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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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BOOK: Seven Sisters
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I tucked my arm through his. “You did a lot right in raising him. Sam’s a wonderful person, and so is Bliss. Everything’s going to work out just fine.”

“Your optimism is appreciated, though not necessarily shared. I spent too many years in a patrol car going to family disputes caused, in part, by the stress of immature children trying raise their own children. Not to mention that he’s marrying into a family that appears to already have its share of animosity.”

“Oh, go chow down on the appetizers, you cynical old cop. And drink some sweet wine while you’re there to brighten your outlook.”

He kissed the top of my head and headed back toward the oak bar. I walked over to Dove and Daddy, who were now comfortably situated on a long leather sofa next to an open window.

“Hey, honeybun! I swear, isn’t this place just like out of a magazine?” Dove said, patting the sofa next to her.

“Hey back.” I gave each a quick hug and sat next to her. Daddy stood next to the window, eating some barbecued Portuguese sausage. “I think it was in a decorating magazine once on California ranch estates. Maybe it was
Country Living

“I think it was
” Dove said. “I remember Willow a-braggin’ about it at some historical meeting. She used to attend real regular, but I hear she spends most of her time either doing city council stuff or taking care of her mama. I guess Rose Jewel is a real handful over at Oak Terrace.”

“Really, why?”

“Apparently nothing is ever right to suit her. Willow’s over there almost every day. Would’ve been a lot easier if they’d just kept her here.”

“She didn’t want that,” I said, tucking my arm through hers. “JJ, Bliss’s sister, told me that she didn’t want to die on the ranch. She won’t even visit anymore. I guess that’s why she’s not here tonight.”

“Well, that’s odd,” Dove said.

“I know.”

“How do you know Bliss’s sister?” Dove asked.

“I thought I told you. She’s one of the artists in the co-op. I just found out today that she and Bliss are twins, though you’d never guess it by looking at them.”

Another couple had arrived, so I said, “Okay, tell me who everyone is.” Dove’s memory for faces and names, even of people she’d only met once or twice, was phenomenal.

“I’ll start with the two who just walked in,” she said in a low voice. “Now pay attention, ’cause I’m not going to repeat myself.”

Daddy let out a chuckle, the whole situation amusing him to no end. The one thing you had to say about my father was society or money didn’t impress him in the least. If you took care of your family, weren’t cruel to animals or children or people weaker than you, worshiped God, worked hard, respected the land and paid your bills on time, you were okay by his book no matter how much money or status you had. If you didn’t, you were plain white trash, no matter what color your skin happened to be.

“The woman in that flowy pink dress is Willow’s granddaughter, Arcadia Norton. Handsome fella with her is her husband, Giles Norton.”

“Snooty old Napa Valley wine family, I heard,” I commented. Arcadia had an all-American, shampoo-model prettiness with long, light brown hair and ivory skin. Giles was dressed in a pair of pressed khaki pants, a starched button-down shirt, and suede tassel loafers. Very Ivy League—looking. Thanks to Emory, I knew Arcadia was twenty-nine. Giles looked to be in his late thirties.

“Rumor has it among the grape assholes ...” Daddy started.

Dove shot him a severe look. He grinned and gave me a broad wink. “Word among the grape
is that he’s trying to merge Seven Sisters with Norton Wine Group. Wants to go national within two years and international within five and that Willow is for it and Cappy is fighting tooth and nail against it. Don’t know where Etta stands. They’ve got some real fine pasture land up in the foothills they’re clearing to plant more grapes. Gonna take down about two hundred oak trees I heard, though the greenie-beans are fighting it with some of their fancy lawyers.” Greenie-beans is what Daddy calls the most rabid environmentalists. He shook his head, amazed at the whole thing. “We ranchers are lookin’ pretty good to the greenie-beans these days. At least they can’t accuse us of killing oaks.”

“That explains a comment Cappy made to me and Gabe about Giles,” I said. “Which one is Etta?” She was the third and youngest sister, the unmarried one. The one who had taught home economics for years at Amelia Valley High School until she retired back in the early eighties and started making wine as a hobby, learning as she went along from articles and mail-order wine books. I remembered seeing bottles of her homemade wine at the MidState Fair back when I was a 4-H kid showing my lambs and calves. Her wine always won blue ribbons.

Dove pointed across the room. “Etta’s over there, talking to Sam and Bliss and that pretty Spanish lady.”

I grabbed her finger and pushed it down. “Very funny, Dove.”

“Did you meet her?” Dove asked.

“Yes, and she’s very nice.”

“You best watch her. I don’t cotton to how she’s a-lookin’ at your husband.”

“I told you, she’s very nice. We had a nice talk.”

“Heed my words, honeybun. She looks like one who could surely nice you to death.”

“Enough about her,” I said, trying not to let my irritation show. “Etta’s the one in the black velvet blouse and skirt, I’m assuming.” Her outfit was plain except for her fist-sized Navajo squash blossom necklace.

“That’s her,” Daddy said. “They say she’s a genius with wine, that the winery would be nothing without her. Drives the other wine fellas crazy, Bob down at the Farm Supply says. A lot of them old boys have fancy degrees in some kind of wine culture or something, and she runs circles around them. Wins all the big awards. And to add flies to the manure, she’s a woman.”

Dove and I glared at him simultaneously.

He held up his hands in apology. “I was just reporting what the boys at the Farm Supply say.”

“Viticulture,” I said, remembering the chapter I’d read on it years ago when I was taking classes for my minor in agriculture. “The study of cultivating and growing grapes is called viticulture.”

“Whatever,” Daddy said, eating his last sausage, then using the toothpick on his teeth. “Whatever that degree is, she ain’t got it, and they do, and she still makes better wine than any of ’em. Apparently that woman can make wine out of raisins. I say more power to her.”

“Here, here,” Dove agreed.

Etta looked like a protégé of Georgia O’Keeffe. I guessed that Bliss, with her pioneer spirit, was probably Cappy’s favorite and that maybe JJ, being an artist, might be her great-aunt Etta’s favorite relative, especially since Etta had never married and had any children or grandchildren of her own.

My assumption proved correct when JJ came in from the back patio and Etta rushed across the spacious room and took JJ’s face in her large hands. Following JJ was an earthy, fortyish woman with lush graying blond hair flowing down her back. She watched Etta’s enthusiastic greeting with an uneasy expression. The earthy woman looked enough like Bliss and JJ that she had to be their mother, Susa—the ex-hippie nurse-midwife. Tonight she looked like any slightly artsy, upper-middle-class San Celina matron with a preference for autumn-toned gauzy dresses and handmade bead jewelry. She stood quietly watching her daughter chatter with her aunt, as much a part of the exchange as if she’d been a stranger at a bus stop.

Behind us, Cappy started tapping the side of her wineglass with a silver knife, continuing until the noisy voices quieted down. Dove and I stood up and faced her.

“Everyone’s here but Willow, and she said she’d be here as soon as the city council meeting is over, so I think we’d best get on with the toast and go eat that delicious barbecue Jose has been slaving over. As the oldest member of the Brown family here, I welcome you all to Seven Sisters Ranch. We are—”

“And winery,” Giles broke in, causing a few titters in the group.

Cappy stared at him a long, uncomfortable moment, her eyes boring holes in his forehead. Then she smiled. “Of course, Giles. Seven Sisters Ranch and Winery.” She said the last word slowly, deliberately. “We are here to celebrate the engagement of our own sweet Bliss to a fine young man, Sam Ortiz.” She held up her glass, and we all followed suit. “Long life, easy trails, and much happiness. Now, let’s eat.”

I searched the crowd, looking for Gabe, wanting to catch his eye. He was standing next to Lydia, Etta, and JJ. I watched as he clinked glasses with Etta and JJ, then turned and did the same with Lydia. She smiled at him, and he smiled back. Then they walked over to their son, whose face was flushed with excitement and embarrassment. Gabe hugged Bliss, and Lydia hugged Sam. Then Sam and Gabe hugged. At that moment, Giles passed next to Bliss and whispered something in her ear. Her face flushed pink and she gave him a look that, had she been wearing her gun, might have proven dangerous. Then Sam turned back to her, and in an instant her smile returned. Giles moved over to the bar and poured a glass of wine, then leaned against the bar watching Bliss and Sam with narrowed eyes.

“Why don’t you go over and stand with your husband?” Dove whispered in my ear.

“He’s busy right now,” I said, determined not to appear the paranoid second wife.

“And going to get a might busier if’n you don’t get over there and guard the rooster roost.”

“I trust him,” I said firmly. “This situation is something he and Lydia have to work out. Sam is their son.”

Dove made a disbelieving sound deep in her throat. “All I have to say is you’d better keep your eyes open on this one.”

“Nothing to watch, Dove. They just want to work out what’s best for Sam.”

“Let’s eat,” Dove said. “I do believe you’re getting light-headed.”

“Daddy!” I turned to him, exasperated. “Would you please talk to your mother?”

“Don’t look at me, pumpkin,” he said, setting his empty plate and glass down on the arts and crafts—style coffee table. “Your gramma gets something in her craw, may as well try to wrestle a bobcat as change her mind.”

“Just be nice to her,” I grumbled in Dove’s ear as I took her arm and we walked out to the patio.

“Me?” Dove feigned shock and hurt. “Honeybun, I’m always nice to everyone.”

I scanned the sky.

“What are you looking for?” Dove asked.

“The cloud holding the lightning bolt that God will strike you dead with for lying.”

She smacked my hand. “You are more stubborn than a roomful of Baptists. And that’s all you know. If God wanted to strike me dead, He wouldn’t need a cloud.”

Laughing, we walked out to a brick patio overlooking the neat vineyards with the Santa Lucia mountains in the distance. It was almost dark, but the patio, thick with clay pots filled with flowers and ferns, was cleverly lit by recessed lighting and electric lamps made from old mining lanterns. Part of the patio was glassed in, facing west with a clear view of the Seven Sisters peaks. The rest of the patio was tiered with steps leading down to deep second and third levels, plush with emerald grass. The second level had long tables covered with white tablecloths and set with china plates, silverware, and linen napkins embroidered with the Seven Sisters brand and huge bowls of green salad, coleslaw, wild rice salad, San Celina sourdough bread, spicy pink pinquito beans, sliced avocados, tomatoes, and ripe strawberries the size of small apples. In the middle of it was a cake inscribed with Bliss’s and Sam’s names and a detailed picture of two horses nuzzling—one a deep, dark brown, the other a palomino. At the bottom level, with only a white rail fence separating the grass from the grapevines, a traditional Santa Maria—style cast-iron barbecue was being manned by a thin Latino man in his sixties and a younger man who looked like his son. We helped ourselves to the food and made our way back up to the top level where round tables were set up.

“I’ll go eat with my husband if it will make you happy,” I told Dove.

“Doesn’t make no nevermind to me. It’s your life,” she said, shrugging.

I found Gabe at a table inside the glassed-in porch where he was sitting with Bliss and Sam. We were joined shortly by Lydia, Cappy, and Willow, the third sister, who’d left the city council meeting early. She was dressed elegantly in a navy tailored pantsuit with a maroon blouse. An antique watch hung from a thin gold chain around her neck. Her hair was the same iron gray as Cappy’s but cut in a soft wavy halo around her head.

“I’m going to sit right here next to the chief,” she said, smiling mischievously. “See if I can convince him to loan me some of his officers for a charity fashion show the Monday Club is putting on.”

Gabe smiled his politician smile, but I knew he’d rant about her nerve to me later on that night.

The conversation wasn’t as awkward as I feared it might be. Lydia was subdued and pleasant and didn’t hog the conversation or make any more veiled references to her former relationship with Gabe. Sam clearly loved his mother and was excited to have both his parents in the same place, even under the strained circumstances.

After we’d eaten once and people were milling around contemplating seconds, I excused myself to find a bathroom. I found a guest bathroom right off the front hall and was coming out when I heard an argument on the porch. The front door was partially open so only a screen door separated me and the people arguing. Nosiness getting the better of me, I paused to listen.

“Don’t think I won’t,” a man’s voice said, low and mean.

An older female voice answered in a tone so low I couldn’t make out the words. I edged a little closer, telling myself it wasn’t being rude, that I was looking out for my stepson and that any conflict in this family would eventually concern him.

“. . . not by you,” the man answered, his voice louder. It was then I recognized it was Giles’s voice. “I’ll do it tonight if I have to.”

“You won’t,” the female voice answered. Cappy’s? Etta’s? Their voices sounded enough alike I couldn’t tell. Then there was silence.

I ducked back into the bathroom, afraid they would come through the partially open door and find me behaving so tacky. I combed my hair and inspected my makeup for a good five minutes before emerging. I glanced out to the porch. It was empty except for a fat calico cat licking one paw. One thing for sure, I didn’t envy Sam’s entry into this turbulent family.

BOOK: Seven Sisters
2.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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