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Small Town Haven

Chapter One

Order from Amazon Order from Books a Million Small Town Haven  by Charlie Hudson Helen Crowder stood at one of the entryways into the conference center, taking in the sight of dozens of booths, the noise level moderate compared to what it would be later in the day. Becky Sullivan, Phyllis Latchley, and their newest quilting circle member, Alicia Johnson, were consulting their catalogues, trying to decide which direction to go in first. Helen and Phyllis hadn’t been to a show for almost three years and this was the first time for Becky and Alicia.          

“I know I’ve seen this on TV, but my gosh there’s so much,” Becky said when they crossed into the main display area. “How are you supposed to know where to start?”

Alicia’s head had moved from side to side, no doubt wondering the same thing.

“I have the class on Template-Free Quilting at 11:00,” Phyllis said, lifting her head. “Helen, you’re going to the lecture on Amish quilts at the same time?”

“Yes, Bea Greer from Knoxville is giving it and I haven’t seen her since we went to the show in Lancaster.” Helen looked at the two younger women. “Your class is later this afternoon, isn’t it? You and Alicia are going to Three Dimensional Appliques?”

“At 2:00,” Becky said, Alicia still gazing at the crowded floor. “Do we want to split up and meet for a quick lunch?”

“Once you get among the booths, it’s easy to lose track of time,” Helen said with a soft smile. “And with all the food booths I’m seeing, grazing might be better. How about if we just plan on drinks at the hotel for Happy Hour before dinner? Tomorrow will be another full day.”

“I like that,” Alicia said, breaking out of her semi-trance. “I think I want to walk the entire floor, see how things are laid out, and then begin to poke around.”

The women double-checked their watches, agreed that 5:30 in the hotel lounge bar would give everyone enough time and broke into different directions. There were twenty exhibitors this year, six special quilt exhibits, 23 classes and seminars. Unlike some of the shows, they weren’t running contests. Helen was excited about seeing Bea again, a woman who traveled to most of the major shows around the country and took in at least one international show each year. It was hard to believe this was the same girl she’d shared an English 101 class with in college before she dropped out to join VISTA, the domestic equivalent to the Peace Corps. Bea became entranced with quilting during her volunteer work in the Appalachians and set out to learn about the incredible diversity of quilting within all fifty states before turning her attention to overseas.

After Bea’s lecture and taking a few minutes to catch up on each other’s lives, Helen couldn’t resist a cone of warm cinnamon almonds followed by a refreshing peach sherbet, thinking that she would have regular food at dinner. She strolled leisurely and spotted the Click for Quilting booth, a major on-line company that was a leader in internet sales. It had been started by a woman in North Carolina who just wanted her elderly mother to have better access to quilting supplies in the small town where she lived in West Virginia. A quartet of white-haired women with bulging totes moved to the next booth leaving the man who looked vaguely familiar alone. He was about her age, hair still full although silver was liberally sprinkled among the brown, worn in a short style that came over his forehead. He was close to six feet and broad enough through the chest and shoulders to escape the term slender, no telling paunch beneath the royal blue polo shirt that topped charcoal gray slacks. His gray eyes were fringed with thick lashes and his nose had a tiny bump in the center – not unattractive, but noticeable. The cleft in his chin was slight as well and a wide mouth stretched into a smile.

“Max Mayfield, Click for Quilting,” he said in a voice that had to be bass if he sang. “How are you enjoying the show?”

“I’m having a great time,” Helen said, looking at the two crib quilts affixed to the back screen of the booth. The table in front had brochures and a catalog and the narrow tables on either side were covered with a variety of quilting supplies. “I wasn’t able to get away last year and it’s been a while since we had a show in Atlanta. Some of the women in the circle didn’t want to travel too far, so this is perfect.”

He looked at her somewhat quizzically as if he, too, recognized her. “You’re local then?”

Could they have perhaps briefly met at a show she attended? “Wallington,” Helen said. “It’s….”

He winked. “Two and a half hours unless there’s not much traffic on I-20 and the state police aren’t around. I’ve been known to make it in a tic under two hours.”

Helen cocked her head.

“Edith and Burt Mayfield – Angela Hilliard is my sister.”

“Oh my,” Helen said placing the face. “Helen Crowder – well, Pierce then. How long has it been? High school graduation?”

He grinned. “I think so. I was a year ahead of you, if I remember correctly. I went straight to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for the summer session instead of staying around town after I graduated.”

She looked him over more closely, the younger face coming back in her mind. “You look terrific! Your mamma told me that you had gotten into quilting, but I had no idea you were this big into it. Oh, I saw her maybe a couple of weeks ago when I was at The Arbors. She’s such a sweetheart.”

“She is that,” he laughed and waved his hand around the booth. “I’m coming up on my tenth anniversary in quilting. You know that’s something mother has always loved, and of course back in those days mothers taught daughters to quilt and dads taught sons to throw a baseball and/or a football.” He motioned to the empty chair. “You certainly wear the years well, by the way. Come on inside and take the other chair while we’re in this little bit of a lull. We can catch up, but the truth is that I’m headed your way as soon as the show is over.”

“Coming for a visit?” Helen eased past the table and took the metal folding chair next to Max. The crowd had thinned, knots of women and those wandering singly stopped at other booths along the aisle.

“Sort of,” he said. “Mamma is doing well considering her age and The Arbors is a wonderful place, but Angela goes to see her every day and that’s something that we think is important. I usually come in once or twice a year, and I took an early retirement from my company a few months ago, so I’ve cut back considerably from the kind of travel that I was doing.” He adjusted the position of his chair to be looking directly at her. “Angela teaches history at the middle school, but she’s always had the desire to go on an archeology dig. A friend of hers was put in charge of a project somewhere in Belize and she’s invited Angela to come down. The principal agreed and they have a substitute lined up. We don’t want Mamma to be alone and even though Mamma thinks the world of my brother-in-law, Kevin, it wouldn’t be fair to ask him to do the everyday bit.”

“Well, that sounds like a lovely plan,’ Helen said, briefly wondering how many men she knew who would be willing to do that. “Will you be staying with Kevin?”

Max laughed. “We’re talking almost three months and that long isn’t something that either of us would care for. I’ve rented one of the apartments that they have on the town square, the ones upstairs in that new building that has retail space on the bottom.”

“Oh, those are nice as long as you don’t need to be on the ground floor,” Helen said. “A friend of mine has been there for about a year now and she loves it. They’d had one of the big old houses on Maple and after her husband passed, she rattled around in it for years and decided to finally downsize. With all the restaurants on the square she says she hardly ever bothers to cook and she can walk practically everywhere she likes to go.”

Three women were approaching and Helen was beginning to feel the effect of having been on her feet most of the day. She wanted to go by the special exhibit area and see at least the Raining Cats and Dogs one. They both stood and she gave Max a quick hug. “It was great seeing you. Call when you get into town and we’ll do this properly.”

He handed her two business cards and a pen. “Keep one and jot your number on the back of the other,” he said and extended his hand to the women.

Helen thought about what a small world it was as she moved away from the booth. Max’s father had died unexpectedly almost fifteen years ago of a massive heart attack. Helen had never been totally sure of what Max’s job was that included traveling to remote parts of the world. Edith, stunned from Burt’s death, hadn’t wanted to delay the funeral and it had been a week later before Max was able to come home. His visits were usually no more than a few days and rarely followed a set pattern. Although Edith was excited and affectionate about his visits, neither she nor Angela seemed to mind his long absences. If she recalled correctly, he was divorced from a fairly short-lived marriage and there were no children. Angela and Kevin’s oldest son and his wife had recently had a son, giving Edith that special pride that came with being a great-grandmother.

“Hey there you are,” Phyllis said brightly, her own tote brimming with items. “Have you been to see the Raining Cats and Dogs exhibit yet? I’ve been hearing good things about it.”

“That’s where I am headed,” Helen said, “and you’ll never believe who’s at the Click for Quilting booth.”

Helen filled Phyllis in and they spent the next hour taking in three of the six special exhibits and then caught the shuttle to the hotel. They had enough time to carry their totes up to their rooms and Helen stopped to do a quick refresh of her powder and to fluff her short, wispy bangs. She was due a trim to keep the layered cut at the right length, and she really liked this shade of chestnut. Edna, who had been doing her hair for years, changed it up slightly every few visits, but always within the same basic color. The little bit of eye shadow she’d applied that morning was fine. They had dined at the hotel last night and would probably go down the street to Cathy’s Creole Café, a chef/owner who relocated to Atlanta after her restaurant had been wiped out during Hurricane Katrina. Becky declared the cuisine to be authentic and Helen had fond memories of when she and Mitch had taken the children to New Orleans. She didn’t need to change from her burgundy twill slacks with the pink and burgundy striped knit top, although she did swap from her black walking shoes to a pair of leather burgundy flats decorated with black leather accents.

Phyllis had changed into a new pewter-colored linen slack suit with a sleeveless turquoise silk shell. The jacket had no collar or lapels, but rather borders embroidered with a serpentine pattern in turquoise. The color set off her blue eyes and the white pageboy that she refused to dye. She was already at the elevator and when they made their way into the lounge, the spacious room was about two-thirds full, most of the barstools occupied.

It was the usual sort of hotel lobby lounge with cherry wood finishes and upholstered armless chairs at round tables for two and four. The color palette was browns and beiges, the carpet a dappled type that hid stains well.  The lighting was subdued, although not to the point that you couldn’t see and Alicia waved to them from a table near the bar. The hotel was one that offered discounted rooms as part of a package deal for the quilting show and based on the number of women in groups who were not clad in business attire, Helen assumed that many of the patrons were attending the show like they were. It was a chattering atmosphere, bubbles of laughter floating around the room.

“Draft and house wine are $3, bottled beer is $4, and mixed drinks are $5,” Alicia reported, pointing to the waitress at the next table. There was a bowl of snack mix in the center, paper napkins laid around and a colorful menu card with specialty drinks. The waitress motioned that she would be with them in a moment.

Phyllis picked up the card that featured martinis on the front. “Becky, does the Creole Café serve hurricanes? If I do one of those, I’ll have a rum here instead of vodka.”

“They do indeed and they pack a punch,” Becky said and lifted a warning finger. “The kind that goes down smoothly and you don’t feel it until later.” Becky, never one to pay a lot of attention to clothes, had changed to blue jeans and a plain dark red cotton sweater, no jewelry as accessories.

Phyllis treated them to one of her wicked smiles. “A good hurricane always brings back memories of one afternoon at Pat O’Brian’s with a handsome gentleman that turned into a very pleasant couple of days if you know what I mean. He was a petroleum engineer if I recall correctly. Over from Houston, or maybe it was Dallas. The everything-is-bigger-in-Texas type for sure.”

“Oh, here comes the waitress,” Helen said, knowing that if left uninterrupted, Phyllis would be sharing details that were probably more information than they wanted. She had long ago taken the attitude that there was no reason women shouldn’t talk openly about sex. Her relatively brief marriage had soured her against the institute of marriage rather than against men in general.

The pause in ordering allowed Helen to steer the conversation away from tryst in New Orleans to the show and what each of them had seen.

“Here’s to a wonderful day,” Alicia said, lifting her martini. “I had no idea it would be this much fun. Thank you ladies for including me.”

“Of course,” they said simultaneously, clinking glasses together.

Alicia, one of two new members of the circle that met every Tuesday evening at Helen’s house, was only a year older than Rita Raney, neither having celebrated their thirtieth birthday yet. Alicia, with a head of soft black curls and clover green eyes, barely came to Helen’s chin. Her short figure was curvaceous though and she swore that avid cycling was the secret to keeping her weight under control. She was a stark physical contrast to Becky, a sturdy woman devoted to horses. The same contrast was obvious in their attire, Alicia clad in a teal cowl neck sweater and fluid black skirt that brushed the tops of her black leather boots. Her dangly earrings were gold teardrops with a teal enamel inset.

“We’re still planning to try and be on the road around three o’clock tomorrow, aren’t we?” Becky asked. “That should get us out of the way of rush hour traffic.”

“I’ve signed up for two classes,” Alicia said. “The one about fusible appliques and one about designing a memory quilt that sounded interesting. Both are in the morning.”

The discussion of who was planning what for the next day took them into a second round of drinks and as they were settling the bill to leave for the restaurant, three men in suits sat at a nearby table, far enough out of hearing range for Phyllis’s assessment not to be heard.

“It’s too bad there are only three of them,” she said wiggling her eyebrows. “Their age range is perfect and none are toady.”

Helen agreed with Phyllis’s assessment if not her implied suggestion. The two men who were close to their age were attractive with a distinguished air, suits that probably came from a men’s store or at least an upper tier department store. The third, who looked to be in his early thirties, was the tall, dark, and handsome sort that would have an Italian last name if his ethnicity matched his face.

“Alicia and I are happily married women, so you and Helen can divide up the extra one,” Becky said, double-checking the stack of bills they were leaving for the waitress.

Alicia glanced at the trio, then seemed to stiffen and stare longer, distress flashing across her delicate face. Oh dear, had Phyllis’s remark disturbed her? It took a while to become used to the way she blurted things out.

“Married, schmarried, you can still appreciate an attractive package,” Phyllis chuckled, as Alicia fumbled with picking her purse up from the floor.

“Better so on a full stomach,” Helen said, standing. “I’m ready to try that crawfish etouffee Becky was telling us about.”

“And the hurricanes,” Phyllis added with a laugh. “Good food we can find anywhere. A properly mixed hurricane is another matter altogether.”