The Crossroads Cafe

The Crossroads Cafe

Deborah Smith

$16.95 September 15, 2006
ISBN: 0-9768760-5-1

She was Hollywood's most beautiful actress until a horrific accident scarred her for life. Catherine Deen returns to her isolated North Carolina town to hide, never expecting to find deep love and a meaningful new life.

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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

  • Library Journal's "Best Five Romances of 2006"
  • Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award Winner
  • Independent Publisher Award Winner
  • Finalist for numerous regional awards
  • Reader's Guide

A beautiful woman, scarred for life.

A tortured man, seeking redemption.

Brought together by fate in a small town high in the majestic Appalachian mountains

Live. Love. Believe.

Beauty is in the lie of the beholder.

Heartbroken and cynical, famed actress Catherine Deen hides from the world after a horrific accident scars her for life.

Secluded in her grandmother's North Carolina mountain home, Cathryn at first resists the friendship of the local community and the famous biscuits served up by her loyal cousin, Delta, at The Crossroads Café, until a neighbor, former New York architect Thomas Mitternich, reaches out to her.

Thomas lost his wife and son in the World Trade Center. In the years since he's struggled with alcohol and despair. He thinks nothing and no can make his life worth living again.

Until he meets Cathryn.


Reviewer: Roberta Austin

This masterful, heartfelt tale is another masterpiece for Ms. Smith to add to her growing body of work. I've been a huge fan for a long time and highly recommend this and all the author's previous novels.

Source: The Romance Readers Connection
Reviewer: Debora Hosey

Brava, Deborah Smith! THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ is magnificent! It's stunning in its insight into the human heart and soul. You'll find yourself laughing and weeping, then laughing and weeping again and again. Ms. Smith's writing and voice are simply superb and make reading THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ a sheer pleasure.


Somehow I've missed reading [Deborah Smith's] previous novels. Oh, not because I've not heard of them or how good they are. In fact, several of them are long time favorite reads of people whose literary opinion I trust. I guess I've just been stupid. Or as we say in the South, an idjit. THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ truly shows me what I've been missing.

Source: NovelTalk
Reviewer: Lucele Coutts

A must read.

Source: The Best Reviews
Reviewer: Kathy Boswell

Deborah Smith not only touches your heart, she and her stories touch your very soul. She writes of the best Southern Fiction I've ever read. I laughed and I cried and then laughed and cried some more. [THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ] is one book that I believe is a must read.

Source: "Fridays with Jackie," Georgia Public Radio
Reviewer: Jackie K. Cooper

Deborah Smith creates stories that touch your hearts. She has done this with each and every one of the books she has fashioned in her career as an author. Her latest, THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ, is her most touching yet.

Source: Romance Designs

Readers are in for a real treat, and it doesn't just include the wonderful cooking, but also the great heartrending story of two scarred people who find their soul mate in the most unlikely place. THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ is a book that readers will open again and again.

Source: Romance Divas
Reviewer: Michelle Puffer

The author has woven a marvelous tapestry of life and love on so many levels that it is rich with colour. While reading this book I could clearly see everything the author wanted me to and more. THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ is an absolutely fantastic book. It is a poignant tale of the fragility of human emotion and what we do to ourselves and others, in the name of beauty, guilt and love. The characters are all well rounded and well written, they are believable and fallible, and each added to the depth of the storyline.

I haven't been this enthusiastic about a book in a long time. I normally read romantic suspense, which this book is not, and it is hard to wow me. I have been wowed. THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ belongs on your keeper shelf, folks, as it is a story you will want to enjoy again and again. I have a sneaky suspicion someone may want to make a movie out of this novel. Part of me would be thrilled to see this story come to life, but the other part of me knows it could never, ever, match the pictures in my head already created by the author. As the book's blurb says, "Live. Love. Believe." And I do.

Source: The Romance Reader
Reviewer: Susan Scribner

THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ [is] the best romance of 2006. The novel grabs your attention from the opening chapter to the last satisfying sentence. Once you've finished, you'll want to start reading it all over again." FIVE STARS!!

Source: RT BookClub
Reviewer: Jill M. Smith

TOP PICK!!! There is a haunting and beautiful rhythm to Smith's storytelling that paints beautiful pictures and characters. Her evocative stories wrap themselves around you emotionally, delivering joy and sorrow. Told from the perspective of both hero and heroine, this novel charts their damaged emotional states and rings amazingly true. Truly a great treasure, Smith's wisdom and emotional resonance are astounding.

Reviewer: Betty Cox

THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ is a wonderful love story that deserves to be read again and again.

Source: Romance Reviews Today
Reviewer: Lisa Baca

The story is full of loving detail that readers will want to experience on their own and savor for a while.I can highly recommend THE CROSSROADS CAFÉ, yet another winner by Deborah Smith. So complete, I rate it as a Perfect 10.


Beautifully written, intensely emotional and sometimes wryly humorous...this book will touch your heart and you'll wish you could return to Crossroads time and again.

Source: Booklist

Smith has once again created an unforgettably poignant story in the best tradition of contemporary Southern romantic women's fiction.

Source: Publisher's Weekly

Two damaged people find love and redemption in bestseller Smith's latest.

Source: Library Journal
Starred Review

This beautifully written, emotionally complex story will appeal to fans of both romance and women's fiction.




Crossroads, North Carolina
The Blue Ridge Mountains

Before the accident, I never had to seduce a man in the dark. I dazzled millions in the brutal glare of kliegs on the red carpets of Hollywood, the flash of cameras at the Oscars,the sunlight on the piazzas of Cannes. Beautiful women don't fear the glint of lust and judgment in men's eyes, or the bitter gleam of envy in women's. Beautiful women welcome even the brightest light. Once upon a time, I had been the most beautiful woman in the world.

Now I needed the night, the darkness, the shadows.

"Put the gun down,” I ordered, as I let my bra and white t-shirt fall to the ground. Behind me, a full, white moon hung in a sky of stars above the summer mountains, silhouetting Thomas and me. Frogs trilled in the forest. Beneath my bare feet, the pasture grass was soft and wet with summer dew, glistening in the moonlight. There were no bright lights in our world, not the pinpoint of a lamp in some distant window, not the wink of a jet high overhead. There might be no other souls in these ancient North Carolina ridges that night. Only Thomas, and me, and the darkness inside us both.

"I'm warning you for the last time, Cathryn,” he said, his voice thick but firm. He wasn't a man who slurred his words, no matter how drunk he was. "Leave.”

I unzipped my jeans. My hands trembled. I couldn't stop staring at the World War II pistolhe held so casually, his right arm bent, the gun pointed skyward. Thomas had been a preservation architect; he respected fine craftsmanship, evenwhen choosing a gun with which to kill himself.

Slowly I pushed my jeans down, along with my panties. The scarred skin along my right thigh prickled at the scrape of denim. I angled my right side away from the moon, trying to illuminate only the left half of my body, my face. Half of me was still perfect. But the other half . . .

I stepped out of my crumpled clothes and stood there naked, the moonlight safely behind me. The night breeze was a tongue of embarrassment, licking my scarred flesh. My hand twitched with the urge to cover my face. How badly I wanted to hide the awful parts. Thomas watched me without moving, without speaking, without breathing.

He doesn't want me, I thought. I said quietly, "Thomas, I know I'm no prize, but would you really rather kill yourself than touch me?”

Not a word, still, not a flicker of reaction. I could barely see his expression in the shadows, and wasn't sure I wanted to. The uglies came over me like a cold tide. A festering wave of withdrawal – shyness and anger multiplied times a thousand. Me, who had once preened for the world without a shred of self-doubt.

I turned my back to him, trying not to shiver with defeat. "Just put the gun down. Then I'll get dressed, and we'll forget this ever happened.”

I heard quick steps behind me, and before I could turn, his arms went around me from behind. His hands slid over my bare skin. I twisted my head to the pretty side but he bent his lips to the other and roughly kissed the rivulets of ruined flesh

No matter what might happen to us later, I saved his life that night. And, for that one night, at least, he saved mine. Hope is in the mirror we keep inside us,love sees only what it wants to see, and beauty is in the lie of the beholder.

Sometimes, that lie is all you need to survive.

Chapter 1


The Day of the Accident
16 Months Earlier
The Four Seasons Hotel, Beverly Hills, California

The Face of Flawless, the posters scattered around the hotel's penthouse suite said, beneath a smoky, film-noir close-up of my face. I looked both innocent and come-hitherish. A dark-haired Grace Kelly for the 21st century. The princess next door who wears thong panties. Timeless beauty. Ageless perfection. From Cathyrn Deen. Because every woman deserves to look like a star.

That kind of hype sometimes made me blush a little. Or pretend to, at least. A southern beauty queen is trained from birth to be charmingly self-deprecating. But let's be real, here: I was the most beautiful woman in the world. People Magazine said so. And Vanity Fair. And even Rolling Stone and Esquire, those cynical, sex-obsessed boys.

I had been told I was the most beautiful girl in the room – any room, anywhere -- since the time I was old enough to gurgle adorably as my father wheeled me around Atlanta's finest ballrooms and boardrooms in an emerald-green stroller custom-designed to match my eyes. I'd be paid twenty-five million dollars for my next film, a remake of Giant, co-starring me in the Elizabeth Taylor role, Heath Ledger in the James Dean part, and Hugh Jackman in the role Rock Hudson played.

I'm the new Liz Taylor, I thought, gazing at myself happily in a huge, lighted mirror of the Four Season's penthouse suite while my personal stylists worked on me as if I were a life-sized Barbie doll. Take that, Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz.

"We make fifteen-year-old girls look twenty-five and thirty-five-year-old women look twenty-five,” Judi, my hair girl, was saying to the others as she fluffed a long strand of my mocha-black mane. "So the pornography culture will want to fuck us.”

"The pornography culture?” I said, smiling as I watched them primp me. "It's just human nature for girls to flirt and boys to appreciate it.”

Randy, my make-up boy, chuckled wryly. His soft sable brush flicked across my forehead. His dark-skinned hand moved like an artist's. A poof of Flawless Ivory Cream Foundation Powder floated before us. Randy waved his brush at Judi. "Personally, I've got nothing against looking pornographic. Or younger.”

Judi grunted at him. "You're a guy. It's not the same for you. Men are still considered desirable even after they turn into fat, wrinkled prunes with penises. When you're a crusty old queen you'll still get a lot of action.”

"I do hope so!”

"The porno culture?” said Luce, my wardrobe girl. "Let me tell you about the time I managed wardrobe for a triple-X producer. It was all leather corsets and high heels. And that was just for the livestock in the cast.” She hooted as she tugged a silky silver dress over my plunging silver bra. I slid my arms into lacy shoulder straps and Luce smoothed the bodice over my boobs, bending down to peer at them. Checking for nipplage, as we called it. "Perky nipple on the left, Boss.”

I nodded. Even my boobs were proud of themselves. "Get the Band-Aids. We don't want the press to stare at my headlights when they're supposed to be listening to my brilliant and witty thoughts about my new cosmetics empire.”

Randy clucked his tongue. "Boss, you could put on a burka and spray yourself with camel musk, and men would still stare at your tits.”

"Camel musk? Maybe I should add that to my perfume line. Judi, I'm only thirty-two. What is that in camel years? How long before camels won't whistle at me on the street? Does the porno culture include camels?”

"Oh, Boss, you know what I'm saying,” Judi went on. "Women are sex objects. After decades of feminism, that's still all we are. If we're not young and hot, we have no value.”

"I plan to be sexy even when I'm a hundred,” Luce growled. "As long as there's KY and vodka, I can get laid.”

I laughed. Sex appeal was just another of life's lucky gifts, and I'd been gifted more than almost everyone else on the planet. I couldn't imagine being anything but beautiful. At least I was gracious about my fortunes. Don't hate me because I'm perfect. I'm a nice person, too, I thought.

My people – I thought of my employees the way old southerners talk of servants, as if I owned them – my people always liked me. Daddy and all my southern aunts – those golf-playing, country-clubbing doyennes of the Atlanta social scene – had trained me to be a kind and generous New South plantation mistress. I turned to peer at Judi from under a lock of my hair, which she held out like a glossy chocolate rope as she teased the underside. "Judi, is this discussion going to segue into your ‘witches versus engineers theory?'”

"Isn't that a new reality show on Fox?” Randy asked. Luce chortled.

Judi scowled. "Laugh if you want to. But there are jerks out there who say women are witches – I mean wiccans, not bitches -- and men are engineers. That women represent emotion and sex – the dark arts -- versus men representing logic and intellect – the progressive sciences. That women have no purpose other than breeding. And thus, that it's women's job to stay desirable until they hit menopause. After that, women are supposed to just fade away.”

I wagged a finger at her. "Not me. When I'm eighty years old I plan to plaster my face with Flawless Anti-Aging Spackle and promenade in public with no shame at all.”

Everyone laughed. They gathered around me, their ordinary faces gazing into the mirror with my extraordinary face in the middle, like the center of a flower. Judi sighed. "Boss,” she said, "You will never be ugly. I can't even picture it.”

My gaze fell on the mirror image of an elegant hotel platter of rawfruit and fat-free yogurt among the make-up kits, curling irons and other clutter. Suddenly, I saw instead, a blue-willow china plate filled with my grandmother's biscuits. Covered in gravy. Cream gravy. With flecks of pure pork sausage in it.

I don't mean I thought about biscuits and gravy. I mean I saw biscuits and gravy. Right in the mirror. I made myself breathe calmly.

Granny Nettie.

Suddenly I remembered every detail of my mountain grandmother's weathered face, her green eyes almost frightening in their wisdom, her gray-black hair poking from beneath a tractor cap that seemed as exotic to me as the turban of a sultaness. She had died when I was twelve, on her farm in the wilderness of western North Carolina, a world as different from my Atlanta life as any foreign country, and just as lost. Her daughter, my mother, had not lived to raise me, and Granny Nettie had not lived to see me grown.

"Eat, girl,” I could hear Granny say rebelliously. "Every time life gives you biscuits and gravy, eat and rejoice.” Outside her magical, stained-glass windows, sunlight and shadows draped smiles on layers of enormous, blue-green mountains. This is no place for skinny sissies, they whispered to me. The scent of Crisco, milk, sausage, flour, andbutter filled my senses. Oddly comforting. Everything will be all right, if you find what you really want.

A shiver ran up my spine. Sometimes I . . . had visions. In mirrors.

While checking my hair in a make-up booth backstage at the Oscars, I'd seen Daddy's face. It replaced mine for just a second. Peaceful, handsome, classic, sternly loving, silver-haired. The father who had been my biggest fan and toughest critic. The very-patriarchal southern daddy I adored. I was so startled by his image in the mirror I flubbed one of my lines a few minutes later, as I read the best actress nominees on camera. Millions of people watching, worldwide, and I said Merle Step instead of Meryl Streep. I turned Meryl Streep into a male country-western singer.

When I walked back into the wings, one of my assistants ran up to me. "There's an emergency call from Atlanta,” she said. "It's about your dad.” He had died of a heart attack during his Oscar-night party at the club. He threw parties just to watch me give awards to other people.

For months after that, mirrors made me nervous, something I never confessed to anyone at the time. The irony of a life spent looking in mirrors was that sometimes they looked back.

Like now.

I blinked, feeling dizzy. "Boss, are you all right?” Judi asked. "Do you want something to eat? You're staring at the kiwi and broccoli as if they might bite you.”

I took a deep breath, laughed, and fluttered a hand to my heart. "Why, I don't dare eat before a press conference. If I gain so much as one ounce the porno culture will revoke my membership card.”

More laughter. I took another breath. I'm just hungry, that's all, I told myself. It means nothing. Sometimes, a biscuit is just a biscuit.

A pair of double doors burst open. Six-foot-three inches of elegant California business mogul strode in, dressed in gray Armani.

My husband, Gerald Barnes Merritt (never just ‘Gerald Merritt,' that was too plain,) was thirteen years older than me, rugged, brilliant, rich, and yes, wildly sexy in his own right. We'd been married for less than a year. He had two ex-wives, three grown children, and several successful empires in real estate, computer technology, marketing, and now, me. Thanks to him, I would head my own cosmetics empire. Flawless, by Cathyrn Deen. Actually, Gerald ran everything. He was the CEO. But hey, I was the face.

"Ready to announce your new business venture to the press, my gorgeous girl?” Gerald boomed, scattering my entourage like a rottweiller in a rabbit pen.

I preened in the mirror and avoided looking toward the mystical food platter again. A vision of biscuits. Right. Just my imagination. "Oh, I don't know. Can you see anything about me that needs a little more perfecting?”

He slid his arms around me from behind, angling his head to look at me in the mirror, but careful not to muss mounds of hair and the unblemished masterpiece of my Flawless face. I felt the ridge of his penis lightly teasing me.

"You couldn't be more beautiful. I am married,” he said softly, "to the girl every man wants.”

Another strange little shiver went through me. Beauty is fleeting, but biscuits are forever. I smiled and shook off the silly thought.

I was the most beautiful woman in the world. Surely, I always would be.


That Same Afternoon
Crossroads, North Carolina

Grief steals all the beauty in the world, then gives it back one piece at a time until you see more hope than sorrow in your life, if you're lucky. So far, I'd only reclaimed a shred here, a fragment there, hanging onto those small bits with my fingernails. My desperate cache of beauty could all be found in one place: a small cove high in the remote mountains of western North Carolina, where an old paved road and an even older, unpaved one intersected in front of a former farmhouse, a former log cabin, a cluster of whitewashed sheds, and a pair of gas pumps under a tin awning. All of it known by one name that summed up the spirit, the sustenance, and the turning points of the lives that met there.

The Crossroads Café.

I was not necessarily an upstanding citizen of the Crossroads, but I had earned the respect of the people who mattered. Or, at least, their tolerance.

It's never a good thing when you wake up at sunset with a hangover in a sleeping bag in the rusty bed of a sixty-year-old pick-up truck you saved from a junkyard, parked under one of the café's giant oak trees full of squirrels, who are cheerfully showering you with rotten nut shells as they do their spring housecleaning, and when you open your bleary eyes the first thing you see – and smell -- is a small, shaggy, white goat who's hopped up in your rusty outdoor bedroom and is now eating your new cell phone.

But I was used to it.

"There goes another one,” I grunted. I brushed shells out of my beard. "Tell the concierge I have some complaints about the wake-up calls in this hotel. Can't a man sleep all day without being disturbed?”

Crack. Banger, the goat, looked at me with my cell phone disintegrating between his teeth. Fragments of the casing dribbled from his hairy white lips. I sighed. "I didn't want that phone, anyway.”

If my brother would just stop sending me replacements, Banger might switch to something more nutritious, like hubcaps. John was determined to keep me from becoming a full-fledged Luddite. As long as I owned a cell phone, he thought there was a chance I might not end up writing crazed manifestos by lantern light in my cabin. Or shooting myself.

I was confident it wouldn't be the former.

I stretched slowly, giving every body part plenty of warning that we were about to move as a team. Sour stomach, greasy eyes, aching head, stiff back. The rest of me was only thirty-eight, but after a few hours in the truck my back always qualified for senior citizen discounts.

While testing my joints, I realized my long, brown beard was wet. And also my head, and my ponytail, and my face, and, when I lifted my beard, the front of my vintage New York Giants jersey. Soaked. Someone had doused the legacy of hall of famer Lawrence Taylor. Sacrilege.

That's when I noticed the note tied to Banger's collar. Written in black marker on a piece of torn cardboard with a Dixie Sugar logo still visible on one edge, it said:


Cathryn Deen. I'd never met her, but, of course, I knew who she was. Everyone knew who she was. Pygmies in the Amazon and Mongolian yak herders living in straw huts on the Russian tundra knew who she was. Even in the Crossroads, one of the most secluded mountain communities on the eastern seaboard, celebrity culture infected us via tabloids and satellite pay-per-view.

Wincing, I eased out of the truck and stood up. After a polite glance in all directions, I stepped between the truck and the oak, pulled up the water-dampened tail of my jersey, unzipped my jeans, fetched Little Thomas from his bed, and peed on the oak's protruding roots. "Take that,” I said to the squirrels.

As I re-zipped, Banger dropped my ruined phone and hopped down from the truck. He affectionately stomped one hard, cloven hoof on the toe of my running shoe and butted my left knee, hooking one horn through a hole in the denim and into the tender center of my kneecap. I saw stars for a minute.

When my head cleared, I scrubbed a hand over his floppy ears. "If there is a God,” I told the goat, "He appointed you to be my conscience.”

Carrying a fresh Giants jersey and clean briefs – when you regularly wake up in public, it's a good idea to keep a change of clothes in your truck – I limped from under the tree. The fine, crusher-run gravel of the parking lot was a delicate material, as granite goes, yet it still managed to make ear-splitting sounds.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, bounced off the raw walls of my skull.

I tried to tiptoe, but it didn't help.

A cathedral of sky and mountain opened over my head. I took a couple of reviving breaths and looked around. Evening light cloaked the cove in soft blue shadows; the Ten Sisters mountains, circling the cove like the thick rim of a bread bowl, glowed gold and mint-green above filaments of silver mist. On a damp day the Sisters filled with white fog, disappearing like islands in a soft, white sea. There was a reason pioneers named the Appalachians of western North Carolina the Smokies.

The view could almost clear up a hangover. Almost.

"Thomas! Are you still out here goofing off?” Delta's squeaky drawl stabbed my eardrums. Wincing, I pivoted toward it. She leaned over the rail of the café's front veranda, a motherly, plump, angel of food under the whitewashed halo of a farmhouse-cum-restaurant porch, surrounded by an eclectically challenged cluster of half-barrel flower pots and rump-sprung rocking chairs.

Vintage. She and the café were vintage. As a preservation architect, I loved that. As a suicidal alcoholic clinging to every comfort I could find, I loved it even more.

GROCERIES AND MORE, said a weathered aluminum sign hanging from the café's eaves. The "more” included everything a modern mercantile in the middle of nowhere should stock. Need shotgun shells, condoms, and a fine wine selection from the Biltmore Estate vineyards over in Asheville? Delta called that "the Valentine's Day package.” You could buy it all at the Crossroads Grocery.

On the café's other side stood a cheerful trio of former hunting shacks, now reconstituted as prime business locations with signs and awnings and their own parking spaces. The one with the American flag hanging from a wall-mount by the screen door was our combination post office and Delta's brother, Bubba McKellan's, pottery studio. Behind the cafe, FEED AND SEED summed up the retail mission of an old gray barn, and SWAP AND THRIFT nailed the purpose of the barn's enclosed lean-to.

In the cities, a note on a cash register change cup says, "Take a penny, leave a penny.”

At the Crossroads, a hand-lettered placard on the lean-to said: "Take a chair, leave a chair.”

The entire, fabulously organic café compound was fronted, on the roadside near the gas pumps, by a big wooden sign hung from four-by-four posts. The sign alerted strangers to all the wonders that could be had right there, all in one place:

Hardware/Farm Supplies
Camping/Fishing/Hunting Gear
Post Office
Gem Shop
Video Rentals
Camp Sites

At the very bottom of that list, recently nailed into place, a small sign added, AND WIRELESS INTERNET ACCESS.

"Are you coming inside or do I have to take a hickory switch to your behind?” Delta called.

"I'm meditating,” I called. "Banger and I are working on the meaning of existence. So far, we think it involves butting things with your head.”

"Spare me your ill-tempered notions. Come on, you're gonna miss Cathyrn on TV! She's having a press conference for her make-up company! They're gonna interview her, live!”

Delta clearly believed a glimpse of her movie-star kin was always good for my jaded soul.

"If I come in, will you give me a hot biscuit?”

"Git! In! Here!” She jabbed a finger at the double front doors, where a small sign said, The Crossroad's Café. Good Food And Then Some. "I haven't got time to sweet-talk you anymore! See all those SUV's and minivans in the parking lot? I got a restaurant full of family reunioners from Asheville in here. I'm volunteering you to work as a busboy!” I gave her a thumbs-up. She went back inside.

"Don't wait up for me, honey,” I told Banger, who was eating a cigar butt I'd dropped.

I walked slowly toward the café, already tired of being awake and sober. All right, I'd go inside and watch Cathyrn Deen be beautiful.

I needed the fantasy.


After The Press Conference

Laughing, I led my entourage through one of the Four Season's highly discreet exits, designed especially for VIP's. The hotel is one of the most famous celebrity hideaways in the world. Frank Sinatra sang by the piano in the main bar on his eightieth birthday. Renee Zellweger was mistaken for a cocktail waitress there, once, and good-naturedly took bar orders from a table full of businessmen. The front-desk staff speak a mysterious dialect of English, one with vaguely euro-asian accents, as if imported from some elegant little country especially to serve celebrities. On any given day you can glimpse a number of famous bodies being massaged in private cabanas around the pool. The lobby bars are a swoon-fest of Hollywood sightings, and also are rumored to be where the most expensive hookers hang out.

A pair of valets ran to get my car, nearly tripping over their feet when they saw me. Ah, the power of a clingy, white angora sweater, black leggings, and knee-high Louis Vuitton boots with stiletto heels. I looked like a wholesome dominatrix.

"You wowed everyone at your press conference today, Ms. Deen,” one of the valets gushed. "You looked great.”

"Why, bless your heart.”

"Get Ms. Deen's car,” a bodyguard ordered. The valet ran.

I was trailed by two private security men, five publicists, two assistants, and one assistant to an assistant of my agent. Everyone but me had a phone attached to his or her ear, and they were all talking, but not to me or each other. I laughed again as I signed autographs for the bellmen. My entourage chattered on without me, as perky as parakeets on cocaine.

Yes, the press conference was huge. Fabulous. Cathyrn's doing lunch with Vogue next week. Cover photos are under negotiation. Pencil us in for Tuesday, in New York.

Marty? Book Cathyrn with Larry King for the twelfth.

No, Cathyrn can't do Oprah on that schedule. She'll be in England to film a couple of last-minute scenes for The Pirate Bride. Sophia Coppola insists.

Hello, I'm calling for Cathyrn Deen. Ms. Deen wants you to find her a great, authentic voice coach to work with her on Giant. Yes, I know she can naturally do a southern accent, but Ms. Deen says a Texas drawl is very different from an Atlanta accent. She wants a coach from Dallas. No, not the old TV show. The city. Ms. Deen requires a city-southern-Texas-rich accent for the film. She's meeting with her producers and director this weekend . . .

"Women like you ruin other women's lives, bitch!”

The voice rang out as I was about to step into the open door of my Trans Am. The car was a mint condition 1977 T-Top, black and gold. I halted with one high-heel on the door rim. Several scruffy young women darted from behind the hotel's glorious palms, waving homemade signs.



"You're telling women to hate themselves for having ordinary faces and bodies,” one of the protestors yelled. "But you're the freak, not us!”

My publicists formed a circle around me, like pioneers trying to ward off a band of angry Sioux. The protestors bobbed and weaved as the guards chased them. I was open-mouthed with amazement. "Why didn't anyone tell me these girls were out here?” I demanded. "I could have invited them to the press conference. Listened to their concerns. Offered them a makeover--”

"Never negotiate with terrorists,” one of the publicists said. Seriously.

"Terrorists? Oh, come on. They're just sorority girls with bad hair. They're probably sophomores at Berkley. Maybe I'm their class protest project. ” I called to the guards. "Bring them over here and let me talk to them!”

My publicists did a group pirouette to stare at me in horror. "Those girls could be carrying mace or pepper spray,” one said.

"Or a hidden bomb,” a second added.

I laughed. "Or iPods filled with horrifying Ashley Simpson songs, or hair brushes with really sharp bristles, or . . .”

"Please, Cathyrn. The hotel's still full of photographers. If the press catches wind of this, these protestors will make the news and that's all people will remember about the launch of Flawless Cosmetics.”

That got me. Gerald's put so much work and money into this venture, I thought. I can't ruin this day for him. I blew out a breath. "All right, y'all win.” They hustled me into the Trans Am. One of the publicists, a young man, put a hand to his heart as he shut my door. "Ms. Deen, I'm so sorry about this. If I ran the world, all the ugly chicks with big mouths would be sent to an island, somewhere.”

I stared at him. I'd never thought of myself as the poster girl for men who thought women should keep quiet and look pretty. As I drove out of the Four Season's elegant, palm-endowed shadow, the girls glared at me from behind the phalanx of security people. They raised their hands and flipped me the bird.

I didn't know how to deal with people who weren't in awe of me.

So in return I gave them a polite, beauty-queen wave.


Just after dark, east coast time.

I took a break from bussing tables at the café and sat down on a rough oak bench at the edge of the café's parking lot. I lit another crumpled cigar butt I found in my jeans' front pocket. In front of me, sandwiched between a section of split-rail fence and a steep hill planted in gnarled apple trees, a faded two-lane road meandered past. Gloriously labeled by its antique name, The Asheville Trace, it hinted that modern horsepower could get you to Crossroads and back to civilization without packing a lunch. Coming from Asheville, the Trace slithered out of the eastern Sisters along their foothills, bordered the vast expanse of the grassy cove, yawned past me, then wandered up a twisting route into the foothills, heading west to the county seat. During rush hour, we locals might see, oh, a car on the Trace every ten minutes.

Which suited me just fine.

I tossed the cigar butt, feeling nauseous. Hand-rolled local tobacco – a North Carolina heritage – was a smooth smoke but hard on an empty stomach. I sniffed burning hair. A fleck of tobacco smoldered in my beard. A few quick slaps, and the beard was saved. I wouldn't have to drop out of the ZZ Top lookalike contest.

More deep breaths. I inhaled the good smell of wood in nearby chimneys, the clean, springtime fragrance of earth, and the wafting aromas of dinner from Delta's kitchen. The mountains curled a breeze through Delta's cooking and carried it all over the cove. Even out at my cabin I sometimes swore I smelled her famous biscuits.

"Hey, Mitternich,” Jeb Whittlespoon yelled from the café's side door. "Poker at nine. Right after the dining room closes.”

I gave him a thumbs-up.

One winter, when it snowed heavily, I slip-tied an aluminum rowboat to Jeb's ATV and we did a little motorized sledding. Jeb, a young Iraq veteran, was still working out some post-traumatic stress issues at the time, so he was more than happy to careen the ATV down the Trace's snowy slide into the cove, towing me and my rowboat behind him. I jerked the slip-tie free at the precise moment when my counterweight mass and my projectile mass met in a perfect orgasm of force and release, and I and the rowboat sailed over a drop-off on the road's shoulder. We remained airborne for a good twenty yards before the boat plowed a pre-spring furrow in the southeast quadrant of the café's vegetable garden. Ten heads of winter cabbage were collateral damage.

Delta, who is Jeb's mother, forgave me. She was just glad to see her son laugh, again. I'd promised her I'd coax him out of his shell, and I did.

She even paid for my stitches.

I got up from the bench and went back to the café.

Poker at nine, drunk by midnight, sleeping with goats by dawn.

A typical Saturday night.

I bussed tables covered in red-checkered oil cloth under old tin ceiling lamps that cast warm pools of light. The café' was Mayberry, a Norman Rockwell painting, and a rerun of The Waltons all rolled into one. Ordinarily the atmosphere soothed me, but that night I felt edgy -- not just the usual blue-black mood that came on as the sun set, but something worse.

Around me, happy families visiting from the campgrounds and the suburbs of Asheville ate plates of the best southern home cooking anywhere. Delta's daughter-in-law, Becka, and sister-in-law, Cleo, hustled between the tables. Becka and Cleo flirted with me harmlessly, tolerated me endlessly, bossed me around. Cleo prayed for me. Becka told Jeb, her husband, to keep guns away from me when I was drunk.

I turned around with a pan full of dishes and found a little boy staring up at me. Gaping, mesmerized. Oh, God, I thought. He looks like Ethan. Even more than most.

Every boy under five reminded me of Ethan. Every breath I took reminded me of Ethan. Clouds reminded me. Toys in an ad reminded me. Spatters of fake blood on an episode of CSI reminded me. I wondered if I still had half a bottle of vodka under the truck's front seat.

"Mister, are you a hillbilly?” the boy asked. His voice trembled. He was afraid of me.

The father rushed over. "He didn't mean any harm.”

I could only nod. Words stuck in my throat. A glance confirmed that everyone in the diner was staring at me. Six-four, bearded, wrinkled Giants jersey, faded jeans, old running shoes, blood-shot eyes, topped with a ponytail and a long, wavy brown beard. Go figure.

Delta stepped between me and the worried customers, grinning. "Aw, this is no hillbilly,” she announced. "This is just Thomas, a crazy architect from New York City.” To me she whispered, "You know we all love you around here, but you've got a strange look in your eyes tonight. You're scaring kids and giving hillbillies a bad name. Take a break.”

I nodded again, my throat aching. I carried the bus pan to the kitchen, then walked outside. I went to my truck, climbed in, and pulled a fresh bottle of vodka from under the front seat. I had my rituals. Open a bottle,pull down the visor, look at the picturesI'd laminated andtaped there.Sherryl and Ethan on his first birthday,in Central Park, laughing for me among some flowers. And the other picture,the onefrom the archives of theNew York Times, a picture like dozens of picturesthat had been studied, analyzed, and archived.

A picture from the morning of September11, 2001, when my wife jumped from the north tower of the World Trade Center with our son in her arms.I touched both pictures with a fingertip, then took my first drink of the night.


Ventura Highway
Five p.m., west coast time.

"Caaaathyrn!” A car full of teenage boys passed me in an open Jeep, waving and honking their horn.

I waved back vaguely, still distracted from the incident at the hotel, I zoomed along the Ventura Highway in heavy traffic, headed northwest out of L.A. The producers of Giant, a husband-wife team, owned a fabulous Arabian horse ranch outside Camarillo, near the coast. I planned to spend the weekend as their houseguest, discussing the script and meeting with the director. Gerald had kissed me goodbye at the hotel on his way to board our Lear Jet. He was headed to London to meet with some of our Flawless investors.

My right foot cramped as I pressed the Trans Am's accelerator. High-heeled, skintight ostrich leather boots are not meant for driving a muscle car. I had a garage filled with Mercedes and Jaguars, but I loved my classic, redneck wheels. Clearly, I'd inherited some fast-car genes from my Grandpa Nettie. He died young – murdered in a fight at a roadhouse outside Asheville, so I never knew him, but Granny said he'd been a bootlegger and mountain dirt-track racer in his youth. I glanced at the Trans Am's speedometer. Only 80 mph. By California highway standards, I was just coasting. "Hey, Grandpa, watch this,” I said aloud.

I wiggled my foot, pressed harder, and sped up. The wind curled in through the open T-top, whipping my hair. It was a perfect spring day, the temperature in the seventies, the smog just a pretty, lavender-blue mist on the horizon. I crested a hill and grinned at a vista laced with the lime-green outlines of large vegetable fields. Some day I was going to hire someone to plant vegetables at Granny's farm in North Carolina. And send me pictures.

Other drivers waved and honked at me – mostly men and boys, smiling, putting hands to their hearts in admiration. Tractor-trailer drivers blew their deep, diesel horns as I zoomed past. I waved and smiled in return. I admit it: I enjoyed being a movie star on the freeway. What a great stage. I felt immortal.

Lights flashed in my rear-view mirror. I glanced back and scowled when I discovered a familiar blue mini-van. A hand came out of the van's passenger window, waved gleefully at me, disappeared, then returned clutching a large video camera. A shaggy, gray-blonde guy poked his head out and fitted the video cam's viewfinder to one eye.


Mason Angston. A jerk, even by the aggressive standards of showbiz paparazzi. We had a long acquaintance, most of it annoying to me and profitable to him. He'd videotaped me as I walked through airports all over the world, trailed me on the outskirts of movie sets, hopped out of the bushes around nightclubs and restaurants, and once snapped photos of me sunning topless in Spain, which the world could still view for five dollars per download on the Internet.

And now he intended to tape me driving on the Ventura Highway? It must be a slow week in the celebrity scandals business. Were InsideEdition and Entertainment Tonight that desperate for footage?

I wasn't in the mood. Bitch. Bad role model for girls. Those words kept echoing through my mind.

And biscuits. Granny Nettie's gravy-covered biscuits. Suddenly I could almost taste them again, just as I had in the hotel suite, almost hear her ghost whispering in my ear, Take comfort, now. Rejoice. You'll live.

Strange thoughts. A chill on my skin. I shook it off, glared at Mason in the rearview mirror, and stomped the Trans Am's accelerator.

For months afterwards, I would try to remember every detail of that moment. To remember every nuance, everything I felt and did, everything I should have done differently. I would be haunted by everything I did wrong in that split-second of eternity, when my life changed forever.

The toe of my boot slipped sideways off the pedal. The boot's long, narrow heel went under the pedal and jammed there. My foot was trapped for maybe two seconds, three at the most. Just enough time for the Trans Am to slow down, just enough time to encourage the clueless driver in the lane to my left. He whipped his small, aged hatchback in front of me. I stared in horror at the car's taillights, which I was about to rear-end at ninety miles per hour.

I jerked my foot free and stomped the brake. The Trans Am hunched down like a horse trying to slide to a stop from a full gallop. The tires screamed. I was still closing in on the hatchback with no hope of not hitting it. I swung into the emergency lane. The Trans Am began sliding sideways, and I couldn't straighten it.

The rear right bumper clipped a guard rail. The car spun full-circle. I couldn't hold onto the steering wheel. The front bumper slammed into the guard rail, plowed it down, and the Trans Am went airborne, riding the guard rail at high-speed, it's underbelly ripping open. The roar and shriek of metal filled my ears. So did my screams.

The Trans Am shot off the road near a strawberry field. I didn't see the field's hogwire fence before I plowed through it. I didn't see the shallow irrigation ditch, either. The Trans Am hit it at an angle, tilted, and rolled completely over.

My head slammed into the steering wheel. Thank god for the wheel's padded leather cover. And thank god I was wearing a seatbelt. The car flopped to a halt in the ditch, upright but tilted, with the passenger-side wheels resting on the slope.

Quiet. Everything suddenly went so quiet, and so still. My head throbbed, but otherwise, I was unhurt. Dazed, I managed a few deep, shaky breaths. I heard people yelling, but for some reason, none of them came over to help me. I fumbled for the door handle. It wouldn't work. I shoved. There was no give. The door was jammed. My head began to clear, and I felt a little panicky. What was that scent?

Smoke. That's smoke. And gasoline. Get out of this car. Climb out the T-top.

I scrambled to my knees on the bucket seat. My boot heels snagged on the floor-shift on the center console behind me. I grabbed the window sill with both hands. The metal was warm. Acrid smoke flooded my nose and throat. A coughing fit doubled me over.

"Beautiful,” Mason called. "Beautiful, Cathyrn. Work it, Cathyrn.”

Mason stood a few feet away, videotaping me.

"I need help. Help me, you cretin!”

"Come on, Cathyrn, you can help yourself. You can make it! You're a star, baby! And star's are always resourceful!” He crept closer, the camera never wavering. I shoved myself headfirst out the window and tumbled to the ground. "See there?” he called, laughing.

I staggered to my feet, but my left boot heel sank into the soft earth, and I tripped. I landed hard on my right side. Hair, face, right arm, right hip, right leg. Into the wet muck.

What was this slick fluid on my hands? This smell? Oh, my God. Gasoline. The ground was soaked with it. And now, on my right side, so was I.

"Hurry, Cathyrn!” Mason called. "I think your catalytic converter's about to catch the weeds on fire! Raise your head so I can get a good frontal! Work it, baby!”

I scrambled out of the ditch on all fours. At that point, my deepest desire was to reach Mason, wrap my hands around his throat and strangle him.

Behind me I heard a soft, sinister whoosh.

A fireball went up my right side.

Some victims of violent accidents say time seems to slow down. They say they felt disconnected, almost like a spectator. Not me. Imagine sticking your upper body into a hot oven. Imagine plunging your hands into the glowing coals of your backyard grill.

Imagine. That's how it felt.

You're incredible, Cathyrn!” Mason yelled. I would never forget the thrill in his voice.

I wasn't incredible. I was burning alive.

Roll. Get down on the ground and roll. I threw myself face down by the Trans Am, flailing, screaming, rolling. The heat retreated, the flames vanished. I went limp, gasping, peeing on myself, vomiting bile.

Four or five seconds. I was on fire for no more than four, maybe five, seconds, witnesses said later.

Shock began taking hold. Now, yes, I felt weirdly calm, pleasantly detached. It'll take a week of spa treatments to get this smell off me, I thought.

I heard sirens, I heard people still shouting. Some of them were even crying. One of them moaned, "Ohmygod, Ohmygod, look at her. I want to puke.” Which struck me as incredibly rude.

I managed to lift my head. Mason crouched less than an arm's length from my face, breathing hard, excited. I could see him through the smoke, I could hear him gulping for air, like a man about to come. Was he giving off that nauseating scent? It smelled like burned hair, and . . . burned . . . meat. He aimed the wide, black eye of his lens directly at my face. I looked into the glassy black mirror of that eye, the world's eye, and saw a grotesque, charred, sickening reflection.

And then I realized it was me.


That night, some gnawing anxiety drew me beyond the starlit outline of the high evergreen forests on the ridges, filled me with even more loneliness. At night, the cove and the mountains around the Crossroads turn deep-green, almost black. You can feel the potential for evil in the darkness then, the surveillance of arrogant trees, the deadly lure of the cliffs, the subversive hollows, the drowning charm of the whitewater creeks, the hunger of wild animals slipping through the shadows, just waiting for you to become their next meal.

Steadied by several deep swallows of vodka, I stood by the Trace, touched only by the faintly lit café sign there, watching the universe sprinkle its streetlights across the sky above Ten Sisters.

Bring it on, I told the evil. I know you're out there.

All those far-away worlds, unknown. But here, in the light of the Crossroads, the world was safe and familiar, an old world, an illusion like all safe places, but still. That night I felt like a hollow column asked to hold up the weight of the sky without a partner. I needed someone. And someone needed me. Who?

Come here, where it's safe, in the light. We'll fight the evil together.

I couldn't understand why those words went through my mind.

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