Sunday, February 19, 2017

Tea Time Excerpt: Body on the Bayou

We're getting in the New Orleans spirit with a tea time excerpt of Ellen Byron's novel, Body on the Bayou. Every Sunday this winter we've been suggesting tea with an excerpt from a wonderful book so you can curl up and find a new series to love. 

Today we're matching Ellen Byron's second book in the Cajun Country Mystery series to Tea Embassy's Wedding Cake Rooibos. 

Doesn't that sound delicious...and now here's chapter one of Body on the Bayou...


It was mid-afternoon and Maggie Crozat had already led five large tour groups through Louisiana’s Doucet Plantation, a historic state landmark once owned by her ancestors. A storm had passed through at dawn and remnants of rain dripped from the magnolia tree that shaded the employees’ break area. Maggie sat on a bench under the tree.  A fat raindrop fell on her nose and tumbled down the décolleté of the blue polyester ersatz 1850s ball gown that served as her tour guide uniform. She’d been starving when she went on lunch break, but her appetite disappeared and her homemade crawfish salad sandwich went untouched as she scanned the Maid of Honor to-do list that her co-worker, Vanessa Fleer, had dropped in front of her. 

“Here’s page two,” the bride-to-be said as she handed it to Maggie. 

“There’s a page two? Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack, which I could be in danger of having if all this stuff don’t get done.” Vanessa made a sad face and patted her rapidly expanding stomach.  Maggie was skeptical of women who claimed that they had no idea they were pregnant. But while undergoing a medical evaluation before starting an all-liquid diet, Maggie’s fellow tour guide at Doucet discovered that in addition to a food baby, she was carrying an actual baby.  This scuttled her plan to milk a year-long engagement to Rufus Durand, the lazy police chief of tiny Pelican, Louisiana. Instead she was fast-tracking her nuptials, and Maggie reluctantly gave her credit for making sure that the ink was dry on the wedding license before popping out little Rufus or Rufette. Just because the woman was marrying “the man of muh dreams,” didn’t mean she trusted him not to duck out on child support if he wasn’t legally bound.

“Since time’s so tight, we’re gonna have to do a lot of checking in with each other,” Vanessa told Maggie, who noted that the woman’s blandly pretty features were disappearing into a face that grew incrementally fleshier by the day. Maggie’s artist’s eyes tended to pick up visual details that others missed. “Never, ever turn off your phone or put it on vibrate cuz I am gonna need 24/7 access.”  
“What if I need to go to the bathroom?” Maggie asked in a dry tone.
“24/7, Magnolia Marie, 24/7. This is gonna be soooo fun! Oh, dang, you said bathroom, now I gotta pee again.”  
The pregnant woman skip-waddled off, leaving a glum Maggie to pick at her lunch. She regretted letting Van strong-arm her into the position of head wedding cheerleader, but she was still trying to make friends and find her place again in her hometown. She’d barely been back a year after spending more than a decade in Manhattan, and knew that many locals saw her as “that artsy-fartsy girl.” At thirty-two, Maggie felt far removed from being a “girl,” but in Pelican that appellation applied to any female still single, be she seven or seventy. Signing on as point person for Vanessa’s wedding party was also a strategic move. Van’s fiancé was the archenemy of Maggie’s family, so keeping her happy might lay the groundwork for a rapprochement between the Crozats and Durands. Reminding herself of this kept Maggie from exploding like an M80 firecracker when Vanessa peppered her with inane demands.
A couple of other co-workers, Ione Savreau and Gaynell Bourgeois, strolled over to join her. Ione, who supervised the guides, was a slim African-American retired schoolteacher who reveled in surprising people with the news that not only were three out of every ten plantation owners women, there were also owners of color. Gaynell Bourgeois was a nineteen year-old with angelic looks. Her ingenuous demeanor masked an intellect so sharp it had helped Maggie solve a murder which would have doomed her family’s home and livelihood: Crozat Plantation Bed & Breakfast.
The women sat sidesaddle at the break area picnic table, their ball gowns poofing out around them like Miss Muffet’s tuffets.   “What’s with you?” Ione asked, sensing Maggie’s unhappiness.  Maggie handed Vanessa’s list to her. Ione took one look at it and burst out laughing, a deep basso guffaw. Gaynell peered over Ione’s shoulder to view the list, and joined in with tinkling giggles. “Now we know why all of Van’s relatives ran like a levee broke when she hit them up for the Maid of Honor job,” Ione said. She pulled a tissue out of her cleavage to wipe the tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks.
“And she’s got a big family,” Gaynell added. “Real big.”
Maggie glared at them. “Yeah, well, I’m going to think of myself as the foreman of this bridal party, and assign as much as I can to the bridesmaids. So take that as a warning.” 
Ione and Gaynell, both of whom had buckled to Vanessa’s entreaties that they serve as bridesmaids, stopped laughing. “Um, it’s a bad week for me,” Ione tap-danced. “My grandkids are coming to visit, and things like that and— oh, never mind.” She gave up trying to come up with excuses. “Fine.  We’ll help.  Right, Gaynell?”
“Of course.” Gaynell smiled at Maggie, who returned the smile. She knew that tease as they might, Ione and Gaynell would be there when she needed them. Which, given Vanessa’s status as an archetypal Bridezilla, would be a lot.
“Luckily, or unluckily because we could use the money, there’s a lull at Crozat between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Maggie said. “Some guests checked out this morning, and as far as I know we don’t have any other bookings this week.”
“What about people coming in for the wedding?” Gaynell asked.
Maggie snorted. “Please, like Rufus would ever let Vanessa give us the business.” 
The other women nodded. The whole town knew that Rufus Durand held a grudge against the Crozats dating back a hundred and fifty years.  Maggie’s great-great-great-grandmother was rumored to have put a curse on all Durand family relationships after catching her fiancé, Ru’s great-great-great-grandfather, cheating on her with a New Orleans belle. “The only reason he okayed me as Maid of Honor is because he knew it would make my life hell,” Maggie said, holding up Vanessa’s list as evidence.
Ione frowned. “You’d think that since he’s getting married again” – the “again” referring to this being the third marriage for Ru – “he’d assume the curse was broke and forget about it.”
“At this point, hating my family is so ingrained in his DNA that I don’t think anything could knock it out of his system.”
“Shhh,” Gaynell cautioned. “Vanessa’s coming back.”
Vanessa made her way to them, holding up the hem of the green and red ill-fitting dress that had been cobbled together to hide her eight-month bundle. The goal had been to recreate an outfit that an antebellum belle might have worn during her confinement. But, as Vanessa griped, “I just saw myself in the mirror.  I look like a Christmas tree.” The other women were silent. “You’re not saying anything.”
“We would if we disagreed,” Ione, ever blunt, replied.
“But it’s okay,” Gaynell said. “It just looks like you’re celebrating the season.”  
Vanessa glared at them, and then turned to Maggie. “I’ve thought of more stuff I need you to do.  I’ll text it all to you later.”
“Oh, come on, Vanessa.” Maggie held up the list. “‘Confirm contract with venue and caterers, order flowers, renegotiate rental prices…’ A Maid of Honor doesn’t take care of these things, a wedding planner does. You need to give this list to yours.”
“I would if I still had one. Rufus fired ours. Said we should be spending that money on the house.”
“The house,” as Vanessa euphemistically called it, was La Plus Belle, the mega-mansion her fiancé was building with his share of the payout that the entire Durand family received for the sale of their family homestead, Grove Hall. At this point, La Plus Belle was just lumber and lawsuits brought on by the constant changes Ru and Van demanded and then refused to pay for. Maggie wasn’t surprised that Ru had axed their wedding planner, a pricey hire from New Orleans. Nor was she surprised that Vanessa would try and foist those chores on her. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I can’t take on all these duties. I don’t have the time.”
Vanessa grimaced and put her hand on her baby bump. She reached behind her, groping for a seat, then lowered herself onto the picnic table bench between Ione and Gaynell, shoving each of them to the side. “Dang, another pain.  I can feel my blood pressure going up. I may need to call my doctor. She’s real worried about me going into pre-term labor.”
“We know,” Ione said. “You tell us every time we don’t do what you want.”
“Well, it’s true.” 
Vanessa cast a pitiful glance at Maggie, who sighed. Vanessa might be bluffing, but Maggie didn’t want to take the chance that she wasn’t.  Woe be anyone who caused the future Mrs. Rufus Durand to deliver early. “Okay, fine, I’ll help you out.  Just spare me another ‘pre-term labor’ performance.”
“Thank you.” Vanessa popped up, and then pulled out her cell phone. “Oooh, I got a text from my mama.” As she read the message, Vanessa pulled off her old-fashioned, banana-curled wig and rubbed her scalp. She’d stopped coloring her hair after reading that it wasn’t good for a gestating infant, so muddy brown roots dead-ended about two inches from her old yellow-blonde dye job.  
Vanessa finished reading, put her phone away, and slowly sat down again, her face so pale that Maggie worried she might actually follow through with the threat to deliver early. “Van, are you all right? You don’t look good.”
“It’s my cousin, Ginger,” Vanessa said. The women waited for her to continue, but she stared straight ahead, her face stricken.
“Is it… bad news?” Ione asked gently.
“Yes.” Vanessa nodded. “She’s coming to my wedding.”

And Vanessa burst into hysterical sobs.

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