The Biscuit Witch

The Biscuit Witch

Deborah Smith

April 2013 $10.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-304-7

This time, the MacBrides are home to stay.

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Dear Dr. Firth:

I know you are in your cups at this time, drinking, taking pills, and sleeping under trees, but I have some experience rehabilitating lost souls in that regard, and so I am enclosing a box of my biscuits and a cold-wrapped container of cream gravy for dessert. Please eat and write back.

We need a veterinarian of your gumption here in the Crossroads Cove of Jefferson County.

--Delta Whittlespoon, proprietress of The Crossroads Café


Biscuit witches, Mama called them. She’d heard the term as a girl. She’d inherited that talent. My mother could cast spells on total strangers simply by setting a plate of her biscuits in front of them.–Tal MacBride


Welcome back to the Crossroads Cove where new loves, old feuds, and poignant mysteries will challenge siblings Tal, Gabby, and Gus MacBride to fight for the home they lost and to discover just how important their family once was, and still is, to the proud people of the Appalachian highlands.

Tallulah MacBride hasn’t been back to North Carolina since their parents’ tragic deaths, twenty years ago. But now, Tal heads to cousin Delta Whittlespoon’s famous Crossroads Café in the mountains above Asheville, hoping to find a safe hiding place for her young daughter, Eve.

What she finds is Cousin Delta gone, the café in a biscuit crisis, and a Scotsman, who refuses to believe she’s passing through instead of "running from.” He believes she needs a knight in shining flannel.

When a pair of sinister private eyes show up, Tal’s troubles are just beginning.

For Tal’s brother and sister—Gabby, the Pickle Queen, and Gus, the Kitchen Charmer—the next part of the journey will lead down forgotten roads and into beautiful but haunted legacies.


"I was hooked…call me a devoted fan who is screaming for MORE MORE MORE…" -- Nicole Henke, Bless Their Hearts Mom Blog

"…a very enjoyable and fun read." -- Sherita Howell, Goodreads

"…a tale of love…the love of family, the love of cooking and the love of a good man." -- Charice Cusack, Goodreads



Delta rescues another lost and hungry soul

Dear Doctor Firth,

I run my kitchen and my life by two sayings: Good food speaks louder than words, and Nobody’s a stranger, just a cousin waiting to be recognized.

Maybe that second one is a southern idea, even more than most. Howsomeever, here goes.

I read about you at Whittlespoons R Us, the online genealogy newsletter for my husband’s (Sheriff Pike Whittlespoon of Jefferson County, North Carolina) family. Your great-grandfather Angus Firth of Glasgow is Pike’s third cousin twice removed on his daddy’s side, through the Jefferson line, meaning it’s likely that you share the Jefferson appreciation for cloven-hooved animals, liquor, family, good food, and the other passions of living. (Sex! Football!)

I know you are in your cups at this time, drinking, taking pills, and sleeping under trees, but I have some experience rehabilitating lost souls in that regard, and so I am enclosing a box of my biscuits and a cold-wrapped container of cream gravy for dessert. Please eat and write back.

We need a veterinarian of your gumption here in the Crossroads Cove of Jefferson County. My famous movie-star cousin, Cathy Deen Mitternich, and her husband, Thomas, have purchased assorted goats for their estate on Wild Woman Ridge, and our local berry farmers and lesbians, Alberta and Macy Spruill-Groover, wish to add sheep to their collection of critters and abused women they shelter. We could use an animal doctor who doesn’t mind progressive Oddness.

If you are willing to move up here, I have Jay Wakefield’s permission to offer you a no-rent fixer-upper on his property at the nearby haunted village of Free Wheeler. Since Jay has become a friend of yours already, you know he is one of the richer-than-Midas-and-stingier-than-Scrooge Wakefields of Asheville, but did you know this? He’s related to me on his grandmother’s father’s side, so he’s got a soft heart for peculiarities. I’ve been dosing him with biscuits and gravy since he was a bitter teenager stuck in a private boarding school, and I believe I’ve greased his view of the Wakefield family curse.

I can also promise you plenty of friendship among the local women plus Saturday night card games at Pike’s poker trailer, free meals at the Crossroads Café, and enough veterinary business to build yourself a decent income here in the Cove (and also over at Turtleville, our county seat). Most of all, I promise you lots of biscuits.

Come home, Cousin Douglas Firth of Scotland and now from Florida. You know we are descended from the same stock, don’t you? Mountaineering Irish and Scots and Scots-Irish around here? Plus Cherokee, African American, Vikings, outcast Romans, the Ten Tribes of Israel, and space aliens (That last one is harder to prove.)

You’ll fit right in.


Cousin Delta.

Three years later

A SCOTSMAN, two lesbians, an agoraphobic knitter, five herding dogs, and three hundred sheep walk into a bar and...

Ought to make a fine joke, you’d think. But it was for real, that is, the reality as I’ve come to know and love it, another day in the gently accepting world o’ the Cove, or, in this case, one mile higherthan the Cove in altitude, up on the ridges of the Little Sheba, one of the Ten Sisters Mountains.

Damn sheep don’t need to go to pasture up here. Lots o’ fine pastureland down in the Cove. That’s what I get for hiring Alberta and Macy Spruill-Groover to tend my herd along with theirs. Lesbian feminist shepherds!

"The feminine urge to explore should be nurtured,” they said.

"The instincts of the ewes come from the Mother Goddess,” they said. "The Mother Goddess says they must follow the call to roam.”

Then I say Mother Goddess could come up here by herself in the arse-chilling November cold and risk being run over by a speeding poultry truck or a pack of joy-riding bikers. We were herding the sheep down the Asheville Trace. Even at its best, the narrow old two-lane is a steep, winding launch ramp for idiots on wheels. We’d have taken an off-road route instead, but the temperature was dropping fast. Had to get home before the fall lambs froze to their mams’ teats.

"Trouble ahead, Doc!” Macy shouted. Alberta started whistling commands to the sheep dogs. I was bringing up the rear, trying not to step in sheep dung, at least not before my new hiking boots got the shine of the Turtleville Shoe Bee Hiking Store rubbed off. Macy and Alberta were hidden around a curve at the front of the flock. Lucy Parmenter looked back at me from her seat atop a tractor, her face going so pale she could be one of my grandmama’s blond ceramic dolls back in Glasgow. BeforeGrandmama painted their bisque-white faces.

"No worries, Luce, just hold the course,” I soothed. She nodded shakily then faced forward. For Lucy Parmenter to creep out of her fiber studio at Rainbow Goddess Farm was a huge step forward; driving this tractor pulling a wagon full of lambs was an accomplishment that made Macy, her therapist, dance a jig.

"No dawdling,” I growled, as the ewes ahead of me began to slow or even stop. Sheep are the lookie-loo’s of the herd world. Give them any distraction whatsoever, and they’ll cause a traffic jam. You’d have better luck making good time on a city highway during rush hour behind a stalled bus full of naked strippers giving away free Lotto tickets.

Lots of insulting bahs came my way, and the ripple of slow/stop behavior continued to build. Around the curve, the dogs began to bark, and Alberta stopped whistling and started yelling. "Down. Stay. No!”

"What in the hell is going on up there?” I muttered. Propping my walking stick on one shoulder, I strode through the flock as fast as I could.

"Tagger’s finally caught a car!” Macy yelled.

A cranky veterinarian, two lesbian goddess worshipers, a little blond fiber artist who’s about to faint like a frightened bunny, a stalled herd of sheep, five freaked-out Belgian Shepherds, and a giant black bear named Tagger walk into a bar...

. . . and I meet Tal MacBride.


Chapter One

Tallulah MacBride, the biscuit witch

WHEN MAMA died, I heard her heart stop beating. And then, she spoke to me.

My head was burrowed on her chest as she lay on the cold linoleum floor of our little house in West Asheville. I was six years old. Her heart thumped in my ear in rhythm to my sobs. Around me I heard Gabby ordering "Mama, breathe!” and Gus yelling our address into the kitchen phone.

But I shut them out so I could concentrate on the softening, slowing, hesitating beat of Mama’s heart. When the sound faded away to nothing, a terrifying stillness rose up inside me. Some people believe a person’s spirit lingers for a while after the body stops living, but not me. The silent darkness of her stopped heart opened like a black well, and I fell in. I can’t describe the infinite emptiness of that moment when the sweet thump of her heart ended, that infinity between one heart beat to the silence of forever. I can only say I tried to follow the trail of silence. Tried to follow Mama wherever she’d gone.

I want to go with you. Anywhere. There must be an Anywhere if you’re going there.

Except for what happened next, I might not have survived that plunge. I would have left some important part of my soul behind in the unleavened silence of a dark, distant heaven.

The aroma of apple pie suddenly surrounded me. Not the pie Mama had splattered on the floor when she fell, but the soul of it, Mama’s soul, just like the angel I’d seen floating in the steam above the stove a few minutes before she collapsed.

Mama had gone with that pie angel.

She whispered to me.

Gus and Gabby need you, baby. You’re the only one who can take care of them for me. Go on back now, you hear? And keep them safe. You’re the biscuit witch. Gabby’s the pickle queen, and Gus is the kitchen charmer.

I still can’t describe the wonder of that whisper. Even in the deepest grief, I knew I had a job to do. Somehow, I—the baby of the family—would become the quirky starch that held us together.

I promise. I will. But oh, Mama. Don’t go.

I have to, baby. But I’ll always be here when you cook for love.

Small children can hear the whispers of angels. The nature of unleavened childhood is so open to magic and so quiet. We are born inside our mothers, listening to their heartbeats, surrounded by their life. That memory never dies.

I heard. I believed.

Baked, Pickled and Stewed

FAMILY SCANDALS are like most "secret” family recipes—not very secret and not that special. Their mystique comes from the fact that, once upon a time, someone cared enough to hide them. Our grandmother, Emma Nettie, proved that a really good cook can dish up a scandal worthy of the name. Its secret ingredient? Our grandfather.

No one knew his identity. Not even Mama. Grandma Emma died in nineteen fifty-two when Mama was still a baby. Nettie’s relatives raised Mama. Had Grandma Emma been a shameful trollop or just a free spirit? A bootlegger’s babe or a minister’s girlfriend? Or both?

The known ingredients were these: she was a half-sister to Mary Eve Nettie, the Wild Woman of Wild Woman Ridge, high in the Ten Sister Mountains northwest of Asheville. Mary Eve was no shrinking violet either but managed to establish a more conventional brand of free-thinking womanhood than Emma. Both were great cooks.

Biscuit witches, Mama called them. She’d heard the term as a girl. She’d inherited that talent. My mother, Jane Eve Nettie MacBride, could cast spells on total strangers simply by setting a plate of her biscuits in front of them.

Mary Eve taught both Mama and her cousin, Delta Whittlespoon, to cook. Mama and Delta ran together as teens, working as short-order cooks and waitresses, smoking inventive substances, sipping homemade wine, chugging cheap beer, and sampling illegal corn whiskey (moonshine that’s been aged to mellow it). Mama was twenty-two when Mary Eve died. Delta was twenty.

Delta married Pike Whittlespoon, the future sheriff of Jefferson County, and Mama married our heroic Daddy, Stewart MacBride—farm boy, ex-army sarge, and Asheville police officer. She and Daddy scraped together the money for her to open Baked, Pickled and Stewed, the best hole-in-the-wall diner in Asheville, down the hill on Lexington Avenue, which was not the fine bohemian boulevard of hippies, slackers, art students, mimes, musicians, and tourist traffic it is today, but was then a place of forgotten storefronts and boarded-over vintage office buildings, where even the once glam Victorian gargoyles looked worried about the neighborhood.

Daddy built the diner’s tables out of rescued shipping pallets, and the chairs were salvaged from a tobacco warehouse that had been converted to a used furniture store out near Weaverville. Thus, the Baked, Pickled and Stewed Diner had everything from cane-backed chairs to sixties’ vinyl, seventies’ Naugahhyde, church pews, and a long hand-carved bench with toilet holes spaced along it. (Mama covered them with an upholstered plank.) Somewhere, a community outhouse was missing its sing-along room.)

Before long, the B, P and S became the must-go eatery for breakfast, lunch, and take-out dinners in the go-go years of the nineteen seventies. (Closing at seven p.m. every night so Mama could spend evenings with us and Daddy.) Mama believed in "farm-to-table” freshness decades before the marketing weasels coined that term. She offered herb-seasoned home cooking and from-scratch baking, plus sold her canned jellies, jams, relishes, and MacBride secret-recipe pickles. Daddy washed dishes and bussed tables, prepped vegetables, and kept the accounts.

Within the first two years, she and Daddy made enough money for a down payment on a house over in West Asheville—the bad side of town, putting it politely. Drive west out of the city, down Chicken Hill through the old cotton mill district, past the abandoned turn-of-the-century buildings of the river district, over the bridge at the French Broad, and up into a woodsy community of small clapboard homes and run-down shops built in the twenties and thirties. West Asheville had never quite recovered from the Depression forty years earlier.

Mama and Daddy didn’t mind the shabby surroundings. They were proud owners of a three-bedroom bungalow with a porch, two acres of yard, a clearing just perfect for a garden, and lots of play space for kids.

When Gus was born, Daddy revealed what would, in today’s terms, be called his "metrosexual streak.” Our big, freckled, ass-kicking, deer-hunting, red-headed Daddy loved old Hollywood movies the way crows love cornfields and shiny cans. Thus, our brother was christened Groucho Marx MacBride. Four years later, when our sister was born, he wanted to name her "Harpo.” At which point Mama donned her pink Jellies (it was the nineteen eighties, after all) and put her foot down. So Daddy compromised, and my sister was christened Greta Garbo MacBride.

Two years after that, I came along. Daddy conceded again or else my name might be Chico.

Instead, I am Tallulah Bankhead MacBride.

The three of us roamed the empty lots and kudzu-tangled woods of our forgotten neighborhood like fearless explorers. Gus and Gabby cleared a trail from our backyard down to the French Broad River, where Gus built a cook pit from river rocks, Gabby dug up interesting roots to boil, and I tamed squirrels by offering them treats: my Little Miss Baking Oven cookies, which would have tasted better if the oven were powered by something hotter than a sixty-watt light bulb. I am living proof: raw cookie dough will not kill a determined junior chef.

Our childhoods were a sunny, buttery-good paradise until Daddy got killed rescuing a family from a backroads wreck. A tractor-trailer swung loose on the icy mountain road and sideswiped him. Mama broke into little pieces, though she put up a brave front for our sakes. The diner suffered, and the landlord—who owned big chunks of Asheville and wanted to tear down every building older than a well-aged brie—cancelled her lease.

She took a job on the factory line at a potato-chip company, collapsed in our kitchen one night two months later, and died before the ambulance came. The doctors called it an aneurysm, but the truth was this: Mama died of betrayal and a broken heart. She was only thirty-nine years old.

Gus was eleven. Gabby was nine, and I was six. Delta fought to adopt us, but the paperwork fell through because of a bungled file at the courthouse. We escaped from foster care with the help of an elderly neighbor who sent us to California to live with friends who operated several restaurants in Los Angeles. The Rodriquez’s were older and had only one child, a daughter who proved to be Gus’s undoing eventually. Plus they had a soft spot for illegal immigrants. That’s how our status felt. We laid low, grew up, and never forgot the pain of being outcasts.

Delta loved us from afar all that time, sending food and encouragement.

We had never forgotten that.

She was proof that family recipes, even the secret ones, are worth keeping. Even if they come to us on tattered paper with tears and stains and missing ingredients.

Biscuit wishes and unread mail

WE WERE RAISED to minister to the hungry, to nourish the sorrowful and bear witness to the fruitful joys of shared food, but somehow our lives had become a messy buffet of half-baked dreams, sour hopes, and bitter brews. Mama and Daddy trained us to stay true to our inner appetites, but we lost our whey. If life is a menu, our Daily Specials should be sent back to the kitchen for a second try. As mountain cooks say: If you can’t stand the heat, go lick a different pepper.

Find a wall, smack my head against it, and think about my life so far. That was my motto at the moment.

I was running from Eve’s father, thanks to an arrest warrant that had been issued after he said I assaulted him with a cupcake decoration. I’d do whatever it took to protect Eve, especially from the man who fathered her. Mark Anthony Mark, New York’s most famous restaurant entrepreneur, the star of the top-rated ‘Mark Anthony Mark’s Cuisine!’ on the extremely popular Kitchen TV Network, didn’t want to be part of her life. He just wanted to make certain no one found out he’d never wanted her at all.

"Oy! You’ve got another card from that peculiar cousin of yours,” my Brooklyn landlord, Mirielle, reported. "The envelope smells like... like milk and sausage. Puh-tooey! Do you want me to open it?”

A birthday card from Delta. She never missed our birthdays.

"No, just save it with the rest of the mail, thank you.”

Talking to Mirielle Steinburg was the last conversation I risked before I wrapped my cell phone in foil inside a cookie tin so no one could track me using its GPS. I was driving out of New York when she called, with Eve napping in the back seat of my Bronco.

"You and Eve will return soon?” Mirielle asked.

"Yes, in four or five days.”

"I hope it’s worth it to drive all the way to Minnesota to buy an oven for the shop!”

I had no idea where we were going. The Minnesota story was a cover. "It’s a good deal I can’t pass up. Bye, and thanks again for collecting my mail. I’ll read Delta’s card when I get back!”

I stuffed the phone inside a wad of tin foil and then into the small cookie tin. I’d researched this on the web. Mark’s hired snoops couldn’t track my phone signals.

Plan. I needed a plan. California, with Gabby, was too far away. Where else...


That’s it! I’d take Eve to North Carolina and ask Delta to hide us. Delta would give us sanctuary. The Cousinhood of the Biscuit Witches is a powerful bond.

I’d go home.


North Carolina? We hadn’t been back in over twenty years. My home was a tiny two-room walk-up in Brooklyn, above my cupcake bakery. I saw the cake pan as half-full, never half-empty. Everyone thought I was too soft in the middle, too sweet around the edges, and I needed a thicker crust. Gus was stout-hearted. Gabby was salty, and I kneaded to be needed.

What did home mean to me, Gus, and Gabby now? After fifteen years in the army, four tours of the Middle East, and a chest full of medals, Captain Gus MacBride still volunteered for duty in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. He had an open-ended offer to return stateside as a training instructor at Fort Merrill, the ranger camp down in Georgia, but he kept stalling. We begged him to see that he’d done what he promised to do when Daddy died—be the man of the family, take care of Mama and us. We knew he’d used up all his luck with too many close calls. Gabby and I were terrified that he’d come home in a coffin.

Out in Los Angeles, Gabby, thirty-one, was about to lose everything she thought she’d ever wanted: her Porsche, her expensive townhouse in a suburb of Long Beach, and her restaurant, in a court battle with her high-maintenance movie-star partner, John Michael Michael.

Obviously, she and I shared an affinity for men with odd names.

What would I find in the mountains? Maybe just a reason to leave again. Julia Child said this about cooking, but it applies to life, too: "You’ve got to have a ‘what-the-hell’ attitude.”

It’s not just what you remember that leads you back home. It’s what you don’t want to forget.

One day later...

How Tagger caught a cupcake

"MOMMY, ARE we driving through a zoo?” Eve asked from the back seat of our ancient SUV. I’d pulled off on the roadside to study a map again. The old-fashioned, fold-out, paper kind.

Our meandering route was named the Asheville Trace—an aged, graying two-lane with a faded center line and crumbling edges. Winter trees crowded close on one side. On the other, rivulets of ice marked the paths of water trickling down a craggy wall of rock. At a distant curve, the alley of rock and trees opened to reveal a soaring view of rounded mountaintops sinking into an ocean of silver clouds. Somewhere in the vast view of forest, mountain peaks, and the occasional small river was the Crossroads Cove. We’d left Asheville two hours ago, but still, no sign of the Cove. The bright blue post-Thanksgiving November sky had gone cloudy with the last survivors of brilliant red and gold leaves whisking across the windshield. The weather report at our Asheville motel had promised freezing temps by nightfall.

"No, sweetie, we’re not in a zoo or a wild animal park or anything,” I told Eve. "Why do you think so?” I tugged off a wide, knitted headband—deep purple with multi-colored pom poms, because Eve picked it out for my birthday at a Brooklyn thrift shop, and the dancing bobbles on my head made her laugh. Warm air gushed from the SUV’s untrustworthy heater, which had two settings: Shiver and Sweat. I dabbed my forehead with the headband. I hadn’t slept well in weeks. Shanks of long, tangled red hair fell on either side of my face. I had no peripheral vision, or I would have shrieked.

"A bear is licking my window,” Eve said calmly.

I pivoted in the driver’s seat. Sure enough, a huge black bear was placidly licking the passenger-side back window, inches from my red-haired princesses’ curious face. She touched the spot where its long pink tongue hit the glass. "Hello, Mr. Bear! Would you like a Monkey Poop cupcake?” She unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to fetch a cupcake from a container next to her. On the drive down from New York I’d distracted her by baking her favorite—a banana-flavored cake mix topped with banana-flavored yellow frosting. Thus, the name, Monkey Poop. A desk clerk let me use the kitchen of the motel’s complimentary breakfast alcove.

"No!” I hit the automatic door locks. "No, sweetie, we can’t open the window and feed Mr. Bear. He might accidentally nibble us. Just sit tight. We’re leaving.”

"But he looks hungry, Mommy. And cold.” Her green eyes, like mine—and Gabby’s, and Gus’s. We inherited them from Daddy—were shadowed and tired. No matter how many times I told her we were on a vacation trip to meet our North Carolina relatives, she sensed that all was not well. For one thing, I’d never pulled her out of kindergarten in mid-week before. School was very important. She planned to be an astronaut, a doctor, or a toll booth collector. "Mr. Bear looks sad and worried,” she said in a small voice. "He’s like me. He needs a Monkey Poop to cheer him up.”

I caved. "All right, I’ll drive up the road a little ways then stop and throw a cupcake out. Wave bye-bye to the bear. We’ll sit in the car and watch him eat.”

She brightened. "Okay.”

I turned the ignition key. Clatter, clang, rattle rattle, brrrrrr. Then silence. I groaned. Two dead batteries in three years. Three, counting this one. "Aw, dammit!”

"Aw, dammit,” Eve repeated solemnly.

The bear acted as if he understood the situation. Now, we were at his mercy. He thrust his snout against a wide patch of duct tape I’d plastered over the top third of the passenger window. The window sometimes refused to roll all the way down, or, conversely, to roll all the way back up. I was still a southerner at heart. Give us some duct tape and baling wire, and we can fix anything.

The duct tape surged inward, tented by Mr. Bear’s large nose. I unbuckled, climbed over the center console, and slapped the imprint it made. He snorted, shook his huge head, and poked the tape again. I rapped the bulge with my knuckles. "Go! Get back! Beat it!”

He sneezed then shoved harder. The patch started ripping away from the door frame. I grabbed my faux-leather tote off the floor, pulled out a hairbrush, and repeatedly whacked the bulge that continued to get bigger and protrude further inside the car.

"Here, Mommy, he just wants a cupcake.” Eve leaned between the seats and held one toward the bulge.

"Sweetie, sit down!”

I pushed her backwards and grabbed the cupcake from her. The Bronco rocked as the bear plowed his big chest and shoulders into its side. The window patch ripped away.

Suddenly I was nose-to-nose with his nose and his lapping tongue. Both of his round, black ears were adorned with several metal tags. Not a good sign. He had a criminal record. A repeat offender. I glimpsed white fangs big enough to punch holes in steel siding. A whoosh of cold air rushed inside along with the greasy stink of unwashed ursine funk. The bear wrapped his tongue around my hand and the cupcake. I let go, and the cupcake disappeared into his toothy maw. Chomp, chomp, swallow.

I jerked my slobber-covered hand away and scrambled between the seats into the back. My knees sank into something gushy. The open plastic container full of Monkey Poop cupcakes.

He shoved again. The window buckled. A sound like popcorn popping filled my ears as the safety glass cracked. "Cover your face and get down!” I yelled to Eve. The window collapsed. I pushed her to the floor. Pebbles of glass bounced merrily. The bear shoved his entire head and neck into the Bronco, sniffing avidly. The Bronco was full of bear. He was practically sitting in the passenger seat.

Eve, my amazing child, was giggling like crazy. I turned myself into a human shield, sitting in the center of the back seat and shielding her body by jamming my knees into the opening between the front seats. I glared at the bear. I became Sigourney Weaver facing the giant bug-like creature in Alien.

Get away from her, you bastard.

But unlike Sigourney, the front of my legs was covered in banana-flavored cake mix and yellow icing.

The bear sniffed hard at me and uttered a soft, hungry noise. "Mawr.”

"He wants more,” Eve translated.

Slurp. Who knew bears have such long, stretchable tongues? His snout hovered over the center console. My cupcake-smeared knees were easily reached. He began licking me.

"Eve, sweetie, I want you to crawl over the seat into the cargo section, okay?”

"I wanna see what he’s doing.”

"You can watch from the back. Now go!”

She hustled over the seat and into the cargo area, chortling. "He’s eating Monkey Poop off your blue jeans!”

Slurp. He was, indeed.

"I’m going to sit still, very still, until he finishes. He can’t reach any farther inside the car. Black bears don’t want to hurt people. He’s just hungry. When your aunt and uncle and I were growing up outside Asheville, we saw bears all the time. We’ll be fine.”

He’d wander off. I’d clean up, dig out my cell phone even though I shouldn’t, and call for help. No one in the Cove would ever know that Tallulah MacBride was not a bonafide North Carolinian anymore, but instead, a New York City woman so damn clueless she got herself and her little girl trapped in the back of a decrepit SUV with a bear licking banana cupcake off her legs.

"Look, Mommy, somebody’s coming,” Eve said.

The road behind us was now full of four-footed spectators with dreadlocks. Sheep. Big sheep with long, corkscrew curls and dusky blue faces. Also, huge, shaggy black dogs. Two sturdy women were heading toward my Bronco, swooshing the air with shepherd’s crooks straight out of Little Bo Peep. Unlike Miss Peep, they wore quilted coats over baggy overalls. Rainbow-hued knit caps covered curly red hair on one, long blond braids on the other.

Mr. Bear, still using me as a cupcake-delivery device, did not seem to care or notice.

"Tagger, you sneaky bastard!” the brawnier of the two women bellowed. "Get your freaking head out of that freaking window!”

"What’s a ‘freaking head,’ Mommy?”

This was no time for a lecture on bad language. "The lady is just mad at Mr. Bear’s head,” I said. "Shhh.”

That was no lady, that was ex-marine Alberta Spruill-Groover, who eschewed the term "lady” as a label meant to divide women into camps: Demure vs. Alberta. I would learn that later, during introductions. At the moment, I watched her smack the bear’s large black rump with her crook.

"My Gawd,” Alberta bawled through the windows. "What’s in that goo on your knees? Bear bait? He’s never done anything thisballsy before!”

Not only did the bear ignore her, he strained forward to lick my cupcake-coated self more efficiently. Alberta bent down further to peer at us through the back window. "Tagger’s harmless,” she said loudly. "See all those tags on his ears? He’s been caught raiding campsites so many times the forestry service quit bothering to keep records. But youshould know better. Don’t feed the bears! This is not some kind of cutesy pie exhibit at Disneyland!”

"I didn’t feed the bear. He broke in and fed himself.”

"Why didn’t you drive off?”

"Dead battery.”

"Why didn’t you just sit tight and wait for somebody to come by and give you a jump start? Why’d you open a window?”

"I didn’t,” I said through gritted teeth. "He opened it with his head.”

"City girl, aren’t you? This is why everybody oughta carry a gun. All you have to do is wave a gun at Tagger. He hates them.”

"I have a nine millimeter Glock 19 in my tote.” A gift from Gus. He gave Gabby one, also. There. My bonafides. Bite me, NRA spokeswoman.

"A gun doesn’t do any damn good unless you get it out of your purse, girly.”

Eve defended me. "Mommy wouldn’t shoot Mr. Bear! So she got out her hairbrush and smacked him on the nose!”

Alberta stared at me. Her flat little lips formed an upside-down half-moon, the kind that precedes a snarky laugh and a full-blown eye-rolling. "You got a license to carry a lethal weapon like that?”

Okay, okay, my humiliation is complete.

She returned to whacking Tagger. Tagger continued to lick my legs.

Someone knocked on the opposite window. I swiveled quickly.

Looking at us was a lumberjack. Plaid flannel, canvas cargo pants, a fleece-lined jacket. Thick, wavy hair the rust-brown color of old copper shagged around his face. He had blue eyes under Magnum P.I.-era, Tom Selleck brows. His eyes were sad, even a little hard. Though he was bent over to look at us, he seemed very tall. He tapped a large knuckle on the window again.

When I frowned at him, he tilted his head and studied me, frowning in return.

"No worries, girls,” he said in a deep Scottish brogue. He pivoted to look at Eve in the cargo bay. He touched a fingertip to the reflection of her wonder-filled eyes, and he smiled when she smiled back. It was like a sip of Scotch whiskey with a cinnamon bun for dessert. He lit up the car, the mountains, the universe.

He returned to frowning at me and tapped the window again, then pointed to his right ear. "Can you hear me?” he said loudly. "Do you have a wee bit of an ear problem?”

I pressed the window control. As it rolled down, the wind brought his scent to me. Flannel and wool and all man. "No, I have a wee bit of a bear problem.”

"That’s an interestin’ way you have of dealin’ with it.”

"Food is a universal language. This bear and I are communicating though cupcakes. Is it safe to take my daughter out of the car?”

"Probably, but if you’ll scrape some of that frosting back into its dish, I’ll lure Tagger away with it first.”

"It’s called Monkey Poop,” Eve told him, her voice low and distracted. She clasped the back seat and leaned over it, studying him fervently. I wondered what was churning in her five-year-old brain.

"Is it, sweetheart? The two of you are no’ so good as bear bait, though you do smell like the sweetest bakery ever.”

I felt heat rising in my face. I have freckles. They would now merge into a reddish pattern, and I’d resemble a half-ripe strawberry. I turned to the humiliating business of scraping banana cupcake goo off my jeans. Tagger never stopped licking me. To hell with it. I shoved his toothy snout aside and scooped the debris of six cupcakes into the plastic container.

"Good girl,” the Scotsman said, having no apparent concern that "girl” is not the politically correct term for a twenty-nine-year-old bakery chef, mother, and human strawberry.

I handed him the container. "My name is Tal MacBride. And this is my daughter, Eve.”

His mouth quirked. "The name’s Doug Firth. A pleasure to meet you.”

"We’re lost,” Eve put in. "And homeless.”

"No, no,” I corrected too quickly. "Lost, yes. Homeless, no.”

"But Mommy, you said we can’t go back home...”

"Could you tell me if the Crossroads Café is far from here, Mr. Firth?”

He was studying us intently, those thick, young Selleck brows knitted together. Time for a mommy-daughter talk about not repeating things Mommy says.

His brows lifted. Good. Maybe he wouldn’t pry. "Just down the mountain.” He pointed ahead. "Keep going, and you can’t miss it. The scent of biscuits will draw you right to the front door.”

"Thank you.”

"Doc!” Alberta Spruill-Groover hollered from behind us somewhere. "Bunny’s gone belly up! Macy’s going to drive the tractor the rest of the way.”

"Can Bunny hop?” he called back.

"Nope. She’s not good for even a single hippity.”

He bent to me again. "One of our friends isn’t feeling well. Could you give her a lift to yon café? It’s just down the mountain a wee mile or two.”

"We can do that. Okay. But first, can you give me a jump start?” That didn’t come out right. I knew it, and so did he.

"My pleasure,” he said. He put just enough English on our Cue Ball of Innuendo. It curved in a slow, sensuous arc and dropped deep into my corner pocket. I arched a warning brow. At the same time, my strawberry turned ripe for the picking.

"Doc? Can the Hairbrush Commando take Bunny in her Bearmobile?”

He sighed, straightened, and called back, "Aye, I’ve already asked her. Just let me jump her off, first.”

Alberta’s raucous hoots hit me like verbal paint balls. "We’ll help Bunny wobble up there as soon as Tagger scrams.”

"Give me five minutes, and Tagger will be on his way.” Doc Firth stepped back, ducked his head at me, and smiled. "Thank you, girls... ladies... Tal and Eve.”

Eve called out, "Mr. Bear won’t eat you, will he?”

"No, sweetie, he’s a gentleman. Give a little, get a little. Share the sweetness. The fellowship of food is not for us two-legged beasties alone.” He walked around the front of the SUV, holding out the container of smushed cupcakes. Moving slowly and carefully, he leaned over the hood and waggled it. Tagger looked at him through my windshield, sniffed, then withdrew his head from my ruined window. He headed toward Doug.

"Watch out, Doc,” Alberta warned. "Whatever that shit is, he seems to love it. He might lunge at you.”

Doug Firth backed away slowly, calling softly in his brogue, "Come along, beastie, come along.” The giant bear lumbered after him like a big dog. I held my breath.

"I want to take Tagger home with us,” Eve said. She looked at me sadly. "Where is our home? Is it really gone?”

"Our home is right here.” I liked New York, but my roots were in these mountains. I touched a finger to her chest then to mine. She had been born inside me. She knew the sound of my heart. "Heart to heart.”

"Look!” She pointed to the floor board. I retrieved an intact Monkey Poop cupcake. It was completely unharmed. Not a dent in the icing, not a single, slurpy slime-trail from Tagger’s tongue, nothing. Eve sighed. "It’s magic.”

I watched Doug Firth stop at the edge of the woods. He held out my plastic container to Tagger. The bear took it in his jaws with gentle manners. His sizable teeth came close to Firth’s hand, but Firth never flinched.

"Oh my,” Eve whispered, as he slowly stroked the bear’s wide forehead. Tagger lumbered away at a placid pace, carrying his prize. Doc Firth and he had an understanding. Share the sweetness.

A sweet-talking man. So irresistible that even wild bears were charmed, and strawberries ripened on his tongue.

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