The Kitchen Charmer

The Kitchen Charmer

Deborah Smith

September 2017 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-835-6

The MacBrides, Book 3


 
Our PriceUS$15.95
Code978-1-61194-835-6
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt


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The battle is on their doorstep and in their souls.

These old mountains are smart, Lucy. They’re alive. They can be gentle like mamas; oh, sure, they’ll croon and they’ll kiss you and they’ll whisper while you sleep, and you’ll learn what all the old rocks are saying, all these ancient ghosts, all their starshine wisdom. But these old mountains, sometimes they know you can’t hear them any other way but to get smacked up along the head. You watch out, Lucy P, for you got the Charm, like us Netties do. You’re a guardian of these mountains, and they’re a guardian of you. They will warn you any how they have to.

They will slap the near life out of a Charmer.

They’re doing it to make you and Gus listen. To make you ready.


Delta Whittlespoon, the legendary biscuit maker and owner of The Crossroads Café, tried to warn Lucy Parmenter and Gus MacBride. Even their mystical North Carolina mountains can’t block the turmoil of the outside world. As fear and ignorance threaten their community and everyone they love, the star-crossed couple must overcome brutal challenges and personal demons to forge an alliance that may be the only hope of Good triumphing over Evil.

Deborah Smith is the New York Times and No. 1 Kindle bestselling author of The Crossroads Café series. Library Journal named The Crossroads Café a top five romance novel of the year.

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Excerpt

Prologue

Afghanistan, February

"HE TOOK THE explosion on the left side. Left leg looks bad. Internal injuries, too. And his left ear’s hemorrhaging.”

"Captain, can you hear me? What did you say, Captain?”

"I think he said, ‘Lucid,’ Sir.”

"Yes, you’re lucid. We can understand you.”

Not lucid. Luce.

I searched for my voices. The essences. Mama, Dad. My sisters. Luce.

Find the hunger, and you find the pain.

Feed the body, and you feed the spirit.

Share the table, and you share the love.

Love. Luce.

I tried to ease into the psychic hammock where Luce always joined me. The essence of her could cross thousands of miles between Afghanistan and North Carolina. A taste of honey and crushed fruit, blueberries too sweet to make a dark beer... Luce came from tender starters, that’s how her brew always tasted in my mind, but there was something fragile, too... something easy to break.

I felt needles in my arms. Oxygen hissed into my nose. Darkness rose and then opened like a curtain.

I faced a stranger with an unknown face. Covered in blood and war, like me.

"She’s mine,” he said. "I earned her. Women are always the collat­eral damage in a man’s world. You know that.”

Behind a curtain of see-through lace, Luce stood with her naked back to me and him, her head turned just enough to let us know she was listening.

He stepped closer to the curtain. In the darkness I saw just his hand reach through a streak of overhead light. He anchored it in the delicate knitting. "I’m taking her, and you can’t stop me.”

"I’ll kill you.” But when I tried to move, my torn leg had rooted to the floor.

He laughed. "A real man will kill to get what he wants.” He lunged at her. Lucy turned, but all I saw was her face, filled with terror, a hazy blur that came into focus as a terrible feeling surged in my chest.

I am him, now.


 

 

1

Two months earlier

December

Rainbow Goddess Farm

North Carolina

A LOT OF PEOPLE believed our highlands were a fortress against some future apocalypse. A breakdown of law and order? Invasion of a foreign army? Pandemic? The Rapture?

We could survive as long as we stayed put.

I wasn’t like them. I could take my fears with me everywhere. I was the kid who got excited when the teacher said to read silently. I liked going to the library. Museums and concerts took me to fantasy worlds I could sense—I reached out to the veils that separated ordinary life from miracles.

I believed in joy and the Holy Spirit and the purity of chaste minds and untouched bodies and now I realize it was all some sort of defense, some kind of bargain with God, like promising to clock in on time every day at a job. Of course I knew God didn’t hand out credits for good behavior, and yet... shouldn’t He?

No. He didn’t care.

It had been three years since the attack, but I relived the memory every day.

What’s that thumping noise?

It must be Mr. Nguyen binge-watching CSI episodes with the TV turned up too loud again. Or Anita Suarez’s kids turning over furniture while they played Wii tennis. I loved the mix of people and cultures in my in-town neighborhood. My little hatchback had an easy commute to grad school classes at UNC Charlotte, and on nice days like today I walked the few blocks to a small private prep school where I tripled as the art, civics, and Spanish teacher.

I had grown up in the city; my sixty-ish father was pastor of one of Charlotte’s oldest Methodist churches. His aging congregation adored him and pish-toshed rumors that he was gay—while discreetly accepting that the rumors were true.

I had a number of beloved uncles, who were kind and fatherly and fun. Most were pastors.

My mother had been older than Dad by a decade. They married, birthed me, and a year later she died of uterine cancer. "You were born with demons on your heels,” one of the church ladies told me. "God put a rocket engine on your angels.”

I had never felt that angels were hovering over me until after the... attack. It wasn’t that I felt tainted as a child, or a convenient beard for a gay man. Dad doted on me, and me on him. I was good at being a minis­ter’s daughter. A believer but not a fanatic. Neither was he. We all live with our curtains around us, our charades.

Now 24 years old, with a happy job and close friends, I lived in a world of safety and goodwill.

That noise again. Somebody’s moving furniture around.

Under the light of a lamp above the apartment stairwell, with the scent of spring flowers rising from below, I brushed away moths and unlocked my door, fumbling with my iPad. I stepped inside, reading an article titled, ‘A Cracked Door Lets In the Light. An alternative Christian perspective on the misfits, outcasts, free thinkers, soothsayers, and odd­balls who may be chatting with His authentic messengers.’

Dad had emailed it to me with his excited note in all caps.

INSPIRATION FOR MY EASTER SERMON. DO YOU DARE ME TO FOLLOW THROUGH?

Smiling, I was about to drop my shoulder bag and a tote full of my students’ paperwork on my contemporary Scandinavian some­thing- wood Ikea table by the entrance. I looked forward to exchanging my sweaty yoga pants and long tee for a shower and a UNC nightshirt.

My workout shoes toed a large, shaky object in the floor.

Still reading, I glanced down and halted. The Ikea lay there. In pieces.

"Get her,” a voice said.

"Let’s party, bitch.”

A hand, stinking of sweat and dirt, slammed into my face.

And the nice, pretty life of Lucy Parmenter ended.

BEEP. ON THE plank wall above my head, a yellow metal box with a guard dog logo uttered the beep again. The farm’s new security system was Alberta’s idea; not only connected to the internet, the sheriff’s of­fice, the county’s 411 emergency response system, but it also included a loud intercom function. Tensions were high in Jefferson County, just like elsewhere in the country. Divisions. Radicals. Threats of violence against the gov’ment. Any gov’ment.

I’d tried to detox the alarm system’s Orwellian effect by surround­ing it with my photos of mountain wildflowers and the mystical beauty of the old buildings at Free Wheeler.

"Heads up, Parmenter.” Alberta’s twangy voice. "Just giving you a follow-through on the situation. Monzell’s chicken kickers are spam­ming us again.”

"Oh?” My voice was reed-thin and high.

"I’m taking our website down so they can’t hack it. And let’s post­pone that test-run on the crisis hotline. Unless you want your volunteers to get their ears burned in the flame war.”

"I’ll double-check all of our virus protection.”

"We’re on alert.”

After she clicked off, I opened a drawer and fetched the adorable lit­tle handgun she’d purchased for me. I shucked my skirt and fitted the gun’s holster around my waist, over my leggings. The belt part was elas­tic with Velcro fasteners. The holster part was made to look like denim— cozy—but also waterproof. No sweat and no female juices would seduce my pretty little weapon. I had named her Louise, after my long-dead great aunt in Charlotte. Great Aunt Louise had shot a burglar with her vintage forty-five caliber pistol. He lost a thumb.

Soft and snuggly, Louise fit in the fake denim along my lower belly, with her muzzle imprinting atop my mound.

Now, I had a penis, and I could hurt people with it.

IN THE DISTANCE, the main farm house glowed with light, fragrant smoke rose from chimneys, and the small communal lodge hummed with music. Alberta and Macy organized events, speakers and classes for the women and kids. Tonight their Log Splitters’ band was playing. Heavy on the steel guitar (Alberta) and electric fiddle (Macy).

They were crushing a Bonnie Raitt song like dragons stepping on pe­tunias. It didn’t matter. They changed lives here, simply and sincerely, and against the odds. The average stay for women was two months, and during that time, Alberta and Macy hoped to impart more than give them a temporary refuge from a stalking husband or boyfriend.

Thanks to Cathy’s patronage, the success rate at the farm had in­creased even more in recent years. There was money for referrals to specialists, for follow-ups after the women graduated, and a foundation Cathy and Tom had set up funded scholarships for their kids.

Some said I was one of the farm’s success stories. Technically, I was no longer a patient. But I’d never been a domestic abuse case to begin with. I was a survivor of a violent sexual assault by semi-strangers. I was now an employee—management, actually, "Head of Fiber Arts and Wool Production,” which was a fancy way of saying I taught spinning, knitting, crocheting, shepherded the woolies, and oversaw how their wool was sold as fleeces or turned into commercially spun yarn. I was proud that my three years at Rainbow Goddess Farm coincided with the herd paying for itself and making a small profit.

But I was fooling everyone but myself if they thought I could hold down a job in the outside world, leave this sanctuary, and live as any­thing other than a recluse in a sheep barn.

The farm’s dairy cows watched me from the low light of the milk barn’s doorway, chewing their cuds like baseball players nursing gum and tobacco.

More trouble’s coming, Miss Lucy. Watch and listen. You’re one of the voices peo­ple need to hear.

Skeins of black and blood-red stitched dark patterns in the winter sky above the Ten Sisters Mountains. I had begun seeing visions and hearing Opal’s voice in my head not long after my doctors sent me to Rainbow Goddess. Opal had a country drawl. Her voice was young, and she enjoyed sassing me. She’d never told me her name—I just knew it, the way I knew certain things now. Predictions. Prophecies. Warnings. Like Cathy Deen Mitternich being pregnant with twins she wouldn’t miscarry this time.

I predicted that. A movie star’s successful motherhood.

The ability had terrified me at first. Hearing voices, seeing bright splashes of light and color and patterns. My Sunday school teachers hadn’t covered psychic powers.

Tasting and smelling. Clairgustance— psychictasting and clairessence— psy­chic smelling. Sub-sets of general clairvoyance. For a minister’s daugh­ter like me, all of that clair-this and that had always been secular nonsense. Carnival fortune-telling talk.

But then the... incident... that sent me here to the farm had wiped out any certainty that God cared about me or that the universe revolved around us in spiritual ways I truly understood. When the bro­ken part of me reached out for a way to pray again, God answered in the only way my heart could receive—through an angel who spoke via the soft, safe wool. So now I was... clair-wooly?

FOCUS.

But Now wasn’t going so well for the world. I was just a fleck of shrinking soul hood in the midst of a storm.

Some of the shop owners in Turtleville had stopped doing business with the farm. Said they couldn’t sanction our lifestyle. They were afraid of blowback.

Some of the churches had become emboldened to preach that Macy and Alberta and I were demons. Lesbian demons, converting disobedient women to witchcraft and sexual perversion. They didn’t want to risk losing the donations they got from Howard Monzell, owner and president of Monzell Poultry. The processed-chicken-selling king of the Appalachians had made it clear he was on the side of Alt-Right Makes Might.

And that he would wipe our infamy from his pure American com­mu­nity.

That he would get rid of me, in particular.

"Lucy, they arrested Mr. Khangura last week. Came right here into the li­brary and hauled him away from his gardening books. He’s lived in these mountains for fifty years. He let my kids try on that funny turban of his. Our sons grew up in his barber shop. But the new Native Born American Act says he doesn’t have the right papers. That he’s been put on a terrorist watch list. That’s just butt-damn stupid. Can you help? Please? Use your witch spells. Something. Please.”

"Miss Parmenter, I tracked them with my own two eyes. They had North Car­olina gov’ment license plates. They went up yonder outside Turtle­ville to that property that was the German prisoner camp back in World War I. They did some surveying. They had big design papers spread out on a table. You know what they’re gonna do. They’re gonna build a new camp. But this time it’ll be for Americans. For the Muslims and the gays. And for the rest of us, too, if we spit in the wrong face. Please talk to your yarn angel and ask her what to do.”

"Lucy, can the farm take in even one more woman? I know y’all got too many in your shelters already, but Evelyeen’s hiding in the storage room at my shop. Her husband caught her using birth control pills and beat the shit out of her. Said God and the Klan needs more white babies. Please work some magic on him. A hex or something. Please.”

I felt helpless. I’d been elevated from patient to counselor at Rain­bow Goddess, helping to provide food, shelter and counseling for nearly two hundred women and children. Every cabin and communal bunk house overflowed.

Macy and Alberta, the farm’s owners and head of Rainbow God­dess Refuge, couldn’t hire trustworthy outside help fast enough to take up the slack. Even with the financial support from the MacBrides, Cathy Deen Mitternich and Jay Wakefield, we were under siege. The cuts in social services. The rise of extremist groups that wanted women at home, barefoot and pregnant. Bruised.

And the wars.

War came first. War always comes first, when people are schooled to hate and fear one another. We had troops in parts of the world that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. Not just stationed there, but fighting new battles in wars that no one understood.

The shortages at home helped pay for them. Cutbacks in social ser­vices. Medicine, food, public education, the arts. Riots occurred almost every month in the biggest cities. Crime had skyrocketed.

Here in the Cove, people did what they had done for centuries in these Appalachians. They pulled in close, like cattle in a storm, heads together, backs to the enemy.

Only looking into each other’s worried eyes, and kicking, hard, blindly, whenever anyone new or strange or unsettling came near.

They believed the leaders who held the golden keys. The jobs, the power, the promises.

In Jefferson County, North Carolina, home of the county seat, Turtle­ville, the Cove and the Crossroads Café, just over four thousand tough, hardworking people were scattered across ridges and hollows where memories went to be forgotten.

Most of them earned their living growing fryer chickens.

All of them worked—either under grower contracts or in the pro­cessing plants, for Monzell Poultry.

Howard Monzell owned them.

His son-in-law, Chief Deputy Sheriff Kern Burkett, wanted to own me.

Kandahar province, Afghanistan

BLOOD-RED BEER gushed over the rubble. The burned oatmeal stink of over-cooked hops and bitter ale mixed with the mushroom scent of the dust and the acrid flavor of broken concrete. I tasted the mortar hit. Burning plastic and ammonia, like pissing on a fire full of milk jugs.

Now the bloody beer flooded around my boots and began to fill what was left of the tiny house. It rose fast; rising above my knees as I squatted beside the grieving mother and the bodies of her children. She and they disappeared in the crimson brew. So did I, taking one last breath as the raw swallow of death and guilt filled my lungs.

"Captain? We’ve confirmed that Sarbanri was here when you or­dered the attack. Someone tipped him off.”

I looked up at my translator, Sergeant Inez Sanchez. Riley’s replace­ment. Texas twang, like Riley’s. Tequila and pulled pork barbecue and hand-tooled cowboy boots. Bright pink lipstick behind her face shield. All heart and duty.

Tipped him off. I shoved my helmet backed and cursed silently.

"You had no way of knowing, Captain. He used this family as a shield.”

I have a way of knowing. Why did it fail me, this time?

Suddenly the woman made a high-pitched keening sound—not the ul­ulation of lips and tongue but a sheer, piercing, singsong shriek that gutted me. Her eyes, dark and glazed, shifted and jerked, focusing on me, cradling her dead daughters, their blood soaking her burka.

Words stuck in my throat.

I have sisters, I wanted to say. I don’t hurt women and children. I protect them. My whole life is about being a man who takes care of others. I failed once. I can’t fuck up again.

Sanchez nudged my shoulder with her knee. Riley had filled her in on my little secret. "Cap,” she said gruffly. "A bruja is still just a poor sinnerwaiting for God’s Word. My abuelita could tell you who would have babies the next year and when to plant tomatoes for the best har­vest. One hundred percent accuracy. But she couldn’t predict the addic­tion that killed four of my uncles.”

"I’ve called it right so many times. But this time... ”

"That’s why we trust you, Captain. You’re not perfect, but you’re sure as hell talking to angels.”

The woman’s voice became a sob, then freed itself to fire angry words at me. Sanchez stepped closer, listening, her face as still as dark granite. She looked only at the woman, and I could see the strain in her eyes, how rigidly she kept them trained away from the bodies.

My mouth filled with blood. "Translate,” I ordered. I knew enough Pashto to catch some of the words.

Sanchez blew out a breath. "She says she’s put a curse on your soul. She will take your spirit away.”

The woman’s song rose to an unearthly aieeeeethat echoed off the crumbled block walls. I took off my helmet and dropped it in the sand and blood between my boots. How must I have looked to her, a red-haired, ruddy-skinned killer from the other side of the world? I wanted to tell her I came from dirt-poor Scots-Irish immigrants who built cabins in wild southern mountains covered in blue-green forests, a place of tough but compassionate people who did not send their men to kill the innocent.

I stood. "Let the medics know she has something wrong here.” I made a rubbing motion below my navel. "She needs antibiotics.”

Sanchez nodded. "Probably a UTI. I’ll make it sound like she told me herself.”

"CAPTAIN, YOU’RE TO stand down where Sarbanri is concerned. He’s above your pay grade.”

"He’s murdering villagers.”

"Not your problem, Captain. Don’t rock the boat. You’ve got seven­teen years in; you’ve got a file full of pretty commendations to offset your crazy shit. You got a month’s leave coming in a few months. Enjoy your career.”

"If we’re not here to fix things, why are we here at all?”

"Hell if I know. Just follow orders. Let others worry about the big picture.”

I couldn’t do that. I saw the big picture, I smelled it. I woke some­times with its blood all over me and the pitiful bawls of calves begging not to die.

The[PP1] slaughterhouse smell of psychic death. Liver. It came to me as well as Tal and Gabs. The one kitchen charm that spoke to all of us.

He’s always goin’ to be with you, Gus.

Big hands on my shoulders. My cop uncles took over for Dad, that day. Sergeant Charlie Osgood led the way. A dozen others standing nearby. Their wives tried to comfort Gabby, who stood rigidly, guarding Tal, who sat under a hospital gurney with her back turned to us all. Gabby was ten. Tal was only five years old. I was twelve.

"Gus, he wouldn’t want you to do this. Your mama don’t expect it, either.”

"I promised him, Uncle Charlie. I’d be the man of the family, if any­thing ever happened. It’s my job.”

I walked through the doors they opened, and through other doors, and into bright lights that made it hard to think about what was behind the white screen in a room with tile on the floor you could wash down with a hose.

And then Mama stepped in front of me. She looked a thousand years old, not thirty-two. Apple pie and the essence of dad’s brew-man soul swirled around us. She took my hand and pressed a silver crochet hook into my palm. All the filigree had worn down where MacBrides had gripped the metal since time began, leaving tendrils etched in the shadows where their fingers once lay. The hook was bent at a terrible angle. I started shaking inside. Dad always carried it in a pocket of his uniform. He crocheted and knitted, no matter who laughed at him. He taught me how.

"It’s yours, now,” Mama whispered. "We’ll get it repaired.”

Nothing can fix it. Nothing can fix what’s on the other side of that screen. Or in­side me.

"I want to see him,” I said.

"He’s not here,” Mama whispered. "You know that.”

"I smell his cigar. I smell beer, and barbecued pork.”

She took my face between her hands. "Of course he’s with us that way. He’s everywhere we’ll ever be, forever. I’ve been talking to him, and he’s not in pain, and he’s not afraid, and he’s not worried about us. He knows we’ll be okay. That’s the blessing of the other realms. That’s the wisdom and the wonder of passing over.”

I nodded, tears rolling off my face and down into her palms.

Mama and I held hands and walked over to view his body. Charlie and my other cop-uncles had tried to warn me. Dad had been hit by a tractor-trailer while working an accident site on an icy road north of Asheville. It was bad.

He was broken in a lot of ways.

So was I, from then on.


[PP1]New scene


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