Georgia Elliot raised the hood on her plastic poncho and pulled the elastic strap of her safety goggles to take up the slack at her temples. The strap pulled out several strands of curly blond hair as it tightened around her head. Wincing, Georgia picked up the tongs next to the burner in front of her and gingerly poked at the can immersed in simmering water. With one gloved hand, she inched the flame up a notch and watched the bubbles appear on the surface of the water.
She glanced at a timer as the seconds ticked by.
A blue-lined pad of paper lay open on the counter behind her. Georgia turned, picked up the pencil lying next to the pad, and scribbled a note. 8:24 P.M., humidity 86 percent, raised heat to approx. 98° C. No sign of imminent explosion.
Finally, after three months of experimentation, she was going to have her first success. Tonight, there would be no metal fragments to pick out of the ceiling, no oozing goo dribbling down the walls.
She glanced at the timer again. Only four minutes left to go.
"Georgia, come quick," a voice suddenly shouted from the sitting room. "We're going to be on TV."
Startled, Georgia poked her head out of the kitchen and into the parlor, where the other five members of the Tiara Club were gathered, sipping frosty banana--cream pie martinis and staring intently at Georgia's old thirty-eight-inch console television. Callie Walker Mitchell--Georgia's best friend since kindergarten, when the Walkers moved fromBirmingham, Alabama, to Ocean Sands, Mississippi, and bought the old Hiram Purdue place next door to the Elliots--aimed the remote control at the TV, pressing her right index finger on the volume button while shushing the occupants of the room.
"Shh, shh," Callie said, gleefully shifting her weight from one foot to the other in a perfect imitation of what Georgia termed the "tee-tee dance." Georgia had baby-sat Callie's four children often enough to know that in anyone under ten years of age, the tee-tee dance required immediate action, but she assumed that her best friend's bladder was not what was causing her to jump up and down so frantically.
"What is it?" Georgia asked, glancing back at her timer to see that she had two more minutes left before her experiment could be deemed a complete success.
"Just listen," Callie answered, clicking the volume up.
Georgia peered at the television screen as a commercial ended and the cameras cut to a sterile studio kitchen. A granite-topped counter was artistically decorated with gleaming produce and several woven baskets. An eight-burner gas cooktop that Georgia would have given her Shrimp Festival Princess crown for was flanked by a built-in cutting board, a deep-fat fryer, and a professional-grade KitchenAid mixer. Twin ovens, a microwave, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator were set in a wall lined with maple cabinets. It was a gourmet cook's dream. Georgia was so busy drooling over the equipment that she hadn't noticed the host of the show, who had entered the set and was looking into the cameras with a smile that didn't quite make it to his bright blue eyes.
"Welcome back to Epicurean Explorer. This is Daniel Rogers and today we're exploring products that promise to save you time and money ... but do they deliver? I must admit that I think a good cook can get by with nothing more than a great set of knives and some decent pots and pans, but there are companies out there that manufacture gizmos that exist for tasks as simple as removing the seeds from lemon juice or separating an egg--both of which you can do just as easily with an ordinary sieve. For today's show, we went through our viewer mailbag and decided to put some of your favorite gadgets to the test. Wewere intrigued by a product mentioned in this letter from a Ms. Callie Mitchell in Ocean Sands, Mississippi."
Daniel Rogers picked up a folded sheet of white paper from the counter in front of him and started to read as a collective murmur of surprise went up among the group in the parlor.
"Ms. Mitchell writes, 'I love eating supper with my family because it gives us all a chance to catch up on what is happening in one another's lives. However, as a single mother of four young children, I was finding it impossible to make time for this nightly ritual. Impossible, that is, until my friend Georgia Elliot introduced me to an amazing new product called the Miracle Chef. The Miracle Chef enables me to make a delicious, nutritious, four-course meal in less than thirty minutes. Now I have time not only to make supper for my family, but to enjoy eating with them as well. I'd love it if you would dedicate one show to this miraculous product. Yours truly, Callie Walker Mitchell.'"
Daniel Rogers stared at the piece of paper in his hand for a moment before turning his head to look right into the camera. Georgia watched as his lips curved up in a slight smile, his teeth white and even. Several strands of dark brown hair lay on his forehead, as artfully arranged as the waxy yellow squash and polished red apples on the counter in front of him.
"Well, viewers, Ms. Mitchell is going to get her wish. Epicurean Explorer is traveling down to Ocean Sands to pit man against machine."
"Isn't this exciting?" Callie said with a wide grin as the TV show host paused.
"You knew about this?" Georgia asked incredulously.
"Yes. Daniel called me last week to discuss the cook-off. Can you imagine? A TV star called me. I darn near peed my pants. You can't imagine how hard it's been not telling y'all, but I wanted to keep it a secret until tonight."
"Well, I'm definitely surprised," Georgia said, turning her attention back to the television when Daniel Rogers spoke again.
"I'll go head-to-head with the Miracle Chef in a five-part cook-off series, where I plan to prove that a good cook can whip up a four-course meal in less than thirty minutes without spending money on these so-calledmiracle gadgets. Remember, folks, if a product seems too good to be true, it most often is." With that, he tossed Callie's letter back onto the counter and flashed his movie-star smile at the cameras before picking up another piece of paper.
Georgia's teeth snapped together as she drew up to her full five-feet-eight-inches and glared down at the television screen. "Why that arrogant son-of-a-Yankee. He has no idea what the Miracle Chef can--" she began, only to gasp when a loud boom sounded from the kitchen behind her.
Five of the six women gathered in Georgia's sitting room dove for cover. Having survived several of these disasters in prior months, Georgia merely ducked, putting her arms over her head for protection.
"Oh, honey, you did it again," raven-haired Kelly Bremer said from beneath the coffee table, shaking her head.
Georgia turned and looked at the mess in her kitchen, at the light brown goo oozing down her normally clean white kitchen cupboards. With a heartfelt sigh, she walked to the stove and turned off the flame under her saucepan.
One of these days, she was going to get this right. One of these days, she'd find the perfect combination of timing and temperature that would produce the silky caramel that only a slowly simmered can of Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk could provide. She knew other women who could whip up the perfect treat without having can after can blow up in their faces, but, so far, success had eluded her.
A glob of sticky caramel dropped from the ceiling and onto the hood of Georgia's plastic poncho as she reached into the sink for a washrag.
"Want me to get the ladder?" Callie asked, peeking into the kitchen.
"I still have my raincoat in the car from last time. Should I get it?" Deborah Lee Tallman offered.
"I brought some praline sauce from that gourmet shop on Main Street. You know, just in case this happened again," Kelly said, crawling out from under the coffee table.
The other two members of the Tiara Club, Sierra Riley and Emma Rose Conover, headed for the linen closet, where Georgia kept herwashrags and dish towels. They'd experienced the fallout of enough of Georgia's experiments to know the drill.
"This is all that arrogant Daniel Rogers's fault," Georgia grumbled, swiping at another glob of caramel that dripped from the ceiling onto her head.
"He was a mite rude," Callie agreed, gingerly stepping into the kitchen to help her friend clean up the mess. "But, really, what does it matter? So what if he thinks he can beat the Miracle Chef? We'll prove him wrong. Besides, you know that I appreciate it. I'm so glad you found it for me. I even tried to get one for my cousin, but the shop on Main said they'd never heard of it. Are you sure you don't remember where you bought it?"
Georgia busied herself with removing her safety goggles, taking great care not to yank out any more clumps of her hair as she did so. She set the goggles on the kitchen counter, rinsed out her washrag, and tackled another smear of caramel before answering, "No, I don't remember. And I think it's a bad idea for this TV show to come here to Ocean Sands. I mean, can this guy even find a Miracle Chef to use on his show?"
Callie breezily waved her hand in the air, dismissing Georgia's concerns. "Oh, don't worry about that. I told him I'd be delighted to let him use mine. I'm actually glad the Miracle Chef is so hard to find. My cousin turns pea green with envy every time I use it. Since she's the one always braggin' about how her husband would never run off and leave her for another man, I'm actually kind of glad she can't find one."
Georgia gently squeezed her friend's arm. Callie had taken her husband's defection over to the gay side with remarkably good humor, especially since before Jim left her, he quit a lucrative job in banking to join a cult, thus drastically reducing the amount of child support he was able to provide. Overnight, Callie had gone from being a pampered former beauty queen with four lovely children, a nanny, a full-time maid, and a seat on the board of the Junior League to a former beauty queen with four lovely children, a full-time-plus job, and a dwindling bank account that only stayed in the black by occasionally selling off pieces of the family silver.
"Look, let's just leave this mess for now. I can clean up after y'all leave," Georgia said.
The Tiara Club members protested and refused to adjourn to the sitting room, for which Georgia was secretly grateful. The true test of friendship, she figured, was in who stayed behind to help clean up after a party was over. It looked like all the members of their little group passed that test.
Georgia and Callie were the founding members of the Tiara Club, a group they'd laughingly formed one night after a few too many martinis. Their membership, they decided, giggling over the memory of putting glue on their behinds to keep their swimsuits from creeping and taping their breasts together to create the illusion of cleavage, would consist of recovering beauty queens who had survived the pageant circuit. Deborah Lee Tallman, Kelly Bremer, and Emma Rose Conover (who was also Georgia's cousin) had dabbled in the beauty pageant ring but hadn't gone all the way to the Miss Mississippi competition like Callie and Georgia had done in their prime. Sierra Riley was a pageant virgin and a relative newcomer to the South who taught first grade at the school where Callie's twin boys were currently enrolled. Callie had figured any woman who could cheerfully handle thirty hyperactive six-year-olds every day ought to qualify for Tiara Club membership, whether or not she'd ever set foot on a runway.
The main goal of the group, as far as anyone could tell, was to drink their way alphabetically through the sixth edition of The Bartender's Black Book. After two-plus years of meetings, they were only just getting started on the B's, with tonight's featured drink being the banana-cream pie martini. With more than 2,600 drink recipes, Georgia figured the club would still be going strong when all the members were well into their eighties. That is, if their livers held out that long.
So far, in addition to sampling six versions of the Alabama Slammer, three Bahama Mamas, and thirteen various B-number-something drinks, the Tiara Club had been through one birth, four divorces (one each for Callie and Georgia, and two for Kelly, who insisted that there was a vast difference between getting a man and actually keeping him for any length of time), fourteen funerals, countless church potlucks,and twenty-three weddings. With Callie's own wedding just three weeks away, that last number would go to twenty-four--with all of the members of the Tiara Club playing a part: Callie as bride, Georgia as maid of honor, and the rest of the group as bridesmaids.
Oh, yes, and they'd survived four explosions while Georgia continued trying to perfect her caramel-making process.
"So, how are the wedding plans coming along?" Sierra asked, tentatively swiping at a brown spot on Georgia's pad of paper.
Georgia wasn't sure whether the wistful note she heard in Sierra's voice was there because she was disappointed that there would be no homemade caramel again this evening, or if it was Callie's impending nuptials that had her feeling blue. Sierra and her boyfriend, Tim, had been living together for more than five years now, but as far as Georgia knew, Tim had never once asked Sierra to marry him. Of course, it was possible that he had and that Sierra had turned him down. Georgia didn't like to pry, so she'd never broached the subject with the Tiara Club's newest member.
Callie responded with one of those laughs that wasn't really a laugh and said, "Let's just say it's a good thing this is my second trip down the aisle. I have much lower expectations this time around."
Deborah Lee's hand flew to her throat, looking as horrified as if Callie had just admitted to disliking grits or fried okra. "That's a terrible thing to say," she whispered.
Georgia had to turn away to hide her smile. Deborah Lee liked to believe they all lived in a world of cotton candy clouds where everyone was sweet to everyone else and fairy tales really did come true. Of course, since she had married her high school sweetheart twenty-five years ago and they were still disgustingly happy together, Georgia allowed that maybe in Deborah Lee's world, all of that was true. For the rest of the Tiara Club members, however, life hadn't always been so kind.
Callie's laugh was genuine this time as she gave Deborah Lee's shoulder a friendly squeeze. "Oh, you know what I mean. It just isn't as important to me this time that I have the perfect wedding. With trying to fit everything in between the kids and the dress shop and cookingand cleaning and all, it's inevitable that things are going to fall through the cracks. And that's fine by me. Trey assures me that our honeymoon is going to be heaven, and that's all that really matters."
"I don't know," Kelly said, grabbing a carrot stick from the vegetable tray Georgia had set out earlier and doing a surprisingly good imitation of Bugs Bunny as she loudly crunched off the tip and leaned back against the doorjamb. "I've never had any trouble with the wedding ceremony or the honeymoon. It's the actual marriage part that disagrees with me."
"Oh, you're awful," Deborah Lee said, throwing a wet dish towel at her friend.
"Besides, I'm sure Georgia can give Callie a few tips on what not to do to make her marriage to Trey a success," Emma Rose added.
Georgia shot her cousin a "knock it off" look from across the room. She didn't understand why Emma Rose continued to make a big deal out of the fact that Georgia's best friend was marrying her ex-husband. After all, it wasn't like Callie had stolen Trey from her. Their marriage had broken up long before Callie had even come back to Ocean Sands after her own marriage had ended in such disaster.
Always the peacemaker, Deborah Lee ended the awkward silence that had descended upon Georgia's kitchen by cheerfully announcing, "Well, it looks like we're all cleaned up here. Why don't we take our drinks out into the parlor, hmm?"
Georgia looked around her gleaming kitchen. This was certainly one way to keep the place spotless month after month. "Thanks y'all. Let me whip up another batch of martinis and then we can--"
Her telephone rang, startling her. She picked up the receiver as her friends filed back into the sitting room. "Hello," she answered, pressing the phone to her ear and reaching for her own half-full martini glass.
"Georgia, honey, it's Mama. I'm so sorry to call. I know you've got your girlfriends over there."
Georgia smothered a sigh. Mama called nearly every time the Tiara Club got together, and she always apologized as sweetly as if this were the first time she'd interrupted her daughter's girls' night in.
"That's all right, Mama. Is something wrong?"
"Oh, dear, I know this is silly, but ... well, I'm feeling so lonely tonight. Ever since you moved to your own place, I just can't help but wonder what the good Lord has planned for the rest of my life. Surely, He can't mean for me to live alone for many more years. I just don't think I can bear it."
Georgia flicked open the kitchen curtains and looked down the quiet, oak tree--lined street where her old Victorian house was located. She could see the lights on in the second-floor-bedroom window five houses down and across the street where her mother lived. If the apron strings were any tighter, Georgia would have been strangled by now.
She was tempted to ask her mother why, after living alone for the past eleven years, she couldn't seem to adjust to being by herself. But she knew it wouldn't do any good. Mama would just go on about how Georgia was all she had left in the world.
It was an awful thing to know she was being manipulated but not be able to do anything about it. The pattern had been established so long ago that Georgia didn't know how to break out of it. Even this small rebellion of moving into her own home after her divorce was final four and a half years ago seemed too much for Mama to bear. She had expected her daughter to move back home after her marriage to Ocean Sands's golden boy had ended. Instead, Georgia had bought this house on the same block as her mother, hoping that Mama's protests would die down after the first few months.
Georgia looked out over her front porch and frowned into the darkness. She loved this old house, with its creaky front steps, wide-plank pine floors, and doors that didn't quite fit right after a century of settling. No matter how much her mother complained, she couldn't give up her home--or the small measure of freedom she had gained by living alone. Georgia was a devoted daughter, but she had already sacrificed enough for her mother's happiness.
Still, the despair-filled tones of her mother's pleas had her worried, so she knew she might as well give in right now. There was no use trying to cajole Mama out of a full-out mope. Georgia knew from experience that it wouldn't work.
She poured her martini down the drain and rinsed out her glass. "All right, Mama, I'll come on over. How about if I bring my copy of Miss Congeniality? We can curl up on the sofa and have some popcorn and it'll be just like going to the theater."
"That sounds delightful, dear. I'll go get my air popper out of the cupboard. You know how much healthier it is to make popcorn that way. We girls have to watch our figures, don't we?"
Georgia cringed when her mother actually giggled. She'd been "watching her figure" since she was four years old and a Little Miss Pageant judge had taken Mama aside after one event and told her that Georgia would have placed higher in the competition if her legs weren't so pudgy. It was all celery sticks and raisins after that, except for the occasional cookie Daddy slipped her behind Mama's back.
Muttering something appropriate, Georgia ended the call and went into the parlor to face her friends. "Sorry, guys, but I have to go. Mama's in one of her moods again. Y'all are welcome to stay, though. I've got plenty of vodka and banana liqueur left."
Callie delicately covered a yawn with the back of her hand. "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready to call it a night. Caroline was up three times last night with a tummy ache and I've got an early morning tomorrow. Besides, I'm sure the kids have about wore my former mother-in-law out by now."
"I think I'll be going, too," Kelly agreed. "I've got a busy week ahead. Might as well make tonight an early night. It's the last one I'll have for a few days."
Sierra and Deborah Lee made similar comments about turning in early, leaving Georgia's cousin Emma Rose as the only one who didn't voice an eagerness to end the evening. Still, she didn't protest as the group headed out the door and into the warm night. Georgia waved good-bye to all but Emma Rose and Callie, who both lived just down the street from Georgia and her mother. Emma Rose had never moved out of her mother's house--both she and her brother, Beau, had lived under the same roof nearly all their lives. Callie, on the other hand, had spent a good decade away from Ocean Sands when she moved away to attend college with Georgia at Ole Miss, and then later when she marriedand moved to a posh neighborhood in Jackson. Her divorce had brought her back to Ocean Sands permanently two and a half years ago, when she, her children, and her ex-mother-in-law moved into the house her own parents had bequeathed to her after their death.
As she, Callie, and Emma Rose walked down the street, Georgia couldn't help but think that this was why the South was so steeped in tradition. When you lived in the same house your own parents had grown up in, doing things in new and different ways just didn't seem natural.
Georgia stopped to give her cousin a quick hug when they passed the gate that marked the entrance to the Conover home. The springs creaked like they always did when Emma Rose pushed open the faded white gate, letting out the scent of blooming yellow roses and cigar smoke.
"Well, hey there. What are you pretty girls doing out this time of night? Don't you know that wolves go on the prowl when the moon comes out?"
Georgia rolled her eyes skyward as Emma Rose's brother, Beau, stepped out of the shadows of the Conover's wide front porch. In true mocking-Southern-gentleman form, he leaned up against one of the columns flanking the steps, causally crossed his legs at the ankle, and took another deep pull on his cigar, letting the smoke out in a thick cloud as he exhaled.
"I don't think we're in any danger of being waylaid by scoundrels," Georgia said dryly.
"I'm the only one here who's not directly related to you, and it's been a long time since I needed protection from the likes of you," Callie added.
"Ouch," Beau said and then grinned, his teeth gleaming white in the darkness.
Georgia often thought that her cousin looked like just what she expected the devil might if he came to earth, with his perfectly tanned skin, jet-black hair, and dark, unfathomable eyes. He was handsome as sin and, according to rumor, had tempted a good measure of Ocean Sands' females into bed with him. The four members of the Tiara Clubwho were not related to Beau, however, seemed immune to his charms; a fact for which Georgia was grateful, since she knew her cousin had no intention of sticking with any one woman longer than it took cream to curdle in the icebox.
"Besides, I heard that you and Miranda Kingsley are an item. Doesn't that take you out of prowler mode, at least for a week or two?" Georgia asked, folding her arms on the top of the fence as if she had all evening to stand around needling her cousin. Which she did. Mama would be fine. Just knowing she had ended Georgia's fun would be enough to settle her down.
Georgia winced at that ugly thought. She knew her mother didn't exactly have her "moods" on purpose, but the timing of her lonely spells certainly did seem suspicious.
Beau's smile turned to a frown as he exhaled the last of his cigar smoke, tossed the butt down, and ground it into the dirt with his heel. "How in the world did you know about that? I just asked her out today at lunch."
Beside her on the sidewalk, Callie gave a mocking laugh as she answered Beau's question with one of her own. "Don't you know you can't keep secrets in this town?"
Georgia looked down at the leaf-strewn path leading up to the Conover's porch and then up at the lighted second-story window of her mother's house. Then she glanced back at her own house, with its cheery Chinese-red painted shutters and darkened attic. And as she and Callie waved good-bye to Emma Rose and Beau and turned to make their way down the quiet, tree-lined street, all she could think was, Yes, when it's important enough, you can.
THE TIARA CLUB. Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Brandt. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.