Spring is not the time to leave the South. This is the season when Mississippi is truly the belle of the ball, dressed in vibrant azalea frills, white lace dogwoods, and bridal wreath. The promise of money drifts on the dirt-scented breeze that blows across freshly planted soil. For those of us with Irish blood and the heritage of farming, this is the beginning of the gambling season, when futures will rest on the unpredictable weather and the possibility of a good crop.
My great-great-grandmother Alice planted and farmed the land around Dahlia House. She stood each spring, hands on her hips, determining what to plant, where, how much. One wrong decision could mean the loss of the land—which to a Delaney is equal to the loss of our soul. Year after year she bet and won, hanging on to the plantation against all odds. I won't be planting this year. Like Alice, I'm taking a gamble. Not on crops, but on my own talent.
Sitting on the front porch of Dahlia House with my mother's battered red "good-luck" suitcase at my feet, I'm going to my new life.
Whenever I think of the future, my stomach jigs and lurches. As hard as that is, it's better than thinking of the past and all that is gone and can never be again. Somewhere between the two is the lost dream of Sheriff Coleman Peters and a family of our own, living here in my ancestral home, raising our children, and continuing on with a life that once sounded near perfect.
"He was never less than married." The voice drifts to me from inside the open front door.
Jitty, the resident haint at Dahlia House, has come, at last, to tell me farewell. I was afraid I'd have to go without saying good-bye.
"Now that I'm leaving, do you think Coleman will divorce Connie?" I asked her. In the year I've been home, I gave my heart to Coleman but never my body.
"Did you really want him to leave his wife to be with you?"
I drummed my fingernails on the gray floorboards of the porch and wished for a cigarette. Instead, I pulled out a stick of gum. Jitty stabbed too close to home. I didn't want him if I had to take him from someone else. I didn't want him if I had to "take" him at all. Love has to be a willing surrender.
If I'd insisted on action, if I'd seduced or demanded that we consummate our love, I could have snared him. Instead, we'd both played by honor rules and tempted fate to snatch away the offered gift of our relationship. We'd hesitated, and he who hesitates is lost.
"I guess what I wanted was for Coleman to leave Connie and then find me."
"Your life got out of order, Sarah Booth. Sometimes it happens that way."
I turned to see if Jitty was being consoling or annoying, and I almost swallowed the gum I was chewing. Jitty came swooping toward me, her eyes wide and glazed with madness framed by lashes at least two inches long. She wore a dress with shoulder pads and her hair was smoothed into perfection.
"Camera! Lights! Action! I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille," she said as she came down the front steps of Dahlia House. She swiveled and gave a low bow. "How was that, Sarah Booth?"
"An excellent imitation of Gloria Swanson." I applauded. "Come out to Hollywood with me, Jitty." I'd been trying to work on her to make the trip with me, but she wouldn't commit. In fact, she ignored my request and generally took a powder. Now, at least, she was listening.
She sauntered back to the steps and dropped down beside me on the wooden porch. "I don't think so."
"Then you'll stay here and keep the home front safe while I'm gone, right?" I was taking Sweetie Pie with me, and Reveler, my horse, was already grazing peacefully in the lush pastures at my friend Lee's. This trip to Tinseltown wasn't permanent, but it was my shot at being a movie star.
Jitty lifted an arm and the silver bracelets she'd worn since the first day I met her jingled merrily down her wrist. In contrast, her voice was low and sad. "Sarah Booth, we need to talk."
Her words sent an Arctic chill down my entire body, and suddenly I realized that since I'd been cleared of Renata Trovaioli's murder only a few weeks ago, Jitty and I hadn't really talked. My life had whirl-winded from clearing my name to going to Hollywood to star in a movie with Graf Milieu. Everything was moving way too fast for me.
"What is it? You will stay here, in Dahlia House, and watch over everything, won't you?"
Jitty stared straight ahead, sighting on the driveway and what ever memory that held her undivided attention. "I'm not sure that's the right thing to do."
She was freaking me out. "What do you mean?"
She turned to me, and her smile made tears spring to my eyes. I'd never seen anything so lovely or so sad. "Remember the first time we met?" she asked.
How could I forget that? She'd nearly scared me out of my shoes. But she wasn't interested in funny stories of the past, she was making a point. "Go on," I requested.
"I came to you because you needed me. When you first came home, after all the loss you'd suffered and after things didn't work out in New York, I came because you were alone, without the guidance of family. Dahlia House was a big responsibility, and potentially a huge burden."
"It's still big. It's a really big house, and I still need you." I talked so fast my words were almost incoherent. I had this horrible idea that she was going to say it was time for her to leave, to go on to that Ghostly Reward in the Sky. She was already dead, but a little thing like that wouldn't stop Jitty once she made up her mind.
"Dahlia House hasn't shrunk, Sarah Booth, but you've grown."
Jitty wasn't one to hand out a compliment, and I didn't want to hear this. "Not that much. I haven't grown hardly at all. I'm still scared and alone and—"
"You're taking a shot at your dream, Sarah Booth. Now that's something." The curve of her cheek lifted as she smiled. "Your mama would be proud of you. She is proud of you. And your daddy and Aunt Loulane, too."
My throat closed with emotion, and I swallowed and fought for control of my tears. If I started crying now, I might not quit. "Mama would want you to go to Hollywood and look out for me. Mama will be mad if you leave me now."
Her laughter was clear and sparkling, and for a moment I thought I'd won her over.
"You sure are the dev il to play that card, but it won't work. Guilt never worked very well on me."
"What would you do if you didn't stay in Dahlia House? Where would you go?" There were so many things about the Great Beyond that I didn't understand. Normally, Jitty refused to discuss it. I'd asked her once if she could cross over, why my parents couldn't visit me. They'd died when I was twelve, and I'd never truly overcome that sense of abandonment. When I wasn't haunted by Jitty, I was haunted by that.
"I don't know, Sarah Booth. Being dead is . . . a bit vague sometimes. I'm here with you right now. After that, maybe it's just a long sleep."
"You don't sleep! You're always rambling around at night.
That's when you do your best haunting." I stood up and began to pace. "I do need you, Jitty. You can't just disappear."
"I love you, Sarah Booth. Remember that, no matter what."
I felt the feathery tickle of what might have been a kiss on my cheek. I reached for her, grasping only air.
"Jitty, promise me that you'll be here when I come home." The words choked me. "Jitty!" I lost all efforts to control my emotions. "Jitty!"
"Be strong, like your parents taught you." Her chuckle was hollow, merely an echo. "And break a leg."
The last bit of her shimmered away, and I was left on the front porch drowning in the sweet smell of wisteria that blew up on the wind.
Down the driveway I saw Graf Milieu's car headed my way. He was picking me up for our flight to Los Angeles. I stood, wiping the tears from my face, walked to the front door, and closed it. The sound of the lock tumbling into place was empty and final.
Picking up my suitcase, I turned to meet my future while my past, once again, broke my heart. What would my life be like without Jitty? I couldn't bear to think about it.
On the plane, Graf did his best to entertain me, but he was no competition for my companion riding shotgun—self-doubt. Through some of his movie connections, we'd managed to buy a first-class seat for Sweetie Pie, who took to the skies with the aplomb of a seasoned traveler. Her gentle howl brought immediate attention from the efficient stewardess, Moesha, assigned to take care of us.
"Are you three movie stars?" Moesha asked.
"Only the dog," Graf answered. "We're taking her out for a starring role in Lassie and the Hound."
"I can see where she'll be big box office." Moesha gave Sweetie's ears a gentle caress. "You can bet I'll be in line for a ticket as soon as the movie comes out."
When she walked away, I punched Graf in the ribs, hard. "Liar."
"Maybe not," he said, grinning. "Along with your screen test, I've booked one for Sweetie. We might as well employ the entire family. Just think, Sarah Booth, we can work four or six months and the rest of the year we can do what we want."
For the first time that morning, I felt the dark cloud of despair lift. I'd left behind a life I loved, but it wasn't gone. It hadn't evaporated. And neither had Jitty. Or Tinkie. Or any of my friends. They would be in Zinnia when I returned.
Graf gave me a hug and signaled Moesha. "Bring my lady a spicy Bloody Mary. I think she just decided to enjoy the life of a movie star."
"Coming right up." Moesha leaned down to whisper. "I'll bring a bone for Sweetie Pie. On this plane, you all get the star treatment."
"What do you think?" Graf held me against his side as we stood in the driveway of the most incredible house I'd ever seen. Hanging off the side of Lettohatchie Canyon, the house was clean, modern stucco and steel with a wraparound porch. The view was incredible—mountains highlighted in glowing pinks and oranges to the east and visible to the west, the Pacific Ocean, where a cresting moon hung over the dark waters. We'd spent the entire day traveling to California and arrived just in time for a spectacular sunset.
"I've never seen anything like this," I told him.
"I thought about a beach house in Malibu, but I thought this would be better, and then Bobby Joe Taylor said we could have his place for a few months, until we decided where we wanted to settle."
Stepping away from his side, I entered the house. I hadn't committed, in my heart, to settling anywhere in California. Zinnia was my home, and even though I'd only been gone for twelve hours, I missed it.
"Why don't you call Tinkie?" Graf asked. "I'll take Sweetie for a walk and then open a bottle of wine. I had some salmon steaks and a spinach and artichoke salad delivered, so dinner is ready whenever we are."
I faced him, taking in the leading-man good looks. I'd been very much in love with him when I lived in New York. Now the shoe was on the other foot, and I wasn't certain what I felt for him. Sharing a house might be tricky, but he'd already put my suitcase in my bedroom. He'd promised no pressure. "Thank you, Graf."
"Your screen test is tomorrow at eleven. I'll drive you, and you're going to do great." He stepped forward and kissed my forehead. "Call your girlfriend. Sweetie and I'll be back in half an hour."
I watched the two of them head down the winding driveway as I pulled my cell phone from my purse. Tinkie might be the perfect medicine for what ailed me.
Her phone didn't even ring once before she snatched it up. "Sarah Booth," she said, her voice breathy, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine." It was only half a lie. "I'm sorry I asked you all to stay away when I left. I simply couldn't have stood it to say good-bye to you and Cece and Millie."
"We understand. And as soon as you're settled in and working, we want to fly out and watch. Millie bought a copy of The Hollywood Snoop today and there was a big story about you and Graf and how you two are the leading candidates to play Matty and Ned in the remake of Body Heat. They had a great photo of you."
"How are things with Graf?" she asked.
"He's being a real gentleman. No pressure." I laughed. "He's taking care of everything."
"Everything?" There was a note of mischief in her voice.
"Not that." I tried to match her foolishness, but she must have heard the sadness.
"I saw Coleman this morning. I told him you were gone."
"He said he was happy for you. He said that he saw your talent in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and knew you'd leave Zinnia again."
The anger that touched me was pure and hot. "What a bastard! So I've chosen career over him. That lets him off the hook, doesn't it? He couldn't manage to get himself disentangled from a crazy woman who pretended to be pregnant and produce a brain tumor just to manipulate him, but I left to follow my career."
"Whoa, there!" Tinkie pulled me up short.
"Sorry. It's just so unfair."
"Sarah Booth, you do have an amazing talent. What ever you decide to do with it is up to you. Remember, you can only paddle your own canoe. Coleman has to paddle his."
And that was the perfect answer. "Thank you. I am now paddling mine. My screen test is at eleven tomorrow."
"That'll be one o'clock here in Zinnia. I'll rally the troops and we'll light a candle for you in Millie's while we're eating burgers and fries."
My mouth watered at the thought of one of Millie's burgers. Now that I was in Hollywood, it would be a long time before I could indulge in such foods. The camera loved to see the bone structure beneath the flesh. "Eat a piece of apple pie for me."
"That I can do." She was laughing when she said goodbye. "You keep your strength up. See you soon."
Excerpted from WISH BONES by Carolyn Haines
Copyright © 2008 by Carolyn Haines
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.