to be sarcastic.” I kind of did. “I seriously couldn’t remember. I have been mostly gone for eleven years and if—”
“If your father hadn’t passed away, you’d still be in that congested city you love, right? Outside of holidays and half the summers, what about me being here all these years without you?”
I thumped my forehead with the palm of my hand as I started to fall into the guilt trap, before I realized. “Wait a minute. You don’t get to make me feel bad when I already feel dreadful.”
A soft sigh escaped her lips. “It’s been six months.”
I clenched my hands into fists so hard my knuckles paled to white. “How long did you grieve for your mother when she died?”
“I understand...” Exasperation underscored her tone. She lacked empathy, but she loved me, and I knew that deep down she understood.
I inhaled a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter. I’m…” I hesitated, “I’m sure I’ll get used to being back again.” I wanted to be optimistic, but I doubted my return to Koush Hollow was a good thing.
“Good. Let’s start this conversation over.”
I nodded and her frown lifted. “Did you see the new clothes in your closet? Aunt Mary picked up some things I ordered for you.”
I was thankful Aunt Mary still lived with Rayna. She was a nurturing woman who always took care of me when I was sick and offered a listening ear and encouragement when I needed it. She also acted as the marshmallow and melted chocolate between the two graham crackers that were Rayna and me. “Where is she? I didn’t see her when I got in last night.”
“She had dinner with a friend yesterday and stayed over. She’ll be here later today.”
Aunt Mary was a family friend who had basically raised my mother because my grandmother, although devoted to my mother, had also been devoted to work—another family tradition. Aunt Mary officially moved in a few years after Mamaw and Aunt Mary’s husband Paul passed away.
“You mentioned that she’s helping you with paperwork at the power plant?”
“We’ve got quite a few important projects going on at work and she needed extra money.”
Aunt Mary wasn’t a big spender or into material things so I couldn’t imagine working any harder than she was at her age. “Is she planning a bucket list trip or something?”
“You’d have to ask her,” she said elusively.
“Huh. Maybe I will. So what kind of clothes did you pick out?” I hadn’t even checked in the closet when I’d arrived last night, but I already suspected what was in there. Changing my style was the first step in her plan to assimilate me. She’d make me Diamonds & Pearls pretty in no time, and I planned to have nothing to do with it.
“One more thing. This year’s Royale Regatta Ball is only a few weeks away, and I know you’re as excited as I am.”
The annual regatta took place on the lake, followed by a fancy ball for Koush Hollow’s socially prominent. I remembered thinking how glam it all seemed when I was a kid, but it didn’t fit with who I was. “Puh-lease. I don’t do balls, regatta or otherwise.”
The muscles in her face went taut forming an expression she reserved for when she had run out of patience with me. “In Koush Hollow you do.” Her cool tone took me aback for a moment. “I’m afraid your attendance is set in stony coral, and I’ve already enlisted two Pearls to get you ready”
She’d started out as a marine biologist before finding a career at the power plant so she’d used enough technical terms over the years for me to know that stony coral was one of nature’s hardest substances. As a science nerd, I knew it was harder than granite on the Mohs scale.
We’d see about the stony coral part. “Hey, Mama.”
A muscle in her jaw twitched. “Don’t say hey.”
She was nothing if not consistent, but the weight of her expectations was a heavy burden. My shoulders sagged under the pressure and uneasy feeling pricked at me. “I know you think all this stuff is for the best, but it might not be what’s best for me.”
“What if it is, but you can’t see past this rebellious stage to know any better?”
Rebellious stage? I exhaled a heavy sigh. This was not the first time we’d argued about her always thinking she was right, but it was the first time she’d put the blame on teen rebellion. What if I wanted to blame her attitude on a midlife crisis? “I need to go for a drive.”
“If you have time, will you do me a favor?” she asked as if we hadn’t just argued and everything between us was as sweet as box of Nickerson’s Pralines.
“Will you pick up a twelve pack of Diet Coke at the store?”
After the grammar and etiquette lessons along with the Diamonds & Pearls update, I was happy to do anything that kept me away even if it was just for a few extra minutes. “Yup.”
She narrowed her eyes as she mentally corrected my yup to a yes.
I grabbed my key from the wet bar that connected the kitchen to the garage. It was a narrow annex with an extra sink and glass-paned cabinets filled with gold-rimmed china and glassware. I marched to the oversized garage, side-stepping an orange bucket that collected a slow drip of water from the ceiling. She really needed to get some home repairs done.
I jumped in the Honda Fit and drove down the alley that was draped with a canopy of Spanish moss hanging from the towering oaks like phantom dream catchers. Out on the main road, I came to a four-way stop where jazz drifted through my open window from the corner bar. Rayna wasn’t into jazz, but I liked the soulful melodies that were bare and honest. Next to the bar was the Cajun Kitchen, a sign out front advertising fresh, hot boudin balls, cracklins, catfish, and crawfish kickers. I hadn’t eaten cracklins in forever and my mouth watered at the thought of the salty, fried snack. I turned on St. Gabriel Street and passed the above-ground cemetery. In New Orleans they were known as “cities of the dead,” but I never found them terrifying. They were too beautiful to be scary.
Rattle, rattle, rattle.
I closed the window on the tepid breeze and listened closely.
Rattle, rattle, rattle.
The car was in perfect condition when I left Atlanta. I pretended it wasn’t a bad omen and decided there was a perfectly logical problem with the timing chain. I’d have to take it in for service soon. I brushed my hand across the hard spikes of hair on my head.
Rayna had probably forgotten something, I thought as I clicked on the call. “What else do you need?”
“Vitamin C pills.”
“Vitamin C. Got it.” I looked out the side window, taking in the bayou that was thick with cypress trees stretching tall from the marshy waters. Herons and pelicans surfed the breeze while an alligator sunned itself on the murky banks.
I squirmed in my seat. For the shortest breath of a moment, the wine-colored, birthmarks on my palms began to tingle. I glanced at the inch-long, crescent moon shape on my left hand. It matched the one on my right perfectly. Dad had always said they added character. The thought of him comforted me.
“I forgot to ask you last night how you think you did on the chemistry exam?”
Was she seriously trying to have a normal conversation with me on the phone? I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had always been easier for her to talk to me long distance rather than face-to-face. “My future at MIT as a chem major and eco warrior is riding on those eighty-five multiple choice answers. Fingers crossed that I did awesome.”
“We don’t cross fingers, for goodness sake. If you want to attend MIT, you need to be intellectual and reasonable. No more of that childish nonsense.”
“I read that Isaac Newton was obsessed with astrology and he also tried to create the Philosopher’s Stone. Childish nonsense might make me a notable scientist one day.” I imagined her mouth falling open from my brilliance.
“Only graduating from MIT will make you a notable scientist. Nothing else.”” Background clatter on her end filled the speakers. “Where is my Lou-ee?” She muttered over the noise, probably in search of the designer bag she usually misplaced after a few glasses of wine.
I really just wanted to drive and not talk. I gripped the steering wheel harder with frustration. “Maybe we can catch up when I get back. Bye.” I ended the call and focused my attention on my surroundings to calm down. I wondered if anything had changed since my last visit. The idyllic southern town had sustained terrible damage from historic storms and floods, but the beautiful facade showed none of it. Fuchsia bougainvillea vines clung to the wrought iron railings of every grand white house in town, green bayou waters remained still, and young palm trees grew lush along the sidewalks in the slumbering heat.
Suddenly, a burst of bright light blinded me for half a second. Dazed, I slammed on the brakes, but I wasn’t slowing down. Something appeared from the corner of my eye, and I whipped my head to the side.
A woman stepped from the woods, onto the road, and right into my oncoming path. I jerked on the steering wheel to swerve out of the way, but it was locked. I pushed harder on the brakes, waiting for the Honda to screech to a halt—but the car didn’t slow.
What the hell! I was barreling right toward her. I laid hard on the horn and stared straight ahead, both feet pressing hard against the pedal. She didn’t see me.
“Damn it, stop!” I yelled at the car.
I honked again. The woman startled out of her stupor. The brakes suddenly kicked in. I forced my legs to add pressure to the already depressed pedal.
I closed my eyes. Please, no, please, no.
The seatbelt squeezed tight against my ribs. My head slammed hard against the headrest.
Everything came to an eerie stop.
I sat forward and wiped the sweat from my face. I fluttered my eyelids open and peered out the windshield. Nothing. “Oh my God. I hit her. She’s under my car. What do I do?” I freaked.
I threw the car in park and turned off the ignition. My head ached. I reached for the door handle with one hand and my phone with the other. I fumbled with the numbers trying to press nine-one-one as flashbacks from sophomore CPR class rushed through my mind.
The boom echoed in my ears, and my eyes jumped to my passenger side window. A pair of bloodied hands smacked against the glass before trailing smeared ribbons of crimson in a downward motion.
My heart hammered against my ribcage. I stared harder, shocked, trying to make out the woman’s face through the smudges.
In a panic and unable to remember where the hell it was, I searched for the window button.
“I’m trying, I’m trying. Hold on,” I pleaded as I fumbled with the controls on the door handle. My gaze shifted back to the passenger side window before it rolled down.
“What the…?” I shuddered in disbelief. The blood had disappeared along with the woman. I blinked over and over and looked out the windshield.
She suddenly appeared on the driver’s side of my car, perfectly undamaged. My knees knocked so hard that I couldn’t maneuver out of my seat. All I could do was stare at the painted, bronze-skinned woman.
She wore shocking white makeup all over her face except for the black paint around her eye sockets, under her cheekbones, and on the tip of her nose. She had a feather headdress over her long, white-sand colored braids, and a bone necklace pressing tight against her throat. She resembled a Voodoo mambo, a priestess known for healing and spiritual communication, which I knew from the local mythology my dad would tell me about. His stories included ones about mambos and Voodoo queens like Bloody Mary who scared her neighbors.
From the black paint, her emerald green eyes sparkled and held me fast.
My breathing escalated. Was she okay? Had I hallucinated the thud? Was I hallucinating now?
It wouldn’t surprise me if I was. Strange things had happened to me as a kid when I lived in Koush Hollow. Things I couldn’t explain; things I’d heard and dreamed about. It all stopped when I moved to Atlanta, but being back…I had an eerie feeling. I kept my gaze locked on the mysterious Voodoo woman until I blinked.
My eyes flashed wide. A curvy, gray-haired lady tapped again on my side window. I snapped out of my shock and finally remembered how to roll it down.
“You okay, hon’?” She stared at my hands. “You’re shaking like you drank ten café lattes.”
“I’m j-just a little on edge. I mean, I thought I hit that…that woman.”
She jolted upright and looked around. “What are you talking about?”
My gaze flitted all around her. “She w-was r-right there—the painted woman,” I stuttered and pointed. “Where did she go?” My knees finally stopped knocking, allowing me to slide out of the car.
“You didn’t hit anyone. Are you on something?”
I stumbled to the front and bent over searching underneath the car. Nothing. No one. I stood up and scanned the sidewalks, but I didn’t see the mysterious woman anywhere.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be driving, hon’.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be.
“Is there someone I can call?” she asked.
I wiped my sopping wet forehead with the back of my hand. It had to be stress affecting me. It had been a tough few months and maybe it was catching up with me. I turned to the kind woman. “I’m only a few minutes from my mother’s house.” I’d get the Diet Cokes and vitamins later. “I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
We both returned to our cars. She waited for me to move. With trembling fingers, I managed to shift into drive. I pumped the brakes to see if they worked. They worked fine. The rattling sound in the engine was gone, too. I could hardly think straight. Was that Voodoo woman real or a figment of my imagination? I shoved aside the bad feeling, inhaled a calming breath, and decided to apply logic, which suggested the whole thing was a brain-glitch from stress. However, no matter how logical I tried to be, the uneasy feeling remained.
Shaking, I turned around and headed back to Rayna’s. A few nerve-wracking minutes later, I parked next to her Mercedes SUV and stepped out of the car.
Rayna appeared in the doorway of the garage. “Jennifer, are you okay? You look pale and sweaty. What happened?.”
“Um, nothing happened. See the car? No dents. Everything’s good. Just got a bad headache.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep her from seeing the shaking. That wasn’t real, I reminded myself.
“You had a long drive yesterday. Don’t worry about it. I’ll text Aunt Mary to pick them up on her way back here.”
“Thanks.” I wiped the sweat from my brow. I was going to need those vodka minis sooner than expected.
The next afternoon as I woke from a late, unexpected nap, I breathed in the faint gardenia scent from the deteriorating sachets still hidden in my childhood dresser drawers. The smell conjured memories I had tucked away in the dusty corners of my mind. They rushed out like spirits fleeing a sage-burning witch. From my night table, I grabbed hold of a stuffed mambo doll Dad had given me, a gift from a local woman who crafted them. The doll resembled the Voodoo woman I’d conjured from my imagination yesterday and my fingers trembled at the memory of the hallucinated accident. It had to be a hallucination.
I set it down and walked over to the window. I opened it and stuck my head out, listening. When I was little, I used to hear a woman singing the most beautiful songs. It was one of the strange things that I remembered. Her voice came from somewhere around the lake, and I’d sneak out to find her, but I never did. At present, I searched, childishly still hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman behind the song, but instead, misty plumes billowing out of the Bayou Nuclear Power Plant’s smoke stacks caught my attention.
The house was situated on a point that overlooked Lake Pontchartrain. To the left were shell-dotted beaches surrounded by oaks dripping Spanish moss. On the right, marring the scenic view, was the plant where Rayna worked.
I stared, wishing fate hadn’t brought me back. “Oh, Dad. I…” Tears welled up as I dwelled on the past. I missed my friends. I missed my teachers. And something had to be wrong with me if I was hallucinating about hitting Voodoo mambos with my car. I hunched over, replaying Rayna’s plan for me. I knew she meant well. I knew it was all she had wanted for herself, but how the hell was I going to get out of it?
There would be dance and more etiquette lessons plus makeovers and whatever other torture she could dream up in order to transform me from cool, science nerd, eco-warrior Jenna to lame, southern socialite Jennifer Crossland Ashby.
I sniffled back the tears and snatched the vodka minis out of my dresser that I’d resisted drinking yesterday. The bottles smelled like gardenias from the sachets. Nice, I thought. I unscrewed them both and swallowed. The clear liquid burned my throat, but the pain was worth the numb feeling I needed.
I waited a minute before hiding the empties in an empty suitcase pocket. Then I stepped into the closet. Gingham capri pants, floral dresses, and tops with bows dangled from velvet hangers. There were linen boxes filled with enamel bangles and hooks holding Chanel crossbody bags I’d never use. Rayna was driving the point home about wanting to change my style. I closed my eyes and shook with anger. “I hate this.”
In the bathroom, I stared at my reflection. There was an unwelcome paleness underscoring my latte complexion. I raked my hand through the wilting vanilla spikes of hair, noticing the hint of dark brunette roots. . Koush Hollow was working its bayou magic on the now smudgier black kohl around my eyes. I squeezed my eyelids tight and then flashed them wide open. Damn. I was still in Koush Hollow.
The only thing that could fix the situation was more alcohol. Taking a chance, I tiptoed downstairs, trying to avoid the creaks in the wood steps. From the kitchen window, I spotted Rayna on the back patio on her phone. I sneaked into the pantry and scanned the jars and bottles. I unscrewed the cap to the bottle labeled cooking wine. I swigged. “Bleh!” I stuck my tongue out and breathed through the salty, undrinkable liquid. I recapped it and shoved it back on the shelf.
There had to be something better somewhere on the main floor. I glanced around, searching for the liquor cabinet that had been moved from the sitting room. That’s when I saw it.
On the foyer table, next to a set of Rayna’s Flemish dairymaids and windmills plates was an eight by ten picture of my dad; the man she’d divorced, the man she’d complained about for the last eleven years, and the man she’d claimed was the key to her unhappiness. Yet she had his photo set in an expensive mother-of-pearl frame. She must have set it out for me, which was surprisingly nice.
“Jennifer Crossland Ashby,” she called from a distance.
I jumped. “It’s Jenna, Mama!”
“One minute.” Where was the vodka? I dipped into her office. “Ah!” She’d moved the liquor cabinet into the home office. I tugged on the two door handles and the drawers. “Locked?” I reached around to the back and then underneath searching for the key. Nothing. I rushed to her desk and yanked open the drawers. I scanned the contents for any sign of a key.
“Jennifer!” Her tone screamed impatience, but the vodka was settling in.
I stared longingly at the cabinet before turning away. “Coming!” I meandered to the family room. I glanced up and noticed exposed electrical wires from an old light fixture in the ceiling. “This house is falling apart on the inside.” I pointed to the wires.
She looked up and scowled. “I’m on a waitlist for Mr. Louis. He’s the handyman all the Diamonds use, but he’s been so busy since the last hurricane.”
She stood in front of the fireplace, broad shoulders squared. She fluffed her hair.
“We need to discuss something important.”
“I’ve arranged for you to meet two Pearls who are going to help you. They’re coming tomorrow evening to take you to a party.”
I stood a little straighter. “Whoa. Arranged? Like a play date?”
“Not a play date. You’re sixteen and the daughter of a well-to-do professional woman who holds a place of prominence in this town. It’s important for you to mingle with the right people.”
Her tone said it all, but it didn’t mean squat to me. “Just because they’re Pearls doesn’t mean they’re the right people for me.” She either didn’t care or had no clue how I’d been spending my time in Atlanta. There were comic cons, cosplay parties, and thrift store shopping sprees.
She clutched her hands to her narrow hips, frustration flowing from her manicured fingertips.
“Come on. I just want to chill and hang out with you before school starts.” She eyed me suspiciously. I swallowed the soft lump in my throat.
“I’d like nothing more than to spend time with you, but we have work to do. Chop, chop.”
Work. Even with the buzz going on, I sagged under the pressure she was applying. I felt like a piece of graphite in her synthetic diamond lab. I sighed with exasperation, but what could I do at that moment? “All I can say is I love you.”
“Ditto.” As she played with the ever-present deep-sea, blue diamond pendant dangling from her neck, she caught me staring. “This diamond was merely a piece of carbon that handled stress and time in the ocean floor extraordinarily well.”
I’d heard the story before—it came from the Atlantic Ocean, blah, blah, blah, but all I cared about was that it was a conflict-free diamond. “Yes, all that time and stress and for what? A cold, hard rock.”
“I prefer saying it’s rare, enduring, and enviable. Now listen. You know how important the Diamonds & Pearls are to us. Therefore, you will summon your best manners and elocution and act and speak appropriately around them at all times.”
How bad did she think my manners were? “Because if I don’t, they’ll tell their mamas.” I threw my hands in the air frustrated. I really felt like I was trying, but I couldn’t take it anymore. “It’s like you think I’m still in Kindergarten.”
“Thank goodness you’re not. Things have changed since your early school years. For one thing, the Diamonds are much wealthier.”
I glanced around at the expensive objects she’d surrounded herself with—Limoges porcelain, Baccarat crystal vases, and framed Hermes scarves. “Where is all this wealth coming from as none of you work outside Koush Hollow? The population is like seven hundred, and historically, outside of a few plantation owners, the town supports sugarcane farmers and watermen. Entrepreneurs or not, there’s only so much money here.”
Her mouth twitched. “Who says our money comes from only here?”
“Y’all work locally. Where else would it come from?”
“Our mothers and grandmothers were all successful businesswomen and investors, even when others tried to stop them. They knew how to overcome obstacles to make money and so do we.”
I recalled her childhood stories she’d shared with me. “They made enough to pay bills and keep a roof over their heads.” I gestured toward all of her priceless collectibles. “This is a whole other story.”
“This money is earned, and I’ve been doing plenty of earning.”
Rayna was the executive water quality control specialist at Bayou Nuclear Power Plant, which paid well, but she lived like a stockholder, not a staffer.
“It’s why you’ll do an internship with one of the other Diamonds next summer.” She clasped her shaking hands tightly together and stared longingly at her wineglass on the fireplace mantle.
She was nothing if not into maintaining the Diamonds & Pearls traditions, but I wasn’t a traditional kind of girl. “Having a lot of money doesn’t bring happiness.”
“I know that. If it could, I’d bring Mama back, but I can’t. However, having money doesn’t hurt.”
My lower lip quivered. “And I’d bring Dad back.” Inside, the pang of emotion stung the back of my throat.
“Wait and see, my dear. You might be surprised by the happiness you’ll feel when you’re officially a Pearl.”
I glowered, annoyed with her confidence. “I’m so lucky to have a mother who’s not only rich, she’s also the president of making people happy.”
“I’m only interested in making the Diamonds & Pearls happy and that includes you. If you don’t like that, you should be reminded that I also excel at removing obstacles in my path. You might as well stop resisting.” The tip of her tongue pressed against the front of her teeth upon the last syllable.
“Removing obstacles--that’s the real Diamonds & Pearls tradition, isn’t it?”
“She ignored me. “Speaking of removing obstacles, I’d like to get you a new car. I can’t have you driving around in, well, I mean we can afford something nicer than that car.”
My insides shook. “Am I mistaken in thinking that a water quality control specialist with a degree in marine biology should be pro-environment? Because that car is eco-friendly like me.”
“Of course I’m pro-environment,” she said patting her hair again, “but one little Mercedes isn’t going to hurt anything.”
I restrained myself from saying something I’d regret. I closed my eyes and breathed in and out. “Everyone’s carbon footprint matters, including mine. I don’t want a new car.”
“You’ll want one after you find out what your new friends will be driving, perhaps after the regatta ball in October. Think of it as an incentive.”
I narrowed my gaze at her. Did she not hear me? “Are you even listening to what I’m saying?”
A haughty laugh escaped her lips. “I’m listening, but all I hear is the voice of youth rebellion and inexperience.”
My fingers clenched into fists. “I’m not being rebellious. I’m being honest. Why do you think bribing me will get me to do what you want?”
A vein popped out in her neck. “I wouldn’t look at it that way if I were you.”
The warning was implied, and I knew I’d pushed her too far. However, I didn’t care. My cheeks heated. I spoke through a clenched jaw. “I don’t want a new car. I don’t want a new school. I never wanted to move back to Koush Hollow.”
She narrowed her focus on me and stepped closer. “I think you are still tired from your journey.”
“I stepped back. I didn’t want her to smell the alcohol on my breath. “I just woke up from a nap. I’m not tired,” I seethed inwardly.
“Trust me about the car. I’m certain you’ll change your mind in a few weeks.”
Her supreme attitude pissed me off. There was no way I was parting with my Honda, even if the engine made imaginary noises. “Don’t count on it.”
“Uh huh.” She picked up her wineglass with a trembling hand and drank what was left before slamming the empty glass on the table and heading upstairs. “I’m suddenly tired. We’ll talk later.”
I pulled out my phone and texted Hayley in Atlanta. You have no idea how much I miss y’all.
We miss you too. Not the same without you here. Jessie says hi. She’s here talking about the last comic con we went to.
I wished I was with them.
The next evening, Rayna had gone out for a few hours so I joined Aunt Mary in the kitchen. She had styled her silver hair in a sleek pixie cut that looked sharp with her white, button-down shirt and dark blue jeans.
“I’ve got Coca-Cola cake for dessert, but for dinner I’m grilling marinated chicken breast for you. Want to watch?”
“Sure.” The warm smell of wilting, summer herbs wrapped around me, luring me closer to the stovetop, and I peeked at the grill pan. “Too bad we don’t have any crawdads or catfish. I was kind of looking forward to eating local seafood.”
The thin wrinkles around her eyes deepened when she smiled. “Local doesn’t always mean healthy.”
“You questioning the area farmers?”
“You never know who’s connected to Bloody Mary in this town.”
She was referring to the Voodoo queen, Mary Brown, but I never believed Voodoo was about fear. It was about empowering the believer.
“I doubt a Voodoo-practicing poultry farmer is trying to kill us.”
She shrugged. “Hope not.” She sliced up the grilled chicken and set it next to a steaming mound of grits. Then she scooped creamy cheese grits into a bowl for herself with no meat.
I eyed her with suspicion. “Don’t want to take a chance?”
She sighed. “It’s not that. Chicken is hard for me to eat these days.”
“You used to love barbecued chicken.”
“Things change as you get older. Enjoy your youth.”
“Wishing you were younger?” I teased.
We sat down and she caught me up on the comings and goings of everyone I knew in Koush Hollow. “You’re definitely on top of the local happenings.”
“I may not be a socialite, but I have a nice group of church friends that keep me busy.”
“If it were possible, would you want to be a Diamond?”
“From what I hear, every woman in town wants that. Personally, I wouldn’t mind having access to some of those exclusive beauty treatments. I wouldn’t say no to an age spot remover for my hands.” She held them out. Brown spots dotted the wrinkled landscape of her hands and wrists. “Nothing says ‘welcome to old age’ like age spots.” She stared at her bare ring finger, still worn in the spot where a gold band had been. She grimaced.
I felt her loss as much as my own. I clasped onto her hand, empathizing. “I’m glad you’re here. This home wouldn’t be the same without you.”
“It’s nice to have you back.” She squeezed my hand before releasing it. “How are you and your mama getting along so far?”
“Um, let me just say we’re not making it easy for each other.” I waited for a lecture as I bit into the chicken.
She nodded. “A mother-daughter relationship can be complicated, but your mama is a smart woman and wants to help you. In fact, she’s been quite helpful to me.”
“Oh?” I tasted a piece of tangy tomato and squinted.
“She has quite a good business sense. She helped me set up an interest-bearing account to save money for something I want.”
There it was again, Aunt Mary’s secret bucket list item. “What are you saving up for?”
She patted my shoulder. “Nothing for you to worry about.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “You’re my great aunt. I worry.”
“Keep worrying about the environment. It needs you, but also give your mama a chance. She’s a smart lady and a good mama.”
“She sucks at listening.”
She frowned. “What do you want her to hear?”
I flashed her a side eye, wondering if she’d take my side. “I’m the fifth generation of the Diamonds & Pearls, right? Without Dad’s input, there’s no way she’ll let me argue my way out of the club.
She held her spoon in the air and pointed at me. “From what I can tell, membership is a choice.”
“Since when? No one has ever opted out. Besides Mama would go ballistic if I chose not to.”
“Then your choice is to appease her.”
My eyes popped. “Seriously? You know how she is. She has the understanding of a hungry zombie.”
She chuckled. “You’re being dramatic Jenna, and I know you don’t believe in zombies. Focus on the power within you and what you are capable of. Don’t underestimate that or your ability to choose what you want.” She glanced at her watch and yawned. “Do you mind clearing the kitchen table and putting the leftovers away? I need to finish some chores upstairs.”
“Lucky you. I have a play date.”
“A play date?”
“Mama arranged for me to go to a party.”
“Sounds better than folding laundry,” she said with a scoff. “You want any cake?”
I shrugged. “I love Coca-Cola cake, but I’m good right now.” I surveyed the kitchen mess. “Don’t worry about this. I’ll clear.”
I finished cleaning up the kitchen when Rayna strolled through the front door looking pressed and pristine.
“Work much?” I asked.
She ignored my sarcasm. “I had a few loose ends to tie up. I’m working on a special project and it requires me to put in extra hours.”
I shook my head, feeling like a jerk. “I didn’t know. Do you need dinner? I can make something.”
“No, thank you.” She opened the refrigerator and uncorked a green wine bottle. The liquid gurgled into a waiting goblet.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“I believe in controlling my appetite.”
But not her thirst, I thought.
She pointed a finger at me. “That’s enough out of you.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I can read your face. Go get showered and changed for the party. There’s a new swimsuit and cover-up hanging in your closet.” She checked her gold watch. “The Pearls will be here soon.” She swept out of the kitchen toward her office, glass in hand.
Awesome. I trudged upstairs and stared into my closet of new and unwanted things again. I plucked the bathing suit from the hanger. “At least it’s black.” I changed, threw on the stupid matching cover-up, and lined my eyes in extra thick, black eyeliner. After all, I needed to be myself.
On the closet floor, I spotted a pair of black flip-flops, slightly bedazzled. Seriously? I weighed my two options—stay at home with Rayna or go out with the Pearls. I really needed to work on my options. I marched downstairs in sparkly flip-flops, my frown matching my mood.
My gaze burned into the front door.
Aunt Mary set her laundry basket on the floor and opened the door. She waved two fresh-faced girls into the foyer.
“Lauren Bloodworth and Abigail LaFitte, how wonderful to see you both.”
“You, too, Miss Mary,” they said in unison. Social graces seeped out of their non-visible pores and rolled off every extreme eyelash extension.
“How are your mothers?” Aunt Mary asked.
I stood back and examined them closer. They both wore matching, gold pearl pendant necklaces. I’d never seen the gold pearl up close, but I knew from Rayna they were extremely rare.
“Either working or shopping,” Abigail said without breaking a grin. “Thank you for asking.” Her dark brown hair fell in rolling waves over her shoulders and her pouty lips glistened.
“I’m Lauren.” Her torrent of long, blond hair swooshed back and forth and her radiant complexion looked too natural to be natural. She extended her hand to me. “It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you.” She batted her lashes. I couldn’t help to stare at them. They were like a scientific breakthrough in the evolution of eyelash lengthening.
The blond Beckzilla leaned closer and dropped her voice. “It’s a balm that makes them grow this long, Jennifer,” she explained, noticing my silent gasp.
“Jenna,” I corrected. “I was curious, but I’m fine without any balms or lengtheners. Thanks, though.”
She stood straighter in her expensive, white swimsuit, which was barely concealed with a sheer, hot pink, cover-up.
Abigail yawned and tossed her long, wavy locks over one shoulder. She shot Lauren a glare before offering a half-smile to me. “By the way, I’m Abigail LaFitte.” She tipped her nose up and crinkled it ever so slightly. “Nice to meet you.”
When she moved, her multicolored cover-up floated around her like a cloud before settling over her slender curves. With attitude, she turned to Aunt Mary. “Do you mind if we steal Jennifer? We need to get to that party.”
I already knew she was going to annoy the hell out of me. “For the last time, it’s Jenna, and I’m not sure I want to go to this party.”
Lauren latched onto my arm and gently pulled me along while Abigail waved goodbye to Aunt Mary. As soon as the door shut, Abigail snapped, “When you receive an invitation, you accept it. That’s what Pearls do. And the Pearls have been invited to a beach party.”
I slapped my hand on my hip. “Did my mother ask you to give me etiquette lessons?” I wasn’t even kidding.
Abigail stopped walking toward the shiny, white Toyota Camry parked in the driveway and turned to me. Attitude seeped from her pursed lips. “Clearly, someone needs to.”
My temper heated along with my face. “What?”
“All I’m saying is that you’re an important person to us, Jenna Crossland Ashby," “whether you like it or not.”
“Don’t add Crossland to my name.” A pang of unease gnawed at my gut. I glared at both of them. “You know what? I don’t want to go anywhere with either of you. I’d rather help Aunt Mary fold laundry.” I turned toward the house.
Lauren piped up. “Wait. Abigail doesn’t mean to be blunt.”
“Yes, I do,” she countered in the background.
I stopped and spun around.
Lauren raced up to me. “Um, we know you’ve had a tough time lately.”
My gaze flitted between both of their faces. “You don’t know anything about it or me.”
Abigail sashayed towards us. She pressed her lips into a thin line and elbowed Lauren. “I’m not good with this sort of thing. I lack the patience. You tell her.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Tell me what?” The sense of dread I’d felt before leaving Atlanta rose up in my stomach as a cold swell.
Lauren stepped closer and grabbed my hand. Her eyes locked on the oval-shaped, pink` pearl ring Chloe had given me before I left. She told me my Dad had planned to give it to me on my last birthday, my sweet sixteen. “We know everything about it because the Diamonds & Pearls know each other’s secrets.”
I yanked my hand back. “What secrets? My dad died and everyone knows it. There was a funeral with people there.”
Abigail rolled her eyes. “All we’re saying is that we know what’s been happening in your life.” She tipped her chin down. “From this point forward, you’re going to be privileged to information, secrets, that stay in-“house, the Diamonds & Pearls house. Understand?”
“I don’t know what secrets you’re talking about, but if one of them is about my dad, you’d better share it with me now.” He’d been killed six months ago when he returned to town to discuss a matter with Rayna. Chloe had read the police report and believed his death had been an accident. However, even after I read it, I had serious doubts.
The girls exchanged horrifying glances.
I wanted to shake them both. “Do you know something about how he died? Do you?!” I yelled.
Lauren set her hand on my shoulder. I shoved it off and backed away.
“All we know is that,” she paused, “it was an accident.”
I sneered. “You sound like you’re getting paid to say that.”
Abigail interjected. “The platform was wet. He slipped and…”
“I don’t believe that.”
They eyed each other like I was losing my mind.
“And I don’t care about your stupid secrets. You think having secrets makes you special or something? It doesn’t.”
“You don’t have to agree with us, but you do have to stay as quiet as a shadow if we tell you anything. Got it?”
What were they hiding—some kind of formula to be perfectly obnoxious? “I understand perfectly. I’m actually smart.” Not that I cared what they thought.
Abigail shifted her stance ever so slowly. “Book smart, sure. Common sense smart…” She waggled her hand. “Meh.”
A tremor shook through me. “The fact that I have to hang out with you tonight is a problem because you’re a bitch.” I abhorred violence, but I was ready to toss her to the ground and go after her exfoliated everything.
She stood unfazed. “I am a bitch and that means I don’t waste time tiptoeing around sensitive subjects. Speaking of which, I should tell you that draping yourself in black rags and sporting that bad, bad hairstyle,” she pointed to my head, “well, you look like a poor porcupine dipped in vanilla pudding and that won’t work.”
I ran my hand over the spikes. “Porcupine quills can be deadly. Maybe you should watch out.”
She knitted her eyebrows together. “Is that a threat?” She sounded cool as a thermometer dipped in liquid nitrogen.
Lauren stepped between us. “We’re together to get acquainted and,” she turned to Abigail, “help Jenna fit in.”
A slight smirk lifted the corners of Abigail’s lips. “Jenna needs help with more than fitting in.”
I set my jaw, determined to sling it back. “At least I don’t need a personality transplant. I’d be surprised if Abby wasn’t at the top of that waitlist.” I tossed my best bitch-face at her.
Her eyes danced, enjoying the chal