Small town sins and secrets can be deadly.
Southern Woman continues the story of Towanna and Kathy Whitaker, begun in Second Son, into the next chapter of their lives. Towanna is struggling through his last semester of medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans. Kathy owns and manages a small variety store in their hometown, Cottondale, Mississippi, and is counting the weeks until Towanna graduates and comes home to intern with a local doctor. Their hopes and dreams collide, however, when Towanna is offered a prized, five-year surgical residency in New Orleans, and Kathy’s ownership of her store is challenged.
The painful throbbing in her lower back made Kathy Whitaker stifle a groan. She was only twenty-nine, but sometimes she felt like forty and all used up. No point whining about it. She pushed herself to her feet and studied the sales floor of Weaver’s Variety Store with hard-won satisfaction.
The yarn and fabric displays were fully stocked, the sewing notions meticulously organized. The cosmetics display, the front windows, and glass doors gleamed. The ready-to-wear clothing displays, Kathy’s newest additions, were already drawing more customers. Her paper goods and office supplies orders had finally come in, including the holiday wrapping paper and ribbons.
Weaver’s might be a small variety store in a small southern town, but it also served several nearby sprawling farming communities. Kathy knew she had a right to be proud of her store. She and Nellie had finally gotten the inventory done, and she was well on her way to getting Weaver’s out of the financial hole Randy Munson had put it in.
She stretched her lower back and tried to smile at Nellie, her senior clerk and accountant. “I’m so sorry to hear Harold is sick again, Nellie.”
Nellie gave a shaky sigh. “He should neva’ have retired, Kathy. Harold ain’t sick, just bored and lonely. With nothing much to do, he follows me around the house, pestering me to retire and stay home—old coot. So, I have to give notice. I’m so sorry.”
Kathy patted the older woman’s hand. “You sure about this, Nell?”
Nellie nodded, her plump, pleasant face doleful. Short and stocky, the older woman looked frazzled. Nellie usually kept her thick brown hair touched up, but today gray hair showed at the roots, a clear sign she was spread too thin, with too much to do.
“It’s time, I think,” Nellie added. “Maybe if we both settle down, Harold won’t pester so much.”
Kathy leaned forward, a glint in her hazel eyes. “Maybe you should pester the old coot back?”
Nellie tucked her tongue against her cheek. “Maybe I should.”
Kathy tried not to let her dismay show. Nellie had kept the books for Weaver’s Variety for years, and continued to do so after Kathy inherited the store from Minnie Weaver nine years ago. How would she ever find a replacement?
She pressed her hand against the dull ache in her lower back and fought off another groan. Maybe an aspirin would help, or coffee. Her monthlies were a little late, but then they’d worked such long hours to get the inventory done; she wasn’t surprised. It had happened before when she pushed herself too hard. She’d been pushing hard ever since she came back to Cottondale four months ago, fired Randy Munson, and started cleaning up the mess he’d made of her store.
“I can stay on for another two weeks, maybe three, to go over the books with you.” Nellie offered a sympathetic smile. “At least Randy never had the brains to mess with my accounting system. And I can fetch you that aspirin and coffee you’re wanting.”
“It’s that obvious?” Kathy tried to smile. She’d miss Nellie so much. Nellie had backed the changes she made to the store after Miss Minnie passed, and Kathy learned she’d inherited Weaver’s Variety.
She’d started small, moving the sales and notions counter to the front of the store, and installing a new linoleum floor. She’d added the big clock to the back wall so her customers and small staff could more easily keep track of time. Finally, she’d replaced Miss Minnie’s old adding machine with a fancy new brass register from the National Cash Register Company.
That last innovation brought her trustees around, hovering and questioning if she could even operate the dang thing. Overprotective old fogies, the both of them. Fred Shattles had been Miss Minnie’s family lawyer. Buddy Munson owned Munson’s General Store and had been a longtime friend of the Weaver sisters. Miss Minnie wanted Kathy to have guidance while she grew into her inheritance and had put the bulk of the Weaver estate in trust until Kathy turned thirty. Fred and Buddy served as the estate’s trustees.
“What am I gonna do without you, Nellie?”
The older woman chuckled and patted Kathy’s cheek. “You’ll do just fine, my dear. You always have. You’ll drive old Fred and Buddy crazy, though.”
Together, they walked to the front of the store. Kathy ran her hands over the gleaming brass register. Nellie’s presence had kept her two trustees from hovering too close. More importantly, Nellie had warned her the store was in trouble after Kathy hired a manager and moved the family to New Orleans, where her husband, Towanna, attended medical school.
She had installed a competent, older woman as the manager, but Buddy took a dislike to the woman, fired her, and shoehorned his nephew, Randy Munson, into the position. Randy managed to alienate half her suppliers and most of Weaver’s customers before she came home and kicked his butt out of her store.
Randy wasted no time landing a new job with the Delta and Pine Land Company, the largest land corporation in Sunflower County. Now he spent his time lording it over the farmers who contracted with Delta and trying to get independent farmers like her father-in-law, Angus Whitaker, to sign on with or sell outright to the massive company.
Kathy felt sorry for the farmers having to put up with Randy’s blustering, but at least it kept him out of her business. She finally had the store back on a profitable footing. Now she was counting down the weeks until she turned thirty, and the trust finally, finally ended.
Come January 4th, she’d be free of Buddy Munson’s well-meaning but inept meddling, and Judge Shattles’ nosy benevolence. She’d be able to hire another manager and move herself and the kids back to New Orleans, to a tidy apartment in the Garden District, until Towanna graduated in May. Then the family would come home to Cottondale, and he would start his internship in Dr. Hane’s medical practice.
Nellie still waited, tapping her foot. Kathy flushed and nodded to the older woman, and Nellie headed for the back of the store and the short hallway that led to Kathy’s apartment.
She checked the big clock on the back wall. They would open in twenty minutes, at nine o’clock and right on time before the day’s heat rose too much. She’d have time to draft a help wanted ad for the Indianola newspaper.
Tonight, Towanna would be home. Should be home, anyway. The commute from Tulane University in New Orleans to Cottondale was almost five hours by train. The best he could do was come home on the occasional weekend. In the four months she’d been back in Cottondale, missing Towanna had become a way of life.
She’d lived through worse, though, when he’d served in the war in Europe. We’ve come so far. I can do another three months. Kathy mustered a smile when Nellie returned and handed her the coffee and two aspirin.
“I’ll finish the books early and make the deposit for you when we close,” Nellie offered. “I also called Jolene. She’ll be happy to take extra shifts until you can hire another clerk. That’ll give us time to go over the books in more detail, in case it takes a while to find a new accountant.” Nellie cocked her head and studied Kathy’s pallor. “Any chance you might have caught this time, sweetie?”
Nellie adored the twins, and she knew Kathy and Towanna had wanted more children.
“No, ma’am,” Kathy said absently, as if it didn’t matter, but the question unsettled her. Two miscarriages convinced her that she and Towanna weren’t going to have more children. The loss was old but no less painful. Her twins, Karen and little Tommy were her first and likely her last babies.
At least they had Carlon, their adopted son, and the twins. And I have Towanna.
She also had Julie May. Julie May, Kathy’s mulatto housekeeper, viewed her position in the Whitaker household as a sort of retirement from serving as Cottondale’s midwife for over forty years. Kathy viewed her as a godsend. Julie May was a shoulder to cry on, those weekends when Towanna couldn’t come home. A kind heart, when she needed it most.
Kathy swallowed the aspirin and used the coffee to wash it past the lump in her throat. I have no cause to feel sorry for myself. I have a fine boy, two healthy twins, and a husband who’ll be home for good in just a few months.
A hot soak in the claw-foot tub tonight, and she’d be right as rain. She took another swig of coffee and headed for the small office in the back of the store. “I’ll just get started on that help wanted ad,” she told Nellie. “If we call it in before ten, it’ll make the Sunday paper.”
Jolene, her junior clerk, came in at noon and took over the register so Kathy could take lunch with Julie May and the twins. Jolene’s honey-blond hair fell past her shoulders when it wasn’t pulled back into a thick braid at the nape of her neck. Her robust build and rounded hips were a lie. The girl was barely past eighteen, and not too bright, to put it charitably. Still, Kathy liked her. She dressed modestly, worked hard, and was always on time.
Jolene signed for the new cash drawer, verified it had ten dollars in small bills and change, and shooed Kathy toward the back of the store. Kathy took the morning cash drawer to her office and knelt to place it in the store safe.
Kathy stifled another groan when she straightened and pressed both hands against the small of her back. She turned to leave the office and paused in surprise. The man standing in her doorway seemed vaguely familiar. He dressed well, she noted, with slick brown hair, and dark eyes that studied her carefully. “This area is for employees only,” she said mildly. “Customers need to stay in the store.”
“I’m not a customer, Mrs. Whitaker.” The man held out a business card. She took the card, studied his name, and the name of the business printed in neat red letters:
“I’ve seen you about town,” Kathy said carefully and tipped her head to study him. “And you were in my store yesterday, I believe.”
“What brings you into my store, Mr. Coswell?”
Coswell glanced over his shoulder toward Jolene, and Kathy thought she saw a glint of interest in those dark brown eyes. Jolene wore a smart white blouse, a navy-blue skirt, and a clerk’s apron. Coswell’s eyes swept from Jolene to the clean, neat cabinets filled with merchandise and the bright displays of children’s rainwear before he turned back to her. “Why, I’d like to buy it, Mrs. Whitaker.” He tapped the card in her hand. “I represent—”
“Tomlinson, Gosselin and Young,” Kathy said, and her lips widened in a wry smile. She kept up with the retail trade journals despite Buddy Munson’s insistence the subscriptions were an unnecessary expense. “I’m familiar with the TG&Y variety chain, but Weaver Variety is surely too small to interest them, and Cottondale is too small to make such an acquisition worthwhile.”
Coswell’s smile could only be called condescending. He swept his arm out in an expansive gesture. “Cottondale is growing, Mrs. Whitaker. Completion of the Interstate 10 highway, the new rail lines, and the surge in demand for cotton will more than double business in this area. Several textile plants are looking to open new factories in Sunflower County. The Delta and Pine Land Company is even thinking of opening a new office here. Selling your store to TG&Y could be very … tidy, for all parties involved.”
Coswell moved closer and beamed down at her. His eyes were warm, Kathy decided, but his teeth reminded her of a shark’s just before it bit down. Or maybe a barracuda’s. “I’m simply not interested, Mr. Coswell. Weaver’s Variety started as a family-owned business, and we want it to stay that way.” And she loved her little store.
Coswell’s features hardened and then relaxed. He took another step closer, almost too close. “Perhaps I could persuade you over dinner, Mrs. Whitaker?”
Kathy fought the urge to hold her breath and fan away his strong aftershave. Old Spice, and way too much of it. Definitely shark-like, she decided.
“I’ll have to decline. The children and I are having dinner with my husband this evening. But for now, you’ll have to excuse me.”
She moved forward until he backed out of her office, closed and locked the office door, and eased past him through the side door leading to her apartment. She closed the door behind her, but then waited, her hand on the doorknob until she heard his footsteps tapping down the short hallway and back to the sales floor. The chimes on the storefront doors rattled as he made his exit. Mr. Coswell, she decided, was not a happy man.