Small towns, secrets and shaded tobacco

If there’s one thing we Southerners like, it’s secrets.

We like to sniff them out. We like to whisper about them. We like to keep them.

A secret might involve a crazy relative, a criminal act swept under the rug, or an indiscretion that leads to an additional family member. But all Southern families have them.

That’s why it wasn’t hard to write a second Southern romance following the theme of family secrets.

The first, “Call Me Softly,”  involved the concealed parentage of one of the main characters. “Touch Me Gently” has completely new characters that follows the same “Southern Secrets” theme.

Fleeing the secrets and subsequent betrayal of her closeted lover, Salem Lacey leaves her urban life in Atlanta, Ga., for new start in a small rural South Georgia town where she meets the beautiful and mysterious Knox  Bolander, a woman who has been rarely touched and never loved because she hides the grandaddy of all secrets.

To unfurl this story laced with a hint of the paranormal, I decided to take my readers to where Spanish moss hangs from huge, gnarled oaks and farmers still grow shaded tobacco in the rich bottom land between the Louisiana bayou and Georgia’s swamps – sort of a rural “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” setting.

I learned about shaded tobacco country when my daddy served as a minister for a few years in a tiny town on the Gulf side of the Georgia-Florida border.  I was immediately enchanted by the  grand old houses and wrap-around porches.

They were celebrating “Mule Day” during one of my visits with the annual parade led by a matched pair of Percheron mules. They were huge, gorgeous animals and their owner, my parent’s landlord, was more than happy to give me a history lesson on the importance of mules to “shaded tobacco.”

Unlike cigarette tobacco that is wrapped in paper, cigars are wrapped in an unblemished tobacco leaf. The rich soil in that area was perfect for that variety of tobacco, but the plants had to be grown under the shade of thousands of yards of gauzy cheesecloth to produce leaves unblemished by the sun.  So, long after tractors became farmers’ workhorses, mules were still used to cultivate the rows of plants nestled under the arbors draped in cheesecloth.

But as enamored as I was with the mules,  it was the group bringing up the rear of the Mule Day parade that made me gasp.

High-stepping, smooth-gaited and black as a moonless midnight, the cadre of Friesian horses were an exclamation at  the end of an impressive processional. While the mules pulled the cultivating equipment, Friesians with long, wavy manes and tails were the farmers’ choice to patrol their thousand-acre plantations.

“Touch Me Gently” was taking shape. I had a secret, two sexy women and the trademark of my novels, beautiful horses.

What more do you need for a good romance? A lesson learned.

The lesson in “Touch Me Gently” was one I personally learned some years back when I bought property for my own horse farm.

The small Georgia town where I lived most of my childhood was a wonderful place when I was very young.  I spent summers shoeless, swimming in farm ponds and riding ponies. But when I began middle school, I was rudely introduced to the fact that you were only somebody in a small town if you could afford the right clothes, your parents had the right jobs and your skin was white. My parents moved to a mid-sized city when I was twelve and I vowed never to live with small town bias again.

However, another small town – this one in North Carolina – changed my mind about that. The farm property my friends and I wanted to split was very cheap, but the family that owned it wanted to meet the buyers before they decided to sell. The old family farm was more than just dirt to them and they would only sell to the right buyer.

We were invited to their Labor Day family picnic and decided only two of us would go so that we didn’t give ourselves away as two couples looking to buy and split the land. Shortly after we arrived, we realized we had worried over nothing when one family member showed up with her wife and another showed up with his boyfriend.

The rest of the town was just as welcoming. Instead of being known as “those women without husbands,” we were known as “those women putting up all that board fencing for horses.”

It was a surprise to us, just like Salem Lacey finds more than a few surprises in the fictional town of Oakboro where folks are more open-minded than you’d think and a fresh chance at love awaits.

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