Venom and the River (A Novel of Pepin) by Marsha Qualey



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Several hundred women are about to converge on tiny Pepin, Minnesota, to celebrate the birthday of Ida May Turnbull, the long-dead author of a beloved series of children’s books. When the “Little Girls” gather in Pepin, one woman finds life has changed forever.
 
Leigh Burton is a disgraced journalist who was stripped of a Pulitzer for fabricating details in a few newspaper stories. In the years since, Leigh has been scratching out a living as a freelancer, and has arrived in Pepin to assist an aged former vice president of the United States with his memoirs. Because no publisher will buy any nonfiction with her fingerprints on it, Leigh has to keep her past under wraps, which becomes a challenge when she’s gently blackmailed by a Pepin local, and Leigh’s sixteen-year-old daughter arrives unexpectedly and threatens to tell everyone Mom’s secret. Making things even more difficult is that Leigh is living in Ida May Turnbull’s long-shuttered childhood home, which puts her in the bulls-eye of the Little Girls’ obsession. It’s a position that jeopardizes her secret, her work, a budding romance, and her fragile relationship with her daughter.
 
EXCERPT:
 
Peach pressed close as Leigh fumbled with the key to the cottage. “I appreciate the help with the groceries,” Leigh said. “But you can just leave them on the stoop.” 
 
Peach stepped away and peered through the nearest window. “Don’t be silly. After what I did to your car, schlepping a few bags hardly counts as help. I should be cooking and delivering meals!” Her eyes widened and she took a deep breath as the deadbolt shifted. “That’s an idea: meals for a week delivered right to your kitchen table. Or better yet, I could cook them here. I’m a terrific cook. Do you like curry? I do fabulous things with curry. And you’ll be so busy helping the vice president, why should you worry about meals!” 
 
Leigh nudged the balky door with her shoulder. When it opened, she kneeled to pick up limes that had rolled out of the plastic grocery bag she’d set down. Peach rushed passed her into the cottage. A strong sweet scent invaded Leigh’s nostrils as organdy brushed her face. She rose and sneezed. 
 
She pressed a sleeve against her nose. “Thank you very much for the ride—” Leigh caught herself. What the hell was she thanking her for? After all, the buxom bitch with a crown had slammed into her car. “I’ll be in touch when the garage—Mrs. Wickham, are you okay?”
 
Peach Wickham had melted into a purple ball on the floor. One of her hands stroked the honey-colored boards, while the other gripped a leg of the desk. She turned her head and smiled at Leigh through tears. “I just can’t believe I’m here,” she said as she shifted to a sitting position. Her hand continued stroking the floor as she gazed around the room. “The desk,” she whispered. “The big brown chair.” She pointed toward the kitchen. “The stove where Dr. Grace cooked Maud’s favorite pudding on winter nights.” She rose and stumbled toward the fireplace. Her fingers stroked the blue vase and then floated along the mantel. She gripped the scarred and notched wood and swooned. Suddenly she stiffened, her expression curdled, a fist landed on her hip. She walked toward the Matisse copy. “That’s the red lady?” she murmured. “How disappointing.” She shrugged, looked around the room, and her dreamy happy smile reappeared. 
 
“Mrs. Wickham,” Leigh said, “time to go.”
 
Peach ignored her. She picked up her purple handbag and began riffling the contents. She pulled out a camera and started taking pictures. She snapped quickly, turning in a circle, hitting the shutter release with each step. 
 
Before she could get out of the way, Leigh was caught in a few of the shots. “Please, stop.”
 
Peach’s fingers tapped away, catching Leigh several more times. “I need to share this with the world! Now, move!”
 
“Stop taking pictures!” Leigh lunged for the camera, but Peach turned and hurried into the kitchen, her finger pressing down repeatedly on the silent shutter release.
 
She had to get the film. She couldn’t let photos get out, not if she wanted to keep this job. It had been years since her face was all over the news, but she still didn’t dare risk it.
 
Peach noticed a yellow spoon rest on the range. She gasped, set the camera down, picked up the spoon rest, and cradled it in both hands. Leigh grabbed the camera. She hit the menu button just as Peach began pounding on her shoulder. 
 
“Give it to me!”
 
Leigh took a breath. “I’ll give it back, but please, at least erase the ones with me. I need to see you do that.” 
 
Peach grabbed the camera. She talked under her breath as she hit buttons. “Here,” she said, holding it out so Leigh could see the view screen. “Watch.” 
 
Picture erased.
 
“There were more,” Leigh said. 
 
Peach made a noise, but erased five others. “Why so phobic? It’s not like I’d use any that had you in them.”
 
“It’s not just that. This isn’t my house and I shouldn’t have let you take any. Time to go, Mrs. Wickham.”
 
Peach Wickham looked at Leigh through narrowed, considering eyes. “That bitch Lanier got to you, didn’t she? She was in here first, I bet. Did you let her take pictures?” 
 
“I don’t know a Lanier, bitchy or otherwise. Once more, Mrs. Wickham: Please leave.” 
 
Peach put the camera back in her bag and smoothed her skirt. “I won’t hold this reception against you,” she said. “I’m still good for the repairs on your car.”
 
“I’ll be in touch about that.”
 
As Peach pushed open the door she caught her breath. “Oh!” she murmured. Her hand ran up the scarred door jamb, and then just before she exited, Peach Wickham leaned forward and kissed the wood.

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