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Southern Charm Society

Southern Charm Society

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Ruthie Flores is running out of time.

Assembling a team who can discreetly breach the walls is a last-ditch effort to find out if her estranged daughter is in danger and to make up for what she’s done before it’s too late—literally. The old woman is in hospice care and she isn’t expected to live long enough to see the seasons change.

Meredith Flores Montgomery keeps a safe distance from her mother. The pair hasn’t spoken in years, and Meredith has no plans for that to change. She isn't sure she can forgive Ruthie for the careless decisions that altered the trajectory of their lives. On top of it all, Meredith has her own problems to be concerned with. She’s in serious danger, and no one knows enough about what's going on to help her find a way out.

Will Ruthie’s regrets follow her to the grave? Will she fail her daughter once again, when it counts more than ever? Or might her outlandish, desperate plan actually work?

Southern Charm Society is a novel set in Nashville and New Orleans that oozes Southern charm and style. The beautiful houses and talented interior design firms in both places provide a gorgeous backdrop for this story of gripping suspense that will keep you guessing right up until its shocking end.

Publication date: October 25, 2022.

About the Southern Charms Series:

Southern Charms will eventually be a three-book series. Southern Charm Society will be followed by Daughters of Design and A Louisiana Lullaby. Release dates have not been set for books two and three.

Books are best read in order.

Look Inside

Chapter 1

In a boxy white house on a windy hill, I lay dying.

It’s springtime in Nashville and my impatiens are blooming. I seriously doubt I’ll outlast them, come fall. By the time the air turns crisp and frost covers the ground, I will most likely be underneath it, my flesh and bone no longer of use to anyone but the worms.

It’s a jarring, sobering thought. I know. Believe me, I know. But it’s one I can’t seem to escape. The time for avoidance has long passed. My life, now, is about my regrets and the days I have left to fix what I’ve done. My time is running out. I’m not sure what’s possible any more.

“Dahlia, darling,” I say from my bed, “would you be a dear and bring me a glass of water?”

My mouth is perpetually dry these days. It’s a side effect of all the medications.

“Sure!” she chirps politely from the next room. “Be right there, in a jiffy.”

The old-fashioned phrase is for my benefit. She says things like that because she thinks it makes me happy. I suppose it does. It reminds me of my formative years and the phrases my dad used. Long ago, I lost track of the way the kids talk these days. I couldn’t keep up with them if I tried. Good thing I have no desire to. Not really.

“Thank you,” I reply, just as the phone rings. It’s a rotary, landline phone that sits on a stand in the grand entrance at the front of my home, not far from my bedroom. A relic handed down from my parents. “Actually, dear, would you get that damn phone?” I ask, amending my last request.

“Right away,” the young woman says. I hear her scramble to the foyer, her low heels tapping against the porcelain tile.
I feel guilty having someone as bright and talented as Dahlia care for me like this. She should be back at the office designing fabulous interiors for our clients, not here bringing me water and changing my soiled bed sheets.

“You’re the best!” I call, working hard to speak loud enough that my voice carries. “I appreciate you.”

“Happy to help!” she replies. The phone quiets mid-ring and I know she’s picked up the receiver. “Hello, Flores residence. Dahlia Jackson speaking.”

I listen carefully, hanging on every word. I purse my lips and slump lower in my bed. I’m fairly certain I know who is calling. I don’t want to talk to him. Not really.

“Um hmm,” Dahlia says politely into the phone. “I see. Yes, I understand, sir, but you need to—”

He cut her off, as usual. The asshole.

“I’m not here,” I mumble, hoping she’ll read my mind.

I don’t get many phone calls anymore. I fully admit that’s because I’ve isolated myself in this house. I have people who would call and visit, if they knew how sick I was. I often think I should tell them. But I never get up the nerve.

It’s embarrassing to be so vulnerable. So helpless. I’m a shadow of my former self, and frankly, I don’t want to be seen like this. I hung my career on making things beautiful. How can I face the world now that beauty drains from my life like a leaky faucet? The reservoir will soon run completely dry.

“Sir, I can ask,” Dahlia says, “But I don’t expect her—” There’s a pause, then she adds, “fine. Hold on.”

“Ugh,” I grumble, tugging on a few strands of my thick silver hair. The move is purposeful, as if there’s a lever somewhere in my head that will erase the people and situations I don’t like if I simply pull it the proper way.

I hear a soft thud as Dahlia puts the receiver down on the wooden table next to the phone. I listen as her heels clink again. This time they’re heading my way. “Ruthie?” she asks as she peeks in the door.

I lift the sheet and cover my face. Maybe if she can’t see me, she won’t ask me to talk to him.

It’s silly. I’m aware. Something about facing your own death makes you sillier. At least, it does for me. Who cares what others think? Social norms are quickly becoming irrelevant.

Dahlia’s feet arrive at a stop and she sighs. “Ruthie, dear, I’ll tell him whatever you want, but you can’t avoid him forever.”

“Can too,” I say.

“You can not,” she replies emphatically. “You hired him. He’s just doing what you asked. What you begged, if memory serves me right.”

Now it’s my turn to sigh. She’s right, of course, but I’m so sick and tired of the whole drama. Mitch Weller can’t fix the broken relationship with my daughter. I’m not sure why I ever thought he could. I must have been in denial. One of the stages of grief, if I understand the hospice people correctly.

“I don’t want to talk,” I say. “Not today.”

Dahlia leans against the side of my bed and reaches out for my hand. “What day then?” she asks as I take her palm in mine. “You tell me when, and I’ll make sure he accommodates your schedule. Just remember that time is of the essence. Those were the words you used.”

“What schedule?” I ask. “We both know I’ve got nothing to do but die.”

I lower the sheet and quickly make eye contact, but I don’t hold it. I stare across the room at the framed pictures on the shelves. There are at least a dozen there, all of Meredith and me. Some have Pete in them, too, but there isn’t a single one without my Meredith. “She was the most delightful little girl,” I say softly.

Dahlia follows my gaze. “Absolutely,” she agrees. “I can tell. I understand why you want to reconcile with her, before it’s too late. I’d want the same.”

I shift in bed and attempt to change the subject. “Say, the year is well underway and we haven’t properly discussed Pantone colors. What’s Colour of the Year again? We must be sure we’re keeping tabs on elements of Southern charm. It’s kind of my thing.”

The new “it” color is usually announced in early December, and it’s true that Dahlia and I haven’t given this year’s hue the attention it deserves. I used to love talking about the most popular colors and how to incorporate them into our upcoming interior design projects. Here in Nashville, we tend to favor shades of blue.

She thwarts my attempt. Dahlia is a clever young woman. Too clever to fall for my tricks. “There’s still time,” she says, eyeing my daughter’s face in the framed photos. “I believe you can make things right.”

I shake my head. “There’s not. It’s too late for us. For me.”

I’m wallowing in self pity. I know it. Dahlia knows it. Even Mitch—on the phone in the other room—probably knows it. It isn’t helpful. Can I truly be held accountable for my less than stellar attitude, though? What kind of behavior is expected of dying people?

Dahlia shrugs, her brown skin shimmering in the early morning light that’s easing its way through the bedroom window. She’s dressed for a day at the office, even though she’ll spend all day here with me. I don’t deserve such kindness. “As long as there’s breath in your lungs, Ms. Ruthie,” she reiterates, “there’s time.”

She’s said it again and again, like a broken record. I suppose it’s one I need to hear.

She places my hand down gently onto my lap, then turns and walks to the book shelves. There are plenty of books there, tucked beneath the picture frames. For a moment, I’m not sure which she’s after.

“You don’t have to comfort me,” I say, a tear forming in my eye. “You don’t have to do any of this, for that matter. You don’t even have to be here right now. Go back to the office. You can handle yourself there without me. You’re perfectly capable and competent. I’m just dragging you down at this point.”

“Nonsense,” Dahlia replies.

“Okay,” I add, persistently, “then go home to Rae. Your girlfriend surely needs you more than I do.”

She shrugs. “Rae understands what I’m doing here. She supports this fully. If I went home, she’d send me right back. You know that. Besides, you’re on a mission that I intend to help you see through. Isn’t that what we talked about? Isn’t that what I promised?”

I want to ask her what she’s doing here. What Rae thinks she’s doing here. I don’t. I need Dahlia’s help, no matter how much I wish I didn’t.

No amount of wishing will make my failing heart work again. Doctors have done all they can. The medications I take simply delay the inevitable, and from what I understand, not by long. I’m really going to die. Not in the way that every living person is—someday. For me, it’s an active process. I’m moving toward death with the momentum of a freight train barreling downhill. One with burnt up breaks that do nothing but spark and scream against their perilous fate.

Dahlia glances into the hallway, a reminder that Mitch is still on the phone, waiting.

“If I talk to him,” I begin, “what good will it do?”

I’m doubting my decision to contact him in the first place. What was I thinking, dredging up all that complicated history?

She reaches for one of the framed photos of my daughter. From the confines of a shiny silver frame, Meredith’s dimples stare out at me.

“How old was she here?” Dahlia asks as she runs a neat finger across the little girl’s cheeks.

My brows raise and the corners of my mouth turn upward into a smile. Remembering the good old days when my only child still loved me will raise my spirits every time. “Six,” I reply. “She had just turned six a few weeks prior.”

“Such a fun age,” Dahlia muses.

I nod. “It sure was. The photo was taken at Opryland, back when it was a theme park instead of a shopping mall.” I prop myself up in the bed, rolling onto one elbow. Blood rushes in my ears, then pounds angrily. “Do you remember that, dear? Did you ever go to Opryland?”

Dahlia laughs gently. “I’m afraid not. That place was torn down before I was born.”

“Wow,” I say. “That’s right. I really am old.”

“Not old,” Dahlia assures me. “You’re just … seasoned. That’s all.”

She smiles broadly. It’s the kind of smile that lights up a room. Her genuine rapport is a true gift. How lucky I am to have her in my life. Without a daughter of my own to spend time with, a friend like Dahlia is the next best thing.

“Whatever you say,” I reply, my shoulders easing back against the bed. The moment has passed. My enthusiasm has waned. It seems I can only stay excited for a few minutes at a time before my cranky heart puts the kibosh on the whole thing. It’s hard to do much that’s useful when you have a bad ticker. “Come here,” I urge, gesturing with two fingers. “Bring the photo. Sit beside me.”

She obliges. She hands me the frame, then sits on my bed and tucks her skirt against the sides of her legs. When I don’t speak for a while, she inquires. “Tell me more about that happy little girl.”

I yelp, the emotion surprising me. It does that a lot lately, building in my throat and bursting up and out of my mouth. I can’t seem to control it. “I’m sorry,” I say, lifting a hand to cover my face.

“For what?” Dahlia asks.

“For … I don’t know. Everything.”

“Stop it,” she says, then she takes my hand in hers once again. “Tell me about your daughter on that day, at the Opryland theme park. She looks so content.”

I glance down at our hands. Hers young, brown, and strong. Mine pale, gnarly, and wasting away before my very eyes.

It strikes me that this young woman has been alive roughly the same amount of time as Pete has been gone. Dahlia is a living, breathing representation of all the life Pete never got to live. In fact, she has nearly the exact same skin tone. To a casual observer, she could be his daughter. The thought pains me, and I wince. I’m responsible for his life being cut short.

“Ruthie, please,” Dahlia says. “Focus on your daughter. Tell me about the day you took this photo. You did take it, right?”

“Actually, Pete did,” I reply. “I miss him just as much as I miss Meredith.”

“Aw, I know you do, dear,” she says sweetly. “He was your husband. Your great love of a lifetime. Tell me about it. I love hearing your family stories.”

I exhale and close my eyes, allowing myself to remember. Within seconds, it feels like I’m back there again, the hot sun burning our shoulders as the smell of freshly-baked funnel cake wafts through the air. Cheerful yells rise and fall in the distance along with the theme park rides. “I held her little hand in mine,” I say. “We had ridden an indoor roller coaster called Chaos. Pete was creeped out by the idea of a roller coaster in the dark, so Meredith and I went by ourselves.”

“Not sure I blame Pete,” Dahlia says with a chuckle. “It sounds pretty creepy.”

I wave a hand in the air, keeping my eyes closed. “Nah, it’s fine,” I reply. “Nothing to worry about. Meredith wasn’t scared. Although, I’d thought she might be.”

“Atta girl,” Dahlia whispers, as if her words of encouragement can reach Meredith’s ears.

“When we were in line, inside the building,” I continue, my eyes still closed, “there were ticking clocks everywhere. Like, dramatic ticking that got louder the longer it went on. And a voice kept saying over and over again that our time was running out.”

Your time is running out.

“Now that’s definitely creepy,” Dahlia replies. “Pete knew what he was doing staying out of there.”

“Maybe so,” I say. I open my eyes briefly to share in the fun. My muscles relax as feel-good endorphins flood my bloodstream.

“See, look at you,” she coos. “You’re positively glowing, Ruthie. Your daughter has that effect on you. You should talk about her more often.”

I nod. “Pete too.”

“Pete too.”

I turn toward the open doorway. “I don’t hear the howler tone, so I guess Mitch is still waiting on the line. I suppose he owes me that much. You know, because of who he is to me.”

She nods her agreement. “He’ll wait.”

Now I know for sure it’s him. I adjust myself in the bed and move my head slowly from side to side. I consider Mitch and what he’ll say if I give him the chance.

“I’m telling you, I’m not ready,” I reiterate to Dahlia. She doesn’t skip a beat. She redirects me artfully. Instead of a designer, maybe she should be a therapist. Or a preschool teacher.

“Were you afraid in that creepy roller coaster line?” she asks. “I assume if you were, you didn’t let on to Meredith. I suspect a good mom would hide their own fear from the kid in that situation. You were a good mom. Right, Ruthie?”

I jump right back into the memory, feeling the sensory cues as I close my eyes. “No way did I let on,” I say. “I was with my girl. I’d climb mountains for her. Hell, I’d move mountains for her. I’d do anything—”

“What did you do for her that day?” Dahlia asks. “When that photo was taken.”

“That’s just it,” I reply. “All I did was ride a roller coaster with her. I held her hand, and I put my arms around her small shoulders to make sure she felt safe as the car wound its way up the circular track and then came zooming down. When we stepped off the ride and back onto solid ground, she flashed me the biggest smile. She was still beaming—skipping even—as we exited the building near where Pete was waiting for us. We paused when we reached him, and he snapped the shot.”

“Easy peasy,” she replies.

My eyes shoot open. “If only things were that easy now.”

Dahlia exhales softly. “Have a little faith,” she says. “I know you can’t hold Pete’s hand, but I want you to hold your daughter’s again one day.”

Tears spring to my eyes. “I’d love that, but I don’t think it will happen. It would have to be a day very soon. There’s so much to overcome and very little time. You’re sweet to wish for a reunion on my behalf, though.”

She pauses, and I get the idea she’s deciding whether or not to share something with me. She furrows her brow, her worry evident.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Nothing,” Dahlia says quickly, turning away from me. “It’s nothing.”

I sit all the way up in bed. It takes a lot of effort and my heart skips a beat, but I don’t care. I mean to find out what has Dahlia acting strangely. “It’s something. I know you better than you might think, young lady. Tell me.”

Dahlia shakes her head. “It isn’t my place,” she insists. “Not mine to tell. But if you’d talk to Mitch—”

Suddenly understanding the urgency, I raise a finger and cut her off mid-sentence. My eyes grow wide in anticipation. They meet Dahlia’s, and we exchange a knowing look. I can tell this is something big. Something worth facing my fears for. “I’ll talk to him. Bring me the phone,” I say.

Her face lights up. “Are you sure?” she asks. “You’re ready to talk? All of a sudden?”

I nod, then I steel myself for the inevitable.

I haven’t spoken to Meredith in many years. Whatever Mitch might have found in his role as a private investigator is unlikely to help mend our relationship. I don’t want to get my hopes up for nothing. At the same time, though, I’m desperate to make amends before I die. I allow myself to consider the possibility of unexpected joy entering what’s left of my life. Maybe I can still find a way to fix this. Maybe there’s a reason out there that would prompt my daughter to forgive, though I wouldn’t expect her to forget.

Could it be what I think? The way Dahlia reacted to my story about six-year-old Meredith … the way she picked up that frame instead of any of the others … I have ideas, but I’m not sure I dare say them out loud.

Dahlia goes to the foyer and fetches the phone, its gray cord stretching down the hall and into my room. She holds the receiver in one hand and the base in the other. The way she grins, you’d think she was handing me a winning lottery ticket. Maybe she is.

I clutch the receiver and place it gingerly against my ear. I take a long, deep breath, then ask, “Mitch, my old friend, what’ve you got?”

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