St. Luke's, a beautiful stone church on the outskirts of Crozet, Virginia, appeared even more stunning than usual given the fresh snow on the rooftops, the windowsills of the parish office, and the pastor's living quarters across the now-white quad. Plumes of smoke rose from the great hall, which formed one side of the quad, and smoke spiraled from the parish office. The church was built in 1803, and it was clear that those early Lutherans needed many fireplaces. Over the centuries the buildings had been wired, vented, and plumbed. The modern conveniences served to enhance comfort. The structures had to last for centuries and no doubt would endure more improvements over ensuing centuries.
As Harry Haristeen walked across the large quad to the great hall, her two cats and corgi behind her, she wondered if people today could build as securely as our forefathers did. Seemed like things were built to fall apart. Grateful that she lived in an old farmhouse built about the same time as the church, she paused on her way to the work party long enough to make a snowball and throw it up in the air.
Tucker, the corgi, jumped up to catch it. As she did, the snowball chilled her teeth, so she dropped it.
"Dumb!" Pewter, the portly gray cat, laughed.
"I knew it would do that, but if she throws a ball, I have to catch it. That's my job," Tucker defended herself.
Harry decided to sprint the last two hundred yards to warm up.
The tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, shot past her. The shoveled walkway was covered with inches of fresh snow but easily negotiable.
Pewter, hating to be outdone, couldn't get around Harry so she leapt onto the snow, where she promptly sank.
Tucker, trotting on the path, called out, "Dumb."
A snow triangle like a coolie hat on her head did not cool down Pewter's temper. She shook off the snow hat, plowed onto the path. Running right up to Tucker's butt, she reached out and gave the dog a terrific swat.
Tucker growled, stooped to whirl around.
Harry commanded over her shoulder, "That's enough, you two."
"You're lucky she saved your fat rear end." Pewter flattened her ears to look extra mean.
"Ooh la." The dog now ignored the cat, which was far more upsetting than a knock-down/drag-out to Pewter, who felt the world revolved around her.
Upon entering the great hall, Harry inhaled the fragrance of oak burning in the two fireplaces, one at either end. The aroma of a well-tended fire added to winter's allure. Harry loved all the seasons. Winter's purity appealed to her. She loved being able to see the spine of the land, loved popping into a friend's house for a hot chocolate or serving the same. Born and raised here, she was buoyed up by close friendships. People might feel alienated in big cities, but she couldn't imagine that emotion. Tied to the land, the people and animals that inhabited it, Harry knew she was a lucky soul.
"Look at those hardworking women," she called out as she removed her coat, hat, gloves, and scarf.
Alicia Palmer and BoomBoom Craycroft, both great beauties, moved a long table near the eastern fireplace. The large room cost so much to heat that the thermostat stayed at fifty-two. The fireplaces helped considerably. Sitting near one kept one's fingers from stiffening, and they'd need their fingers today.
Alicia, a former movie star, now in her fifties, was in charge of decorations for the Christmas party, which was little more than a week away. Each season St. Luke's hosted a large party that brought parishioners and neighbors together in a relaxed setting. Reverend Herb Jones, the pastor, constantly came up with ways to strengthen the community.
Susan Tucker, Harry's best friend from cradle days, and the breeder of Tucker, put grapevines on the table.
Racquel Deeds and Jean Keelo, two former sorority sisters from Miami University in Ohio, laid out gorgeous dried magnolia grand flora blossoms along with the large, shiny dark-green leaves.
BoomBoom brought bay leaves and gold-beaded strands.
Harry carried dried red roses along with strands of cranberries.
Once the women settled down at the table to make wreaths, the cats and dog volunteered to help.
Mrs. Murphy, on the table, played with the gold beads. "Aren't these the same kind of beads that men throw to women at Mardi Gras if the women expose their glories?"
"Sure won't be flashing anything in this weather." Tucker, on the floor, laughed.
Pewter batted around a lovely red rosebud. "I will never understand why humans pitch a fit and fall in it if someone shows their breasts or if a man shows his equipment. I mean, everybody has them."
"Genesis. Remember when the angel comes to the Garden of Eden after Adam eats the apple and Adam and Eve realize they are naked?" Mrs. Murphy read over Harry's shoulder, not that Harry knew the cat could fathom it.
"Ha. Adam was taking money under the table from the garment industry." Pewter swept her tail over the table, knocking rosebuds on the floor.
"If you don't behave, missy, you're going on the floor," Harry chided Pewter.
"If you give me treats, I'll be an angel."
"Liar, liar, your pants are on fire," Mrs. Murphy sassed.
That fast, Pewter charged the tiger cat, the gold beads entangled between them. The two boxed. Harry stood up, separating the cats to save the beads.
Off the table, the two chased each other around the room.
"Anyone bring Valium for cats?" asked BoomBoom.
"Remind me next time to stock up," Harry replied.
Racquel and Jean had married best friends, and both couples had moved to Crozet when Bryson Deeds took a slot in the cardiology department at the University of Virginia hospital. He'd gone on to become one of the leading cardiologists in the country. Bill Keelo, his best friend, specialized in tax law. He, too, flourished. Both men earned very good money, and their wives reflected being well-tended. Of the two, Racquel was obsessed with her looks and appearing young.
While both wives were very attractive, any woman paled next to Alicia or BoomBoom. The funny thing was, neither of these great beauties fussed over themselves all that much, which only made them more alluring.
Harry, good-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous, lived in jeans. Since she farmed, this was as it should be, but every now and then Alicia, BoomBoom, and Susan would gang up on her and drag her to stores to find dresses. It took three of them to make her do it.
Although Racquel and Jean had not grown up with everyone, they had lived in Crozet for twenty years, fitting right in.
"You know, this really is lovely." Susan held up a wreath of magnolia leaves, white magnolia blossoms, red rosebuds, and gold beads wrapped diagonally around the wreath.
"This looks pretty good, too. A little more plain, perhaps." Harry held up the bay leaf wreath with cranberries wrapped around it, set off with large pale-green bows and speckled with tiny gold stars.
"The odor. That's what makes the bay leaf wreaths so special." Jean adored the fragrance.
"What are we going to do with the grapevines?" Susan was twisting some, now pliable from being soaked in water, into lovely wreaths.
"Well, I thought we could put one big bow on the bottom and tie in the wooden carved figures from that plastic carton." Alicia pointed to the carton.
Susan asked, "Want me to do that now?"
Alicia answered, "No, let's make the wreaths for the outside doors. By that time we should be able to handle the two huge wreaths for in here."
"How huge?" Harry wondered.
"Three feet in diameter," Alicia replied.
"That is huge." Harry was surprised.
"It will take two of us to make each one, then hang them over each fireplace, but they will look spectacular." Alicia felt confident about that.
One of the outside doors opened. Rushing in were the three Lutheran cats, Cazenovia, Elocution, and Lucy Fur, followed by Herb Jones, wearing no coat.
"Rev, you'll catch your death." Harry called him Rev.
"Oh, I just ran over from the office." He glanced at the few finished wreaths and the pile of materials on the table as the cats, now five in number, roared through the great hall. "These are so pretty."
"Thought about adding walnuts, but I don't think they'd last long." BoomBoom pointed to the grapevine wreaths. "Alicia's come up with other ideas. She's the boss."
"I'm grateful to you girls for doing this." Herb smiled at them. "Do you all need anything? Food? Drink?"
"Brought it," Jean replied. "Dip into either of those coolers. You'll be happy."
Rarely able to resist food, Herb flipped up both lids. "Are those your famous turkey and cranberry sandwiches?"
"The same," Jean replied.
Herb picked out one, as well as a Coca-Cola. "I'm going to eat and run. Actually, I'll eat in the office. Oh, Racquel, how's Aunt Phillipa doing?"
"Thank God for the Brothers of Love Hospice. Her mind remains clear, but I doubt she'll make it to spring. Emphysema takes you down." Racquel looked up at him.
Jean added, "The brothers have been wonderful. Apart from the work they do with the dying, it's inspirational to learn each monk's history. Everyone is there to atone for some wrongdoing."
Racquel said, "Atoning twice. Some have been in jail."
"Do you really think a leopard can change his spots?" Harry, ever the questioner, said.
Herb replied in a deep voice, "Some can and some can't. I doubt it's easy, and as I recall most of them were first corrupted by greed or lust."
"Women and song pushed them on the path," Susan good-naturedly suggested.
Herb turned to leave, noticing the cats carrying on like sin. "Jean, a turkey sandwich, if you have an extra, might settle these hellions down."
"Brought plenty. Would you like another?"
"No, this is fine." He left to dash back across the quad.
Alicia rose to throw more logs onto the fire, the fireplace being quite large to accommodate the big room. "Harry, I'd like to think people can change."
"I would, too, but it seems to me that some corruptions are more easily overcome than others." Harry selected a deep-red rosebud.
"Sex. That's harder to fix than greed. Or should I say lust?" Racquel said.
"Really? I think money trumps everything in our culture," Susan replied.
"I don't think so." Racquel offered her argument in the best sense of the word. "Lust is irrational. The desire for money is rational."
"But aren't the seven deadly sins all irrational? I mean, when it gets to that level of an obsession." BoomBoom, like most people among friends, didn't mind taking a bit of grammatical license.
Important as good grammar can be, it can also be stultifying in free-flowing conversation.
"Okay. How do you know when it's reached the level of obsession?" Harry liked to talk about ideas, not people.
"Maybe it's different for each person," Jean offered.
BoomBoom, whose husband died young, had entered into a string of affairs with men, one of whom was Fair Haristeen, D.V.M., Harry's husband. They were separated at the time, and Harry subsequently divorced him. He worked on himself, kept after her for years once he recognized his error, and finally won her back. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Harry had to realize that she contributed to his wandering by focusing on whatever tasks presented themselves to her. She could have focused on him a little more. She was learning.
"Wouldn't a sign be if you knew you should slow down but you speeded up?" The corgi added canine conversation to this topic.
Just then, led by Mrs. Murphy, the cats leapt onto the table, running from end to end. Grapevines hit the floor; rosebuds skidded off the table. BoomBoom quickly secured the magnolia blossoms, as they were more fragile. Beads clattered.
"I'm sorry. I should never have brought these monsters," Harry apologized.
"Oh, the Rev's cats would have done the honors." BoomBoom, an animal lover, laughed.
What was a little cleanup compared to watching animals love life?
"We would not. We're Christian cats," Lucy Fur protested, prudently jumping off the table.
"Ha." Pewter jumped off, too. "Lucy Fur, you're the most Christian at dinnertime."
"You should talk, lard-ass." Cazenovia, the long-haired calico, now chased Pewter.
"May I?" Harry got up and opened the cooler.
"Under the circumstances, I think it imperative." Jean smiled.
Once the torn-up sandwich was on the floor, paper towels underneath, the cats settled down. Tucker received half a sandwich, too. Water was put out for them.
The great hall boasted a kitchen good enough for a fancy restaurant; it had running water, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, a big Viking stove, and other items to delight a chef.
Back at the table, Harry plopped down.
"Those sandwiches smell good." Susan's remark encouraged the ladies to take a food break.
"You mentioned that Aunt Phillipa's mind is clear. How is she taking this?" Alicia asked Racquel.
"With fortitude. She's eighty-six. She's ready to go. Fighting to breathe robs any delight one might harbor. But she amazes me. So do the brothers. I didn't think I'd much like them hovering about, but they've been good. Well, Christopher Hewitt isn't too good. Brother Morris," she mentioned the prior, "says he has to do some hospice work. Mostly Christopher runs the Christmas tree farm. He knows how to make money. Bryson is there more than I am, so Aunt Phillipa receives lots of attention. He has two elderly patients there, as well."
BoomBoom, who'd gone to high school with Christopher, as did Harry, Fair, and Susan, said, "I haven't seen Christopher since he joined the brotherhood. Not that we were bosom buddies before."
"Heard he became a brother after he got out of jail in Arizona. Money led him down the garden path. I am going over to the Christmas tree farm later, and maybe he'll be there." Harry was looking forward to picking out a tree.
Susan spoke to Alicia, Racquel, and Jean, who did not go to Crozet High School. "Christopher was a year behind Harry and me. He was handsome. And he was always elected treasurer of whatever group he was in."
"Good training." BoomBoom laughed.
"That comes back to my question," said Harry. "Can a leopard change his spots? I don't know all of the details, but Christopher was a stockbroker, became involved in insider trading, losing millions of clients' money. I just wonder."
"Well, I changed my spots." BoomBoom laughed again, at herself this time.
"Oh, you were never that bad." Susan liked her school chum, although she sided with Harry during the affair, which was natural.
"Bad enough." Harry laughed, too. "But isn't it funny how things turn out? All three of us have grown closer."
BoomBoom became serious. "The truth is I didn't know what love was until I met Alicia. I was running on empty and running from man to man."
"You sweet thing," Alicia said.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Santa Clawed by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Copyright © 2008 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.