The All You Can Dream Buffet

Popular blogger and foodie queen Lavender Wills reigns over Lavender Honey Farms, a serene slice of organic heaven nestled in Oregon wine country. Lavender is determined to keep her legacy from falling into the profit-driven hands of uncaring relatives, and she wants an heir to sustain her life’s work after she’s gone. So she invites her three closest online friends—fellow food bloggers, women of varied ages and backgrounds—out to her farm. She hopes to choose one of them to inherit it—but who?

There’s Ginny, the freckle-faced Kansas cake baker whose online writing is about to lead her out of a broken marriage and into a world of sensual delights. And Ruby, young, pregnant, devoted to the organic movement, who’s looking for roots—and the perfect recipe to heal a shattered heart. Finally, Val, smart and sophisticated, a wine enthusiast who needs a fresh start for her teenage daughter after tragedy has rocked their lives. Coming together will change the Foodie Four in ways they could never have imagined, uniting them in love and a common purpose. As they realize that life doesn’t always offer a perfect recipe for happiness, they also discover that the moments worth savoring are flavored with some tears, a few surprises, and generous helping of joy.

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Lavender Honey Farms

yamhill co., oregon

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Dining partners, regardless of gender, social standing, or the years they’ve lived, should be chosen for their ability to eat— and drink!—with the right mixture of abandon and restraint. They should enjoy food, and look upon its preparation and its degustation as one of the human arts.
M.F.K. FISHER,  Serve It Forth
 

Prologue

In the stillness just after dawn, Lavender Wills walked the perimeter of the farm, as she did every morning. Rain or shine—and it could be a lot of rain in the Willamette Valley in Oregon—she strode with her dogs along the lavender fields and the greenhouses, following the line of the fields where meat chickens were pastured in movable pens, checking to be sure they hadn’t been raided overnight. She eyed the fences around the chicken houses and rounded the beehives, then headed back along the vegetable fields, some of them still tucked under their temporary spring blankets of easily constructed and deconstructed plastic greenhouses.

It was nearly a five-mile walk, counting detours. It kept her alert and healthy, and even now, at eighty-four, she made the distance without much trouble, most days.

Most days.

Every now and again lately, she could feel the shadow of time following along behind her. She glimpsed herself walking this path at four and eighteen before she left to seek adventure, at thirty-two and forty-six, home to visit, at fifty-sevenand seventy-three, running the place at last. Always rangy, always walking this same path, forward or backward, always with a dog or two or three. Border collies, mostly, such good working dogs. There had been so many over the years, but she could remember the names of all of them. Jacob and Mike and Andy, Percival and Athena and her beloved Rome, the best of the lot, gone three years now.

Many more. Humans, too. She’d outlived all four of her siblings, despite being the oldest. Her parents were long gone, as were any cousins she knew about and a nephew she mourned deeply. Even most of her friends were gone now.

Sometimes, walking the perimeter, she imagined she spied one or another of them, people or canines. Someone she had loved once upon a time. Her mother, wearing a straw hat as she picked raspberries. Her grade-school friend Reine, who’d died only last spring, looking for mushrooms. Sometimes she saw Rome trotting just ahead, his black coat gleaming, tail high and swishing.

She had no preternatural warning that she might be ready to toddle off this good earth; in fact, she felt as hale and hearty as ever, despite the odd creaks. Her mind was still pretty sharp, sharp enough that she kept up a blog three times a week, a venture that had begun as a marketing gimmick a decade ago and had become much, much more. It was her forum, a place to express her love of the land, of the right and honorable way to bring food to the table, of the way to care for food animals and to grow healthy vegetables in uncontaminated soil. It was the way she had connected with three other bloggers, too, forming a tight-knit group they called the Foodie Four.

Mainly, it gave her an excuse to revel in her passion for lavender—growing it, harvesting it, using it.

No, she felt plenty lively.

And yet . . . this morning she had awakened in the predawn quiet, and knowledge filled her. Life circled. The land taught you that. Soon or late, she’d sleep in the earth she had tended all of her life. What would become of the farm then? This farm, which had been her greatest achievement.

She could not let it pass into the hands of her remaining, indifferent nephews, two of them, businessmen in Portland who rarely came to visit. They had no love of the land, and they would sell it. She didn’t blame them. But it was too valuable, too important to the growing organic movement, to let just anyone buy it.

As she walked, she mused. Lavender and honey, fresh eggs and fine wool. An empire for the right heir. An honorable heir.

It was only as she turned the last corner that she saw Ginger near the beehives, her long red hair loose over her shoulders, her face young and remarkably beautiful again. It was the first time Lavender had seen this particular ghost, her friend of nearly sixty years, who had died last year in Carmel. She was kneeling to gather wildflowers from the forest, her knees bending just as they should, her hands—the hands that had betrayed her in the end—free of the gnarled knots that had ruined them. Lavender waited, but Ginger did not turn, did not seem to know Lavender was there.

By the time she returned to her little office, she knew exactly what to do. Firing up the computer, she wrote an email.

FROM: Lavender@lavenderhoneyblog.com
TO: FoodieFour@yahoogroups.com
SUBJECT: Birthday bash

Well, gals, it’s official. I’ve decided I’m going to have a little fiesta for my eighty-fifth birthday on June 30. That is, in case you don’t know, the night of the blue moon, which is a sign none of us should ignore.

You all know the house is tiny, but there’s lots of land around it. Bring those trailers you haven’t driven; I’ll get you fixed up for water and power, no problem. We’re set up for extra help during the harvest and shearing seasons, so there are plenty of hookups.

The lavender will be in full bloom—a sight you do not want to miss—and we can all take turns showing off our fancy cooking skills. Or not, as the case may be (not naming names, but, Valerie, you can serve the wine. As long as it’s Oregon wine).

Who’s in? Ruby, it’s time to stop mooning (snort!) over Liam and have some fun. You’re too young to be moping around so long. Valerie, you’ve been fretting about that daughter of yours, so bring her and we’ll put her to work in the sunshine. That’ll cure just about anything. And, Ginny, I hear you coming up with all kinds of objections about why your thankless family can’t do without you, but I reckon that Bambi you’ve been showing off in your blog arrived in your life to be taken somewhere, not parked in your driveway just to aggravate your neighbors and husband. COME!

Adventure awaits, chickadees. And I’m not getting any younger.

Lavender

~~~

Chapter One

Dead Gulch, Kansas

Camera in hand, Ginny Smith bent over the still life she had created on the kitchen counter. Her husband, Matthew, had built her a photographer’s light box, but she preferred natural light when it was available, and this was one of the prime spots in her house. The pale-green counter and heavy swaths of indirect light pouring through the big kitchen window gave everything a serene look. It was one of the secrets of her blog, this very spot.

This afternoon, she was shooting a slice of pistachio cake. Two generous layers of white cake frosted with the palest shade of green. The beauty was in the depth of field, the fine, pure white crumb of the cake against the cracked satin of the antique plate, the alluring color of the frosting. In the background of the shot was an antique green glass vase overloaded with roses  she’d just clipped from the bushes surrounding the house, and in the foreground were six pistachios in various stages of undress, suggesting decadence.

As she clicked and moved and clicked and moved, zooming in and zooming out, changing angles, she hummed along with Bach. The music played on her iPod, a gift from her daughter Christie two Christmases ago, and it was loud. Ginny hoped it would drown out the emptiness in her chest.

She thought about the invitation from Lavender. Again.

This morning she had rushed out to the grocery store to pick up a small bag of pistachios for this photo shoot. She had forgotten last night to set some aside when she made the cake. Although they were not strictly necessary, she had time to run out to the Hy-Vee after Matthew left for work—the light this time of year reached its prime glow around ten-thirty—and she took pride in having the best details in her photos.

She came out of the supermarket and decided to make a quick stop at the drugstore for some ribbon—seeing in her mind’s eye a curl of thin, shiny purple satin to pick up the color of the lilacs. To get there, she passed the Morning Glory Café . . .

And stopped dead.

Standing there, staring through the window, she made up her mind to go to Oregon.

It was a shocking decision. She had never gone anywhere, except once to Minneapolis when her cousin got married. She hadn’t even gone to Cincinnati for the funerals of Valerie’s family, because—she would admit this only to herself—she was a coward and had been afraid to go alone.

She certainly had not ever driven herself nearly two thousand miles , even without a trailer. Much less driven herself and a trailer.

But this bright morning, she happened to catch sight of her three best friends sitting in the Morning Glory, eating pancakes and bacon without her. They were dressed up, probably heading to Wichita after breakfast to do some spring shopping. Karen had her long hair swept up into a comb, with feathery bits carefully falling over the top like a fountain, and she wore her beaded earrings. Marnie wore her gray top from Victoria’s Secret, embroidered around the edges, and Jean had red lipstick on, making her, with her cropped hair, look sophisticated.

The three of them plus Ginny had been the best of friends for nearly forty years, ever since they sat together in Mrs. Klosky’s fourth-grade class. Ginny knew everything about them, and they knew nearly everything about her. Not the part about her sex life, of course. That would be too humiliating. And nobody had known about the blog until the piece in Martha Stewart’s magazine seven months ago had blown Ginny’s cover.

What did you expect? Matthew had asked in some disgust. That nobody would know it was you?

Maybe that was what she had expected. That nobody would connect Ginny the housewife they’d known their whole lives with the “Cake of Dreams” blog, even if they saw a picture of her in it. How many people in Dead Gulch read Martha Stewart Living, after all? It wasn’t exactly Family Circle.

Or maybe what she had expected was that people would be proud of her. The blog had sixty thousand readers. Every day. She’d had no idea that people would like her pictures so much, or her recipes, or whatever it was, but she was secretly very, very proud of it. She didn’t know anybody in real life (not counting her online friends, of course) who had ever done anything like it.

And it was paying her, too, from several directions, a lot more money than she’d made at the supermarket. It came in through ads, first of all. She could pick and choose among the best ones and charge a pretty penny for them. After that, funds came through demands for her photos, which had become so cumbersome to supply that she finally had to pay someone to fill the orders and set up a store on Etsy. Her assistant, a woman who worked with her virtually from Wisconsin, suggested that Ginny offer some framed and matted versions of her stuff, which tripled the income stream from that end. That same assistant also suggested that Ginny should have a subscription service for photographer wannabes, and that had proved to be the most lucrative of all. Every week she sent out tips and lessons. It seemed crazy at first—what did she know?—but some students had begun to have success on their own, so maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all.

When the Martha Stewart Living people contacted her for a feature story, Ginny had started to realize her secret wouldn’t stay secret that much longer anyway. Sooner or later, someone in town would put together the Ginny of “Cake of Dreams” with Ginny Smith, who was a supermarket cake decorator until the blog freed her.

Matthew had known she was making money on photos, of course. He’d even built her lights and a photographer’s box to make shooting food easier. But he had not understood what kind of reach the blog had, how famous she had become, until the magazine people showed up.

Standing on the sidewalk this Monday morning, with a pounding hollow in her chest, Ginny blinked back tears.

What had she expected?

What she had never expected was this, that her friends would exclude her. That her husband would be embarrassed. That her mother would needle her slyly. Only her daughter, her sister Peggy, and Karen had been genuinely happy for her. But as much as Karen cheered her on, she was never the strongest in the group. Faced with Marnie, who was furious with Ginny, Karen didn’t stand a chance.

Stinging, Ginny marched toward the door and yanked it open. The bell attached to the top rang violently, banging back toward the glass, and a lot of people looked over, including the traitorous three, who had the grace to look uncomfortable.

“Did you forget to call me?” she asked with a tight smile.

Karen looked abashed. She covered by pulling out the fourth chair at the table. “Hey, girl.” She patted the seat. “Join us.”

For a minute Ginny wavered, wanting to believe it was a mistake or something.

Jean dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “Sit down, Ginny. You’re making a spectacle of yourself. And maybe you like that, but we don’t.”

Ginny felt her cheeks burning, and tears welled up in her eyes, the same thing that happened anytime she became furiously angry. A part of her wanted to take a seat, to offer the forgiveness they would ask for now that they’d been cornered, to just not rock the boat. That good-girl part of her had been a straight-A student and the president of the PTA and never colored her ordinary dark hair even though she knew she’d look better if she did. That girl screamed for Ginny to sit down.

But the day she had opened up a blog and posted her first photograph of a slice of German chocolate cake, crumbs trailing over an antique plate with a cracked glaze and flowers ringing the edge, another Ginny had been born. Now, whether she or they liked it or not, there was no turning back.

“I thought you would be proud of me,” she said, “but you’re embarrassed. And I don’t know if it’s because you didn’t do it yourself or because now you have to start thinking about what you could do if you didn’t spend all your time gossiping and having pancakes and focusing on all the ways life has cheated you, but it doesn’t matter.”

All three of them stared at her as if she’d grown devil ears. Karen began, “Ginny, you’re making too big a deal—”

Marnie, her face bright red, interrupted. “You just think you’re so important now,” she hissed, glancing over her shoulder. “You ruined everything.”

“No,” Ginny said. “You did.”

Bending now over the still life she had created in her kitchen, she knew she would go to Oregon. She also knew that Matthew would be furious. That her mother would warn her about all the bad things that would happen to her “out there,” a woman alone.

But she didn’t care. She would bring her dog and drive herself to Oregon, and she would have an adventure for the first time in her life.

flavorofabluemoon

O Cherries!

ohcherries

I am in bliss. Purest, deepest cherry bliss. I am going to become a cherry in my next life, born to open my soft pink petals to the new spring sun.Honeybees will buzz around my stigma and drink of my juices and bring me the secret nectar to impregnate me. I’ll close my petals tightly and rest in the cradle of bright mornings and rainy afternoons until I grow big and fat and red, the very red of lips and lusciousness, and then I will be plucked with gentle fingers and carried, ever so tenderly, into the hot, waiting mouth of a hungry woman. I’ll feel her tongue wrapping around my roundness, feel myself explode into her throat and cascade into her belly to nourish her, to bring sunlight into her body.

Cherries are in season. You can cook them if you want to, make them into pies, or put them in pancakes or slice them into a salad. But, really, why? Just eat them.

Cherries are packed with Vitamin C and fiber. They’ve been used as anti-inflammatories for gout and arthritis. Legend has it that cherries signal fertility.

Eat some.

Love, Ruby

Chapter Two

Ruby Zarlingo was the first to arrive at Lavender’s. She drove up from San Francisco to be on hand a week early to help set things up. Lavender was strong, Ruby knew that. But nobody should have to set up a giant party all by herself.

And, honestly, Ruby needed to get away from her father. He’d objected to her driving “all this way,” as if she were seventeen, not twenty-six, and experienced in driving much bigger rigs than her tidy little camper and the trailer she’d talked him into helping her refurbish as a kitchen.

She had to admit now that the trip had been harder than she’d expected, with the morning sickness rolling through her constantly, not just in the mornings. For the first time her life, she was a grouch, a giant, insane grouch, because mainly she spent her time throwing up, then trying to settle her stomach, then throwing up some more.

She’d always imagined that an Oregon farm would be shrouded in forest, with trees marching up to the field lines, all of it huddled beneath glowering clouds. She had also imagined that it would be totally Hicksville.

Instead, as she sat waiting to make a left turn into the farm (thus backing up the impatient Portlandians and out-of-state tourists ambling around Yamhill County wineries), she saw that she was wrong on all counts. Lavender Honey Farms sat in greeny -golden glory beneath a sunny sky, surrounded on all sides by mountains in the distance and rolling hills closer in. Lambs frolicked in a neighboring field. A pair of young-looking black-and-white cows with big ears munched grass and watched her idly. (How did she know they were young-looking? she asked herself. It wasn’t as if cows got wrinkles.) Vineyards were sketched on the hills in the distance, like a painting of Italy.

She felt the pressure of the cars stacking up behind her, but there was no rushing a left turn when hauling a trailer, and she whistled an old ballad to calm herself. The anxiety made her think of her father, the number-one anxiety in her life at the moment, since he had strongly—strongly!—disapproved of her making this trip for all kinds of reasons, some of which might actually have had some basis in reality, and some of which were only leftovers from her childhood, when she had worried him to pieces by nearly dying of leukemia.

A longish break appeared in approaching traffic. Ruby gunned it, making the turn in her camperwith exactitude, and hauled the trailer into an open graveled area, where she parked in front of an old, rambling two-story farmhouse that had been converted to a shop. A big wooden sign, carved and beautifully painted, announced Lavender Honey Farms in purple and green. Beneath the name were the products: honey, lavender goods, fresh produce.

An iridescent bubble of happiness engulfed her, and Ruby laughed aloud. She was here! Putting a hand over her tummy, she said, “What do you think, baby? Let’s go see.”

Leaping out of the truck, she inhaled the earthy, farmy smell of manure and hints of grass, but no lavender. Clumps of it grew in front of the store, and she reached for a blossom and pinched it, bringing her hand to her face.

“If everybody did that, pretty soon there wouldn’t be any blossoms for anyone to look at,” said a rumbling, cranky voice behind her.

“Sorry!” Ruby said, turning. “It’s a habit. I’m a chef. I smell things.”

The man was in his early thirties, maybe, and she knew exactly who he was from Lavender’s emails about the dilemma he’d posed upon arrival for work. She’d hired him, sight unseen, by his résumé—a farm lad, veteran of Iraq, hungry to get back to the land. Lavender was desperate for a manager to help her with the expanding business and liked the sound of his voice on the phone.

But when he arrived, he was taciturn, broody, and much too good-looking. The kind of good-looking, Lavender had complained to the Foodie Four, that caused trouble.

Ruby cocked her head. He was older than she was, but Ruby could see what Lavender meant. Clearly more ethnic than white, but, as with so many people these days, what that background might be was hard to decipher—it all melted together in caramel and golden brown and an aggressive nose. He might be Tillamook—the local Indians—or Mexican, or Iranian, or . . . Impossible to know. His hair was very thick and black and curly, and his body was shaped by his work of hauling hay and ice and raking manure and loading produce trucks, but it was a certain untouchable, unhappy aloofness that caught you.

“You must be Noah,” she said. “I’m Ruby, one of Lavender’s friends.”

“I figured.” He gave her hand a cursory shake and glanced at her trailer, which Ruby had painted in a Frida Kahlo style in keeping with her fresh-food principles. “The vegan, right?”

She didn’t think he meant it as derisively as it sounded, though people took her diet very personally at times. “That’s right. I had leukemia as a child, and my father put us both on a vegan diet the day I was diagnosed.” She gave him her best, sunniest smile, the one that dared foodies and blood-centered chefs to be grumpy about it all, and gestured to her robust figure. “As you see, it seemed to work.”

He grunted. “Lavender’s in the meadery. I’ll show you.”

“The meadery,” Ruby repeated, and forced herself not to skip. “That is so cool.”

He gave her a single glance, not quite rolling his eyes, but Ruby was used to people reacting that way to her. Her old boyfriend Liam—the thought of his name sent a sharp pain through her ribs, right under her left breast—used to actually be embarrassed by her relentless good spirits. He was a native New Yorker and said her cheerfulness made her stick out like a sore thumb.

But there were things you couldn’t help. Ruby had been born cheerful. Now, as she trailed behind Noah, joy swelled through her, golden and buoyant, lifting her elbows and knees. Every turn revealed a new delight. Chickens just wandering around! That view of blue mountains hanging like curtains around the valley! A slice of sky visible between barn and roof!

They walked along a well-beaten path, down a slight hill. A pair of chickens, one shiny black with a red thingy on its head (what was it called? she wondered) and the other a mottled brown, waddled along with them. On a hill to her left, near a stand of outbuildings, barns, and open sheds, were a handful of others, pecking along in the dirt. “Hello, Mr. Chicken,” Ruby said. “You’re looking well.”

“It’s Ms. Chicken, actually,” Noah said. “These are some of the layers, and of course that would make them hens.”

“Ah.” He probably knew what the thing was called. “What’s that thing on her head called?”

“Comb.”

“Oh, sure. I’ve heard that.” Under her breath, she repeated, “‘Comb,’” making sure to capture the word.

In front of them stretched a wide field planted with rows of vegetables, rising and falling like tidy hills across the acreage. The tops of the mounds were covered in straw. A man in a plaid shirt and a brimmed hat bent over one of them, gently plucking carrots and shaking off the soil. Nearby, a woman collected beets and placed them in baskets. Ruby shaded her eyes. “That’s a lot of vegetables!”

“Couple acres,” he said.

Ruby had often risen with the dawn to find the freshest, most beautiful produce. “Do you sell them at the farmers’ market?”

“Some.” His posture eased a little. “Some go to our CSA subscribers. A lot more are going to restaurants these days.”

She nodded. CSA stood for “community-supported agriculture.” “Multiple revenue streams are always good.” The restaurant world taught you that.

“Yep.” He turned onto a path running between the fields and barns. A band of trees marked the boundary of the vegetable gardens, blocking her view of the rest of the farm.

“Where is the lavender?” Ruby finally asked.

“You’ll see.”

They past the barn and a corral, then Noah led the way through a line of shrubs with dark-green heart-shaped leaves—maybe lilac bushes, but she wasn’t always that clear on what was what in the plant world. Ruby stepped through behind him, as if she were entering a magic kingdom.

He stepped sideways, out of the way, and gestured. “Here it is.”

“Oh!” she breathed. “Oh, my.”

The lavender stretched out in long, long lines that followed the contours of the fields, soft purple and dark purple and white and pale pink, in perfect rounded tufts that grew as high as her waist. A breeze swept over them, and the flowers swayed languidly, revealing the pale undersides of their leaves and making the field look like waves, like water. Ruby actually put her hands to her face. “Oh, my gosh.”

“Take your time,” he said. “The meadery is right there on your left. I’ve got some work to do.”

Ruby did not move. She barely breathed. Maybe, she thought, maybe at last she could discover her purpose. Maybe it would be here in these amazing fields, amid the lavender.

Had she ever seen anything so beautiful? Ever?

A tall, rangy woman with cropped, no-nonsense white hair emerged from the utilitarian outbuilding. “Told you it was a sight to see,” she said, hands on her hips. The voice was not at all old but sturdy and sure.

“Lavender!” Ruby flung open her arms exuberantly, and Lavender met her with a fierce hug.

“Oh, girl, I’m so glad to see you.”

Against Ruby’s lush frame—not fat, never that—Lavender was as lean as a teenage boy, all shoulders and wiry strength. “Me, too,” Ruby said, and, to her surprise, tears welled up in her eyes.

And she was suddenly, overwhelmingly, nauseous. Pulling away urgently, she rushed for the edge of the field and tossed her cookies right in a little ditch. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she turned, unconsciously putting a hand over her lower belly, which was swelling sweetly with the baby. “Sorry,” she said. “I thought morning sickness was supposed to be mornings, but I have it all the time.”

Lavender cocked her head. Her face was shaped into angles by high cheekbones and a hard jaw. “Pregnant?”

Ruby nodded. “Five and a half months.”

“I thought you couldn’t have children.”

“Me, too,” she said, and the whole impossible business of it struck her again. She opened her eyes wide. “But here I am. Really, it’s kind of a miracle, they said.”

“So you’re happy?”

Ruby put both palms open on her belly and laughed. “Yes. Very. Very.”

“Well, then, congratulations, my friend.” Lavender flung an arm around Ruby’s shoulders and bracingly moved her away from the meadery. “I was going to give you a taste of mead, but first let’s get some food in you. Maybe a cup of tea, how about that?”

“Perfect. As long as we can come back to meadery later.”

“Promise. You aren’t going to get away that easily!”

Lavender helped Ruby set up her campsite. She parked in a wide spot beneath a sheltering of tall pines, which had been shorn of their lower branches to allow open views of the rolling hills around the farm. The spot gave Ruby a sweet vantage point over the lavender and the shop. She hooked her camper and trailer up to the amenities.

It was mid-afternoon, and Ruby was sleepy the way she had been as a child. That was the other thing about pregnancy. Sleep could overtake her like a spell, so insistent she had no choice but to crawl into whatever hole she could find and succumb. Just now she didn’t bother to open up the kitchen trailer but crawled into her camper, propped open the door to the breeze, and fell onto the bed.

Most of the camper was the bed, with a portable toilet tucked in a closet. She’d gutted the camper when she was eighteen and wanted to explore the country, then put in the biggest, softest bed she could find and added bigger windows to let breezes flow over the mattress. Storage was tucked beneath the bed, and shelves with netting held the little things that made life rich: books and brush, socks for cold nights, maps of her travels. The walls had been covered with fabric to make it more feminine, in a pattern of pastel stripes that made it feel more homey. Over the fabric, she’d decoupaged photos of her life—her father and her; one ancient picture of her mother and father and her together, before Ruby got sick; her mother laughing, long blond hair tumbling over her brown shoulders and bikinied back; various pets, friends. And Liam. Lots of Liam. She needed to cover them with something but hadn’t yet had the heart to do it.

Sprawled on top of the bed, she kicked off her shoes and let the breeze cover her. It was a habit to gaze up at his beautiful, beautiful face with the high-bridged nose and luscious lips. He had the most alluring mouth on the planet, a mouth she wanted to kiss all the time. He wore a goatee, which she thought was gilding the lily. It was so unnecessary to—-

A knock on the side of the trailer shook her out of her reverie. “Hey, sweetheart,” Lavender said. “I brought you a bowl of fruit and some saltines. I’ve never been pregnant myself, but my sisters used to say saltines saved their lives.”

Ruby sat up, blinking. “Thank you,” she said, and put her hands over her heart. “That’s so kind.”

“And this is the wireless password.” She handed over a lime-green sticky note. “Noah put in a super-duper router four or five months ago, so it should be fine even with all of us accessing it.”

“Thanks! I can get online through the phone, too, so no worries.”

Lavender gazed around the camper. “This is so you, kiddo. Love it.” She slapped the side of the door. “You rest now. I’ll fix us some supper.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that! I was planning—”

“Don’t be silly. I can cook vegan, you know. Not like your generation invented plants.”

Ruby chuckled. “Thank you, then.”

Propped against a pile of exotically embroidered and mirrored pillows, Ruby slid her laptop out of its special padded shelf and fired it up. She entered the network name and password into the settings, made sure the connection worked, and then checked her blog quickly for any spam. It was still the cherry blog from a few days ago. She’d need to get something up tonight or tomorrow. Some bloggers wrote every day, but Ruby never liked to be pinned into anything too tightly. Of the Foodie Four, only Ginny blogged every day, and she’d been doing so for almost seven years. Amazing.

The four had come together nearly five years ago, over the course of a few months. Lavender had found a series on herbs that Ruby’s had written and contacted her, asking to use it on her blog, and they started to chat back and forth. Valerie contacted Lavender about wine and lavender pairings, just brainstorming, and she joined the group. Ginny had been the last addition. Her blog had barely begun to capture attention, and Ruby stumbled over it one night and invited Ginny to join the conversation with the others.

At first they spoke mainly of the technical and marketing issues of blogging—how to manage “backbloggers,” the regular responders, who might try to take things over or stir up trouble; how to deal with the vagaries of blogging software; how to maximize views. Ruby and Ginny shared a love of good photos, though Ruby just liked to scour the Internet for hers. Valerie was their droll, worldly-wise voice. Lavender kept them laughing.

Funny, Ruby thought now, yawning. Funny that they were so different and had become so much a part of one another’s lives across so much time and space. Three of them—Ruby, Lavender, and Valerie—had only once in person. Ginny had not come to that gathering, and none of them had met her face to face.

But it didn’t matter. The friendships were true and strong.

She lazily clicked on Ginny’s “Cake of Dreams” and caught up on a couple of posts she’d missed. Valerie had not posted anything since her husband died two years ago, and Lavender still had the Blue Moon Festival posted. It would take place next weekend.

Then, sleepy and with her guard down, she clicked on Google Maps and zoomed in on a Seattle address, then took the little man from the map and put it down on the street view, so she could admire the house. It was a two-story brick with a peaked roof and plenty of windows, some of which overlooked the Sound and the Olympic Range in the distance. It was, she knew from her research, a prime Seattle neighborhood, so even though it was one of the smaller houses in the area, it was worth nearly a million dollars. Zillow told her that it was 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, with 3,540 square feet. Azaleas and boxwoods grew in front, and there was stained glass upstairs.

Really, it was just creepy how much information you could get between Zillow and Google Maps. Stalker heaven.

Ruby was not actually a stalker, however, because the house belonged to her mother. Or, rather, to her mother’s husband, because her mother was a stay-at-home mom to three soccer-playing kids, two girls and a boy, the youngest. She drove a minivan, which was sometimes parked in the driveway in the photos. Once, electrifyingly, the satellite photo had captured Cammy herself, in lean blond perfection, carrying groceries into the house. The picture was so detailed that Ruby could read the Whole Foods Market logo on the recyclable grocery bags.

That photo was long gone, but this one seemed pretty new. The lawns were green.

Eased, Ruby exited the program and slid the laptop back into its place. She closed her eyes and imagined living in that back bedroom with corner windows overlooking the water, with the smell of food cooking in the kitchen and her mother’s voice talking on the phone.

She slept.

cakeofdreams

A Good Cake for Travel

This is a homey little recipe, super-easy, that makes a sturdy coffee cake you can easily take with you on a picnic or in your trailer when you travel.

Yes, EEEK! I’m leaving on my big adventure in the morning.

streuselcake

Super-Easy Streusel Cake

2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/3 cup butter, very soft
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup buttermilk

Topping

1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
2 T melted butter
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Measure the dry ingredients for the cake and mix well in a bowl. Mix together wet ingredients and stir into the dry. Pour into a greased 9×9 inch square pan.

In a separate bowl, mix together topping ingredients. Sprinkle on top of cake.

Bake for 30 minutes in 350-degree oven.

87 Comments

Hilda12
    Have a great trip, Ginny! Jealous, jealous, jealous!

Nancyb
    I used to make that little cake for my children after school. Brings back such great memories of autumn afternoons and the smell of cinnamon in the air!

CrochetPeg
    Have a total blast, sis! I’ll be reading along every day. Love you!

Pippin987
    Nancy, me, too! I love streusel, even though my WW leader would throw a fit over it. Just can’t imagine making it with Splenda. LOL!

TinaR
    Ginny, I’m so excited to meet you!!!!!!!!!!! We are going to have a blast.

    Nancy, that’s so sweet that you made those things for your kids. Did you bake every day? Do you still?

Berniebright
    Have fun!

Read more comments >>>>

Chapter 3

Dead Gulch, Kansas

The trailer Ginny would  be driving  to Oregon  was the first thing she had purchased  with her blog money. For a thousand years, she’d been in love with vintage Airstream trailers, and when her friend Valerie, who had written a wine blog for years, inherited one from her next-door neighbor, Ginny nearly died of envy. She must have given herself away, because the Foodie Four finally urged her to go looking for one.

It seemed like a fool’s  errand,  honestly—where  would  she take it? She’d never gone anywhere and drove only a Taurus, which would not pull a trailer, that was for sure.

Lavender had asked, Where would you want to drive it?

And, right away, Ginny thought of Colorado. Only one state over, not even that far away, but she’d always wanted to go, to see the mountains that looked so sharp  and cool and pristine in pictures. She imagined herself in her little Airstream, a Bambi maybe, parked beneath a big pine tree, looking at a mountain. A blue mountain with a blue sky over it like a tarp.

It turned out a lot of people loved retro trailers as much as she did, and she started to connect with them online. At first she was shy about it, saying only that she’d been thinking about getting one and asking what should she look for.

She had looked online at probably five hundred Airstreams from the fifties and sixties. The ones from the forties, she decided, were a bit too old, while the seventies were too modern. She stuck with her window of time, and even then it was a lot of looking.

It was Lavender who led Ginny to Coco, the 1964 Bambi that she had known instantly was her trailer. It was not exactly tra- ditional, painted as it was with a garden of cabbage roses along the bottom and all kinds of custom restorations inside. It had belonged to a woman artist, a friend of Lavender’s from their Pan Am days, who had towed it all over the world. The woman’s daughter had  lovingly restored everything that  didn’t  work, such as the toilets and the axles, and anything else that was rot- ting or in trouble, preserving as much of the art as possible.

Ginny bought it on the spot, for full price—which, from that day to this, she had never told a soul. No one actually knew how much money she made, so it was hers to spend as she liked. She lied to Matthew and  to her  family, telling them she’d  paid $21,000, and even that infuriated them. Her sister Connie told her she was selfish—that with that much money she could have put a down payment on a house for her daughter or helped out some of their farmer cousins  who were hurting in this econ- omy. Her other sister, Peggy, had been thrilled. She still told Ginny they should drive it somewhere, maybe to Las Vegas.

Matthew didn’t mind, exactly. It was one of the things they’d set up early in their marriage—that they wanted to keep money separated. She didn’t want to be dependent on him. You never knew what might happen. Even in their small town, people fell in love with other people who were not their spouses, and some poor  woman  was always getting divorced  and  struggling to make ends meet.

Nope. That would never be Ginny. She started work at the supermarket only six weeks after Christie  was born—another thing  that got her in trouble  with Connie, working when her baby was so young—and moved up into the bakery by the time Christie was three.

When Ginny brought the Airstream home from the show in Kansas City where she’d picked it up, Matthew told her that he wasn’t going to be camping in it. He didn’t like camping, fish- ing, hunting. None  of that  stuff. He liked his creature com- forts, his meals without dirt, his breakfast served on china, not paper. That suited her fine. She didn’t actually want him in it, although she was wise enough to keep that to herself.

Ginny honestly had not cared one bit what anybody thought of her trailer. She loved it and spent the whole winter making it her own in little ways—with linens and Fiesta ware and photos she’d shot specifically to put up on the walls.

Now, on this mid-June Saturday evening, she carried a load of supplies  from the house  into  the trailer. Paper towels and matches; tea and coffee and powdered creamer; a box of sugar cubes, which wouldn’t be as messy as regular; mustard and mayo and salt. In her imagination, she poured coffee into a tur- quoise Fiesta ware mug and stirred in some creamer, then car- ried it to the door and stepped out into nature.

“There you are!”

The voice of Ginny’s mother startled her out of her pleasant reverie. “Hi,” she said.

Ula hauled herself up the steps. She wasn’t stout, but her fit- ness could  never be called anything  but piss-poor.  Standing just inside the door, as if tigers might be caged within, she said, “Colorful, isn’t it? ”

“That’s one of the reasons I liked it.”

“Looks like a Victorian whorehouse to me, but I guess we all have our different ideas of what’s pretty.”

Ginny  squinted,  but even blurring  everything immensely, she couldn’t get whorehouse.  “More Art Nouveau than Victo- rian, I’d say.”

“Whatever. Why do you always have to do that, make me feel stupid? ”

“I didn’t mean to.” Or maybe, in some small, mean way, she had. “Sorry.”

“You knew what I meant.”

Ginny  nodded.  That it was a whorehouse.  A house  for a whore. A waft of tomorrow moved across her throat, a promise of cool air blowing from the open road.

Ula dug in her purse and brought out a small package. “I brought you a present.”

Surprised  and touched, Ginny opened  it to find a whistle. “You can blow that if somebody  tries to rape you,” Ula said. “Which you might think wouldn’t happen  at your age, but it’s not just young pretty women who get raped, you know.”

“I know. Thank you.” She hung the whistle on a hook by the sink. “I am bringing  Willow with me, you know.” Willow was her dog, a mixed-breed border collie–shepherd–Newfoundland, who was smarter than most people and had a reassuringly deep and ferocious warning bark. She was mostly black, with gold ears and a white patch on her chest, and she had the broad nose of a Newfie and the pert beautiful ears of a shepherd. The brains were all border collie.

“How are you going to carry a dog? ”

“She’ll ride in the car with me, Mama,” Ginny said mildly. “Do you want to come in and  have a cup of coffee or some- thing? ”

“No, no. I have to get to the market. When are you leaving? ”

“Bright and early tomorrow morning.”

Ula stepped forward  and  gave Ginny a hug.  “You  know I think you’re crazy, but you stay safe, now, and check in regular, all right? ”

Ginny smelled Johnson’s baby powder and Suave hair spray as she hugged her mother, a smell that seemed much  too old for a woman in her sixties. “I will,” she said. As she straight- ened, she said, “You can follow my blog, you know. I’ll be post- ing every day.”

Ula nodded. “I’ll try to remember,” she said, as if it was some crazy-hard task, and lumbered down the steps.

FROM: Ginny@cakeofdreams.com
TO: FoodieFour@yahoogroups.com
SUBJECT: Surprise!

Hey, girls. Remember how I thought that no one cared if I was leaving? Hahahaha. I was so wrong. They gave me a sur- prise going-away party. Only it wasn’t a surprise, because Matthew told me before we left home (it was pretty mean to spoil Peggy and Christie’s surprise like that, but he did it to hurt me, not them. I guess he’s not as happy about me taking this trip as he has been saying). I pretended that I didn’t

know anyway, because the two of them went to so much trou- ble to plan it—Peggy did most of the legwork, but I guess they were on the phone every day. Christie came in from Chicago just for the night, and you could tell that it was her brainchild from all the special little touches and good taste. Which makes it sound like my mom and sisters don’t have good taste, and that’s not true. My mom had a cake made to look like an Airstream, from one of my blog posts (and here I thought she’d never even read it!), and Peggy, my younger sister, specially ordered a messenger bag she thought I’d like to sling over my shoulder.

I felt scared and sad in that room, I have to tell you. All the people who love me and I’ve known all my life—just about everybody came. My cousins and aunts and uncles and my snotty brother-in-law and all of our friends, and I was getting all emotional, thinking about leaving them all behind. I’ve never done anything like this in my life, and it’s like some wild thing has taken hold of me, flinging me for- ward almost without me thinking. I feel homesick for every- body and I haven’t even left yet! Christie told me that was normal. She said it happened when she went to college, then when she headed to Georgetown for med school, then again when she left for Chicago.

She made me a travel playlist for my iPod. Now I guess I need to get myself going. I can’t believe I’m finally going to meet you guys. Wish you could be there, Val!!!!!

Ginny

~~~

FROM: Valerie@winedancer.com
TO: FoodieFour@yahoogroups.com
SUBJECT: re: Surprise!

I am so proud of you, Gin!! Wish I could be there, too. xoxoxoxox V

~~~

FROM: Ruby@flavorofabluemoon.com
TO: FoodieFour@yahoogroups.com
SUBJECT: re: Surprise!

Whenever I am going to leave one place for another, it is as if every corner and light switch and scent of the old place suddenly becomes unbearably unique and precious beyond measure. And of course they are. Every moment of our lives is precious and unique beyond measure.

But there is a point when the homesickness gives way to anticipation, or sometimes I feel them both, swirling to- gether. Sometimes I think what I feel is about what I label it. So, tomorrow morning when you get that blast of dry mouth and butterflies, tell yourself it isn’t fear—it is anticipation.

Love, Ruby

~~~

FROM: Lavender@lavenderhoneyblog.com
TO: FoodieFour@yahoogroups.com
SUBJECT: re: Surprise!

You get your bottom here, missy, hell or high water. You bought that trailer to go have an adventure, and you’re going to have one.

“I don’t know how Barbara O’Neal does it but each book she writes is truly amazing – offering complex stories of women’s lives with her rich use of language. All You Can Dream Buffet is no exception. …..

“Don’t worry about this becoming a tiresome book that requires more of you than you want to give, because it’s not. It’s a delightful book that made me laugh just as much as it made me cry. These characters make some hard choices, but this story also looks at what it means to live in the virtual world of blogging, addressing the theme of community in many ways and questioning – How well do we know each other? Are we actually friends? How much should we share with one another?”
—-Stephanie Gurnsey Higgins, The Examiner.com

“Barbara O’Neal’s The All You Can Dream Buffet is the ultimate comfort read …[it]  is a charming tale of food, friendship, endings and new beginnings, and freedom from all that stops one from being true to oneself. If you’re in need of the comfort read, this is the one.”   —BookLoons

“In The All You Can Dream Buffet, O’Neal touches on such subjects as the honorable way to deal with food animals in a meat-eating civilization, and healthy vegetable consumption. Portions of the Foodies’ food blogs also appear, including a few recipes.

And, as usual, in a top-notch romance, the men are first-rate: handsome, bright guys whom any woman would be proud to attract. Unexpected love rears its attractive head as the weekend progresses and lives are changed in the pace of a few days, but maybe the blue moon has something to do with that. A quick, satisfying read is in store for all who pick up this book for a fun time and a foodie fling.”    –Maude McDaniel, BookPage

“A perfect 10!
I can’t recommend this beautifully written novel enough. It has a thick base of warmth, a cupful of humor, a generous dollop of romance, and a gentle dash of the other worldly.  And, I’ve found a new-to-me author to savor!   —Jane Bowers, Romance Reviews Today

“A sweet tale of friendship and love…[This] heartwarming novel will touch the soul and resonate long afterward.” –Romantic Times

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