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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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BOOK: Seven Sisters
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“What did you lie about?” I prompted, feeling slightly alarmed.

“Nothing about my art,” she said quickly, looking up at me with clear pewter eyes.

“So, what was it, your age? Are you really sixty-five?” I laughed, trying to set her and myself at ease. She couldn’t be more than twenty-two or twenty-three. Whatever she lied about couldn’t possibly be that serious.

She laughed with me. “No, I really am twenty-two. I . . . It’s that . . . Actually, the person I put as my next of kin, my dad up north . . . He is, well, sort of . . . but not the nearest next of kin . . . ” Finally she blurted out, “Bliss Girard is my twin sister.”

“Oh.” I sat back in my chair. Not a serious lie, but definitely a surprising one. Her twin? I’d never have guessed it. They couldn’t look more different. “So, I assume you’ve heard the news.”

She straightened her spine. “Bliss and Sam came by last night. They said they told you and his father yesterday, so I figured I’d better come clean.”

“Why the big secret? You’re not ashamed of your family, are you? Cappy’s a great lady.”

She nodded vigorously. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and I’m very proud of them. That’s why I use Brown as my professional name. They’re just so overwhelming at times. I think that’s why my mom took off with my dad when she was seventeen and lived up north while me and Bliss were growing up. She’d always felt overpowered by Grandma Cappy and her two sisters and especially Great-Grandma Rose.”

I nodded in understanding. Rose Jewel Brown was more than just the matriarch of one of our county’s richest and most influential families, she was practically an icon. Without her years and years of hosting charity events, General Hospital’s children’s wing would have never been built or sustained. Even now, the Harvest Ball she started back in the forties was still one of the premier charity events in San Celina County. I’d only attended it once, last year, since before that not only were the society people who supported it out of my social league, the ticket price, two hundred and fifty dollars per person, was way beyond my financial range.

“How is your great-grandma?” I asked.

“She just moved to a retirement home outside San Celina. You know, the one on the way to Morro Bay.”

I nodded. I’d taught quilting classes at Oak Terrace Retirement Home over two years ago. Or at least I threaded needles for the already talented quilters. Before I married Gabe, I’d also stumbled across a homicide among the residents, an incident the ladies in my quilting circle there still loved to discuss.

“Why did she leave the ranch?” I asked. The Browns were extremely wealthy people who could afford to hire full-time home care for Rose Jewel.

JJ shrugged. “It’s what Great-Grandma Rose wanted. Says she doesn’t want to die at the ranch. She didn’t even want to visit anymore. All the sisters, Grandma Cappy, Great-Aunt Etta and Great-Aunt Willow weren’t thrilled, but Great-Grandma Rose always gets her way.”

“That’s odd. Most people
want
to die in their own homes. How old is she now?”

“Ninety-six.” JJ’s dainty young face looked amazed at anyone being that old. “Anyway, between the perfect Rose Jewel, Cappy and her horses, Willow and her politics, and Etta and her winery, I think my mother just wanted to escape to someplace where she could breathe. Not to mention the ever-present Silent Sisters, as Bliss and I used to call them.”

“The Silent Sisters?”

“The sisters who died. Two sets of twins. Add them up and you get the seven sisters the ranch was named for.”

“I thought it was named for the volcanic peaks.”

“Well, I’m sure that had something to do with the name, too. When my great-grandfather came here from Virginia right after WWI, he just called it the Brown Ranch. The two sets of twins died after they moved here. Cappy was about eight at the time, my great-aunts a few years younger. Great-Grandpa Brown changed the name to honor them. They died really young—right after they were born. No one had twins in the family again until Bliss and I were born.”

“That’s right,” I said, an old memory coming back to me—when I first met Bliss I asked her about her name. “Bliss said she had a twin sister named Joy.”

JJ grinned. “That’s me. My full name is Joy Jewel. She’s Bliss Jewel. All of the Brown women have the middle name Jewel in honor of Great-Grandmother. I like JJ better. It’s what my dad calls me.”

“So that’s where Seven Bars Jewel came from,” I said. The stallion they had standing stud was well known and in demand because of his ability to produce not only winning racehorses, but also superior cutting horses. Daddy had considered breeding his quarter horse mare, Reba, to Seven B, as they called him, but the five-thousand-dollar stud fee the stallion commanded was definitely more than we could afford. “He’s a beauty.”

“Yeah, he’s the cornerstone of Grandma Cappy’s breeding operation. He has direct lineage to Three Bars.”

Though I didn’t know much about quarter horse breeding, even I’d heard of Three Bars, one of the most famous quarter horses that ever lived. He’d produced extraordinary offspring in racing, halter, and cutting events.

I searched her dainty features for a resemblance to Bliss. “Are you fraternal twins?”

She laughed and untwisted her legs, relaxing again. “Actually, we’re identical, but we’ve done everything to avoid looking alike. Our parents always encouraged our individuality.”

I peered closer at her face, decorated with bold, bright makeup and was surprised to see that underneath she and Bliss did indeed have the same bone structure, eye color, the same arch of eyebrow.

“I fit right in with our parents’ hippie lifestyle,” JJ continued, “but Bliss has rebelled since she was a kid. She would alphabetize our canned goods and use her birthday money from Cappy to buy file folders to organize her school papers. She drove Susa and Moonie insane trying to turn the commune into her version of
The Brady Bunch.”

“Susa and Moonie?”

JJ colored slightly again. “My mom and dad. Their conventional names are Susanna and Brad. Anyway, Bliss moved in with Cappy the minute she turned eighteen. Frankly, I think they should have let her live with Grandma earlier. She probably would have been a lot happier, but my parents believed in keeping the family together. It’s not what people think. We didn’t grow up without morals. My mom took us to the evening folk mass every week at a little Mexican church near the commune, and she and my dad really loved each other. Even their split-up wasn’t vindictive. I had a wonderful, if slightly irregular, childhood.” The last sentence was said with a hint of defiance. She’d obviously been forced to defend her parents’ lifestyle before.

“Are you and Bliss close?” I asked, curious. There were no two identical twins who could look and act more different, so I couldn’t imagine how they’d relate.

“We’ve always gotten along great. What annoys her to no end in our parents doesn’t seem to bother her with me. We’ve seen each other once a week since I moved back down here when Susa did. Bliss and Susa live out at the ranch, but that’s just a little too much family for me, so I rent a house downtown. Sometimes Bliss stays with me if she has to work a double shift and is too tired to drive home.”

“How’s your family taking the news about the baby?”

“Susa’s excited, of course. She’s been looking for something to focus on since she left Moonie. Cappy’s in the middle of racing season and is always training some horse or another, so she’s distracted. She just said she trusts that Bliss will do the right thing and handle it fine. She and Bliss are just alike. I can imagine Grandma Cappy having a baby in the morning and breaking a green filly that afternoon without batting an eyelash. Great-Aunt Willow and her granddaughter, my cousin Arcadia, are scandalized, being the conservative society branch of the family, and Great-Aunt Etta’s too busy with grape harvest and the crush to pay attention to anything unless it has to do with wine.”

“How’s that working out, having both a winery and a horse-breeding operation?” The struggle between cattle ranchers and wineries for available land was a hot topic these days in San Celina County.

“It’s been nine years now, and Seven Sisters Winery is rapidly taking over the family, which is causing a lot of problems between my grandma and her sisters.” She shifted in her chair, scratching around a red, paste-on jewel on her neck. “The ranch is run by a trust left by my great-grandfather, and there never was a source of conflict until Great-Aunt Etta started the winery. My mom’s brother, my uncle Chase, is involved with the winery, too, and has voted at times against Grandma Cappy. They begrudge her every penny she spends on the horses.”

Chase Brown, Cappy’s son, was a local lawyer, former city council member, and a regular at the political shindigs I was often forced to attend these days with Gabe. He was in his late forties, never married, and handsome in that alcohol-flushed, decadent, aging-movie-star sort of way that appeals to some women.

“Didn’t your great-grandfather intend it to be only a horse-breeding farm?”

“Yes, but even though Cappy’s got a great reputation, I guess quarterhorse racing took a big plunge in the early eighties, and that hurt her as a breeder. She’s slowly built the business back up, but it’s never been the same. The winery has its ups and downs, too, apparently. Both need a lot of money to operate, but it seems like the winery is slowly becoming the family’s main business.”

“Wine is certainly taking over the county, that’s for sure,” I said. It was a sore spot among ranchers, and I heard about it constantly from Daddy, more so, it seemed, in the last year or so. Daddy and his friends called the wine people “those grape assholes” whenever Dove wasn’t around to reprimand them.

She stood up and smoothed down her thin skirt. “Well, times change. We can either float with the current or drown as Great-Aunt Willow loves to say. I don’t necessarily like it, but she’s got a point.”

I shrugged, not willing to delve any further into something I felt so conflicted about. I’d had enough changes in the last two years to last me a lifetime. Things staying status quo for a few months looked pretty appealing.

“So,” she said. “What I actually came in to do besides confess was invite you and Gabe to dinner at the ranch tonight. Grandma Cappy thought it wise that we all get together and meet each other since we’ll be related soon. I know it’s short notice, but she figured we’d better start making plans.”

“Have Bliss and Sam set a date? He didn’t say anything to us.”

“I think that’s what’s on the agenda tonight. Will you come? Oh, and ask Dove and your father, too.”

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’ll call Dove right now.”

I caught Dove just as she was leaving and told her quickly about the invitation. “Are you and Daddy busy?”

“We’ll be there with bells on. I haven’t seen Cappy in a month of Sundays. Now we’re going to be kin. That just tickles me.”

“It’ll be interesting, that’s for sure,” I replied.

I finished up the grant application and watered my scraggly fern before going out to the central co-op room. The co-op studios, once the Sinclair hacienda’s stables, were separated into small storage and workrooms that accommodated the woodworkers, painters, potters, and other folk artisans. The main studio was usually filled with quilters, since it was the only room big enough to hold our two quilt frames, which could extend from crib to king-size with the adjustments of a few screws. We’d taken to renting out the room and quilt frames for a small hourly fee to various quilting groups. It was one of the small ways the museum could supplement our always fluctuating sources of revenue. I loved it when the local quilt groups rented time, because they always showed up with some wonderful snacks—quilters are often award-winning cooks. Sure enough, the room had filled with quilters since I entered my tiny back office three hours earlier, but I resisted the lemon bars on the counter, telling myself that lunch was just minutes away. Maybe there would be some left for my three o’clock sugar fix.

The San Celina Cotton Patch Quilters were working on a huge quilt in the dominant colors of purple, burgundy, white, gold, and green. Each square was an appliquéd scene of vines, grapes, and leaves representing a different variety of grape grown in San Celina County. The exotic, romantic-sounding names of the grapes were embroidered at the bottom of each square—zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, grenache, viognier, merlot, syrah.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Who’s it for?”

“It’s a raffle quilt,” a silver-haired woman in a Hopi storyteller quilt vest said, looking up from her work. “The Harvest Wine Festival in Mission Plaza is this weekend, and the money goes toward the free clinics in Paso Robles and San Celina. The winner will be announced on Saturday at the Zin and Zydeco event.”

“Gabe and I have tickets,” I said. “He loves zydeco music. Not to mention wine.”

“You’d better buy some raffle tickets, then,” the woman said. “A dollar a piece or five for five dollars.”

“Gee, what a deal,” I said, pulling a five out of my faded Wranglers.

She took my money and handed me five numbered tickets. “We thought about making it five for six dollars to see if anyone fell for it, but Edna there is making us toe the line. Still thinks she’s a guard at the county jail.”

Edna, a titian-haired lady in her late sixties, raised matching red eyebrows. “You gotta watch these ladies. They’ll do anything to get good health care for needy kids.”

“What a lawless bunch,” I said, laughing.

At Liddie’s Cafe downtown I wiggled through a group of tourists perusing the specials written on the blackboard in the cramped 1950s’ lobby. Liddie’s ‟25-Hour” Cafe had been the locals’ favorite eating place since before my family even came to San Celina in the early sixties. Fancy restaurants and trendy cafes have come and gone, and still Liddie’s survived. With its taped red vinyl booths, Formica tables, faded pictures of 4-H lambs on the wall, and country classics on the jukebox, it was more than a tradition; it was almost a shrine to the way things were. Buck, the eighty-year-old owner, didn’t believe anyone worthwhile recorded songs after Tammy Wynette and George Jones in their prime, though he consented, when a few of us younger regulars complained, to allow Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, and Dale Watson a place on the roll.

BOOK: Seven Sisters
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