Manderley Jessup is having enough trouble squeezing into last summer's dresses, and now her mother expects her to save the family honor? A film crew has invaded her Tennessee hometown to research a duel, and the duelists' descendants, who are still feuding after 200 years. Manderley's one of those descendants. Heartily sick of the rivalry, she decides to do something about it. She approaches Abram Coventry, descended from the opposing duelist, with a marvelous plan. Abram will design buttons as a gift for Manderley's mother.
But a button catastrophe threatens to make the original duel look like a kindergarten squabble. What can Manderley do with those dreadful buttons? Worse, what can she do about the hopeless crush she's developed on Abram?
Manderley thought she’d leeched almost every bit of Southern blood from her system. She’d quit drinking sweet tea and switched to coffee. College football was ditched in reluctant favor of the Bears, the Cubs, the Blackhawks, and the Bulls. She hadn’t visited a beauty parlor in over a year and once even ventured onto Michigan Avenue without makeup. And no one north of the Mason-Dixon Line would ever know of her reign as Junior Miss Plunkett County in sixth grade.
Eliminating “Y’all” from her conversations had been the most painful. Manderley bit the inside of her cheek whenever the term slipped out. Another few months in Chicago, she kept assuring herself, and no one would guess her Tennessee roots.
Then her mother called.
“Mandy Lee, honey, it’s so dreadful.”
Manderley heard herself sigh, “Land’s sake, Mama. Now what?” and realized that the South flowed gently just below her superficial Midwestern veneer.
Tara could match her daughter sigh for sigh. She’d been practicing for fifty-four years, ever since, instead of a newborn’s lusty cry, her response to the doctor’s slap was a genteelly offended gasp. “Now Mandy Lee, don’t say it like that! How often do I call with dreadful news?”
It was a valid point. Last Sunday had been unbelievable news, the Tuesday before her mother was too shocked for words, and Manderley could recall twice in the past month when Tara’s calls began with “Darlin’ are you sittin’ down?”
“Sorry, Mama.” While Manderley would never address her parents as anything except ‘Mama’ and ‘Daddy,’ she, like the rest of Plunkett County, always thought of them as Tara and Pem. She could never separate their names from their identities. “What’s so dreadful?”
“Someone wants to do a documentary about it!”
“You mean about the—”
“Don’t say it!” The ladylike squeal cut her off. “I don’t even want to think about that dreadful act!”
Right. It was on Tara’s mind every day, knitted in her inmost parts and connected with a length of ancestral memory stretching back over seven generations. Almost every action from the time of Tara Jessup’s birth was governed by it.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Why honey, you need to come home! Family honor is at stake!”
Manderley knew that was coming. But she hadn’t lost her Southern penchant for hanging on to a lost cause. “Mama, I can’t drop everything and leave.”
Tara knew better. “Of course, you can. School ended last week, and you don’t teach summer classes till the second session, end of July. Plenty of time for you to come down, talk to these movie folks and enjoy some summer with your family. The 250th birthday celebration for Great-Grandpa Talbot is next week.” She spoke as though she knew him personally, which in a way, she did. “Thornfield and Ruthanne are here. Wait till you see little Genny-Vive. Cuttin’ her first tooth and takin’ it like a real lady.”
Leave it to Tara. She not only knew Manderley’s schedule but would arrange everything on the assumption that her wish was her children’s command. “Margy-Rita wants you to visit her new apartment. She decorated it cute as a—” there was an abrupt pause and for a second Manderley wondered if her mother almost said “button.” Impossible. She was merely coming up with something comparable. “It is cute as a bug’s ear.” Marguerite would be thrilled by the comparison, Manderley thought drily. “I think your sister is getting tired of waiting for that Boyd Harvey to ask her to marry him. She bought a single bed!” Tara’s voice was a mix of concern and relief and Manderley wanted to laugh.
“All right, Mama. But I can’t leave today.”
“Of course not, sugar! You need a good night’s sleep to be fresh for that long drive. My lands, I can’t wait to see your pretty face!”
“I’ll be there tomorrow night, Mama. Don’t wait dinner.” That was merely a courtesy. Of course, dinner would be waiting, kept warm, with the good china gleaming on the table.
Instead of bubbling a farewell, Tara was silent on the other end of the line. Not silent exactly. She was fussing, the term her husband and children used for the rustling murmurs of ladylike distress signaling an Issue.
“What’s going on, Mama?” It didn’t pay to ignore the almost-inaudible bleats. Tara wouldn’t hang up till she shared more bad news.
“It’s Bartie. Mandy Lee, I swear you won’t know him, he’s changed that much.”
She was home for spring break in early April. How much could he have changed? “Is he having another growth spurt?”
The expulsion of bitter laughter made Manderley aware that this might be serious.
“Mama?” Her throat constricted. “Is Bartie sick?”
“Goodness, no! Physically he’s fine. Handsome, hale, and lookin’ like your papa more and more. Got his physical for sports, and he is in the pink. No drugs either. Not that I ever suspected your baby brother would do anything like that.
“No, he’s doin’ great in school and in sports and all. Everyone loves Barton. But he’s so secretive. In his room, on his computer, makin’ certain I can’t see what he sees. Mandy Lee, I’m afraid that our Barton is addicted to pornography.”
Manderley wasn’t tempted to laugh this time. Pornography was nothing but another form of drug. “Has Daddy talked to him?”
“Only once! And he says not to worry!” Tara’s tone was uncharacteristically harsh. “He’s taking Bartie’s word that he isn’t looking at filth. But why else barricade himself in his room? When he isn’t there, he’s at the library, and we all know those librarians refuse to censor anything.”
To Tara all librarians were represented by one—Iris Coventry, who sat well atop Mama’s arch-enemy list.
“Daddy loves Bartie too. Trust him and try not to worry, Mama. Love you.”
Tara was back under control. Strong Southern women did not let their emotions get the best of them. “Love you too, sugar. Keep both hands on the wheel and put on some gospel music. It’ll make the miles fly.”