There were too many lilies. Clara wasn’t an authority on flowers or funerals. But, it was like a flower shop—that only sold lilies—had exploded in the blue room of Horner’s Funeral Home.This was what happened when everyone adored you. They buried you under a mountain of your favorite flower—in this case, stargazers with their erotic pink hearts and sinus-piercing pollen—before they actually buried you.And it was just a cosmic kick in the pants that Clara Beecher was allergic to her mother’s favorite flowers.“Clara!” Mrs. Place, her eighth-grade language arts teacher, clasped Clara’s hands in her bony grip. Mrs. Place had not changed at all. She was the kind of woman who seemed middle-aged at seventeen and just waited for time to catch up. “Your mother was so proud of you. You and your sister, you were her pride and joy.”
“That’s nice of you to say,” Clara said, keenly aware of her sister, Abbie, across the room doing the sorts of things that would make a mother proud.
“At book club, she’d go on and on about you and the important work you were doing in the city and, well, most of it went right over my head,” Mrs. Place said. There was nothing complicated about Clara’s work; Mom just lied about it so, as a former hippie, she didn’t have to say the words my daughter is a corporate shill. “But you could tell she was just so proud.”
Clara pulled her hand free in time to grab a tissue from one of the many boxes scattered around the room and held it to her allergy-induced, dripping nose. “Thank you,” she said through the tissue.
“Everyone is going to miss Betts,” Mrs. Place said. “So much. There’s not a part of this town that she wasn’t involved in. Church, the library. Park board. Community gardens.”
Like an invasive species. Invite her to something and she’d soon be running the show.
Grief is making you sharp. That was something her mother would say. If she wasn’t dead.
The Blue Room of Horner Funeral Home was hot and wall-to-lily packed with people coming to pay their respects to one of Greensboro’s favorite citizens.
BettyKay Beecher had lived her whole adult life in this tiny town, and the town had shown up bearing casseroles and no-bake cheesecakes for the reception after the burial, wearing their Sunday best, armed with their favorite BettyKay stories.
She sat with my dad when he was dying.
She helped us figure out the insurance paperwork when our son was in his accident.
They were all mourning. The whole room and the hallway outside and the people still sitting in their cars in the parking lot. People were crying real tears, huddling, sobbing—actually sobbing—in corners. And all Clara could think was:
Did they know?
Had Mom, in true fashion, told the entire town the secret she’d kept from her own daughters for nearly forty years? The bombshell, life-rearranging, ugly secret she’d blurted, exasperated and furious with Clara in their last phone call?
Would they be mourning so hard if they knew?
“Oh, bless you, honey,” Mrs. Place said.
“It’s just allergies.” Clara folded up the tissues before putting them in the pocket of her new black Marco Zanini suit with the sash tie and the sky blue silk lining. She’d thought the lining might be a bit much for a funeral, but that was before she knew about the lilies.
And don’t get her started on all the men wearing camouflage. To a funeral. Were they all going hunting after this?
“She’s with your father now. I hope you find comfort in that.”
“I do, thank you.” It was, as it always had been in Greensboro, Iowa, easier to lie.
Another person came up with another story about BettyKay Beecher. “Is that your sister?” She pointed across the room after sharing an anecdote about their time together in the Army Nurse Corps. “Abbie?”
Abbie was surrounded by her friends from childhood—who used to be Clara’s friends from childhood, not that it mattered—who kept bringing her mugs that were not filled with coffee. Abbie’s cheeks were flushed and her eyes were bright and she was half-drunk, crying and hugging and not at all bothered by the lilies.
“Yep. That’s my sister,” Clara said, ushering the woman toward Abbie and not even feeling bad about it. “She’d love to hear your story.”
Three years ago, they’d stood in this exact same room, mourning their father, Willis Beecher. It was hard to be home and not see him in the corners of rooms. She couldn’t drink rum or Constant Comment tea and not miss him. The smell of patchouli could bring her to tears. A sob rose up in her throat like a fist, and her knees were suddenly loose. She put a hand against the table so she didn’t crumple onto the floor.
I’m an orphan. Me and Abbie—orphans.
She was a full-grown adult. A corporate lawyer (about to make junior partner, fingers crossed) who billed at $700 an hour. She had a condo on Lakeshore and a good woman who loved her. Abbie had two kids of her own, a husband of twenty-five years and kept slices of homemade lemon loaf in the freezer that she could pop in a toaster in case someone stopped by for coffee. They were far from orphans.
But she couldn’t shake the thought.
Clara found the side door and stepped out.
The wind was icy, blowing across the farmland to the west, picking up the smell of fries and burgers from The Starlite Room, only to press her flat against the yellow brick. She felt the cotton-silk blend of her suit snag on the brick.
The first few days of March were cold, too cold to be out here without a jacket, but the freshness woke her up. Spring hadn’t committed to Iowa yet and the cornfields were still brown, lying in wait, like everything else in Greensboro, for the last blizzard to come hammering down from the Dakotas.
Her phone buzzed. She left it in her pocket.
Horner’s Funeral Home was on the other side of town from the Greensboro University, and St. Luke’s School of Nursing’s white clock tower was just visible over the trees. The university had all the flags lowered to half-mast for the week. It was a nice touch. Mom had been a student there and then a teacher and for the last twenty years, an administrator.
She closed her eyes, letting the wind do its work.
Clara felt her sister lean back against the wall next to her, smelling of vanilla and Pinot Grigio.
“Hey,” she said, eyes still closed.
Clara hummed in her throat, a sound that wasn’t yes or no. That was, in fact, the exact sound of the exhausted limbo the last few days had put her in.
“Me neither,” Abbie said. “It just… I feel like I’m missing something, you know? Like I’m walking around all wrong.”
Clara felt the same. Being BettyKay Beecher’s daughter was a part of her identity she didn’t always carry comfortably, but it was there.
“Where’s Vickie?” Abbie asked, and Clara caught herself from flinching at the sound of her girlfriend’s name.
“She wishes she could be here but she has a case in front of the Illinois Supreme Court.”
She felt Abbie’s doubt, the way she wanted to probe and pick.
“Did you have to blow up that picture so damn big?” Clara asked, before Abbie could get to her follow-up questions.
All around the funeral home were pictures of the Beecher family. And—God knows why—Abbie had decided to blow up to an obscene size, the picture of their mother that was on the back of her book: Pray for Me: The Diary of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. In it BettyKay was a fresh-faced twenty-two-year- old, with a helmet-shaped brunette bob wearing an olive green United States Army Nurse Corps uniform.
“Fiona’s turning into a little parrot, so we don’t swear anymore. We say ‘effing’ and ‘darn’ and ‘poop.’”
“That’s effing nonsense.”
“Probably.” Clara could hear the smile in her sister’s voice. “And yes, I did. I love that picture of Mom. She looks so brave.”
Clara thought she looked terrified.
“Max and Fiona don’t understand what’s happening,” Abbie said. “They keep asking why Gran is lying down.”
Clara’s laugh was wet with the lingering allergic reaction to the flowers. “That’s awful.”
“Denise from the hospital keeps trying to get the kids to touch Mom’s hand. So they can feel how cold she is and then they’ll understand.”
“What will it make them understand?”
“That she’s dead.”
“That’s morbid even for Denise.” They were both laughing, which felt alien but sweet.
“She says it will give them closure.”
Abbie reached out and grabbed her hand. Clara started to pull away, but Abbie didn’t let go.
I should tell her. Part of her even wanted to. To share the burden of information like they were kids again. And Abbie, who liked the view from the perch her reputation as a Beecher in this town gave her, would tell Clara it wasn’t true. Couldn’t possibly be. That Mom had been wrong. Angry. Something.
Some excuse to keep everything the way it was.
That was why Clara couldn’t tell her. Because Abbie had to live in this town side by side with the memory of Mom. Bringing Abbie into it would make her sister’s life harder.
“Abbie, don’t get upset but I am going to leave after the reception at the church.” There. Done. Band-Aid-style.
“And go where?” Abbie asked.
And here comes the look. “Chicago? You’re kidding.”
“We have a new client—”
“You’re leaving?” Accidentally Clara caught Abbie’s furious gaze and wished she hadn’t. She could see her sister’s rage and her grief and it felt worse than her own.
“I’ll be back,” Clara lied.
“Bullshit.” So much for not swearing.
“You know. I should have expected this. You show up last-minute in your car and your ugly suit—”
“With your nose in the air—”
“I’ll pay to have the house boxed up.”
Abbie sucked in so much air Clara went light-headed from the lack of oxygen around her.
“Can we please not make this a big deal?” she asked.
“What did I ever do to you, Clara? To make it so easy for you to leave me behind?”
The wind caught the side door as it opened, banging against the brick with a sound that made Clara and Abbie jump like they’d been caught smoking.
Ben, Abbie’s husband, stuck his head out and Abbie stepped forward. Ben was a good-looking guy in a gentle giant kind of way. Constantly rumpled, but usually smiling. He reminded Clara of a very good Labrador retriever.
She wanted to pat his head and give him a treat. And then yell at him for tracking mud across the rug.
“There you are,” he said.
“I was just getting some air,” Abbie said, with surprising defensiveness. “Is everything okay?”
“There’s…” Ben glanced over his shoulder and made a face, bewildered and somehow joyful in a way that made Clara and Abbie push off the wall. It was his mother-in-law’s funeral after all. Joy was a strange sentiment.
“What?” Clara asked.
“Well, I think you should come in and see for yourself.”
Ben held the door while Abbie and Clara walked back into the packed room. Everyone was silent now, pressed to the walls and corners in little clumps, whispering in that painfully familiar way out of the corners of their mouths and behind their hands. There was a path down the center of the room right to Mom’s casket, where she lay with her arms crossed, wearing her favorite green dress and way too much blush.
Standing at the casket, was a woman. A stranger.
Everything about her screamed not from around here. She wore an elegant long black skirt and a pair of boots with low heels of rich black leather. A gray sweater (Ralph Lauren Collection cashmere or Clara would eat her own boots) with a black belt around her trim waist. Her hair was long and silvery blond, the kind that appeared natural but Clara would put money on the fact that it cost a lot and took a lot of time to keep that way.
She kind of…glittered.
“Who is that?”
“You don’t recognize her?” Ben whispered between Abbie and Clara’s shoulders, his breath smelling of coffee and cough drops.
Something about the woman did seem familiar, polished.
“Is she from the publishing company?” she asked Abbie.
“I don’t think so. They sent a cheesecake.”
“That morning show Mom did sometimes, in Des Moines? Ramona?”
“Ramona Rodriguez died, like, ten years ago.”
Clara should know this woman. But her mother’s funeral was throwing her off.
“Are you kidding me? You really don’t recognize her?” Ben asked. “It’s Kitty Devereaux.”
Excerpted from The Sunshine Girls by Molly Fader. Copyright © 2022 by Molly Fader. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
That’s a really interesting question! I don’t sit down to write a book with themes in mind. They kind of arrive as i’m writing. The premise of the book is usually the start. In the case of The Sunshine Girls, the first scene – of the two sisters at their mother’s funeral when a iconic actress walks in and tells the sister’s they don’t know the truth about their mother – came to me fully formed. After that it was a matter of trying to figure out how two radically different women would meet and become friends.
The themes of women’s rights and reproductive rights flowed out of their friendship and the time period (the 1960’s). Once the theme becomes obvious to me it’s a matter of trying to make it subtle to the reader so they don’t feel completely overwhelmed.
Because they’re the best! They’re fascinating. They’re blood thirsty and supportive and compassionate and judgemental. I love friendship stories that are real – with all that resentment and love that I’ve experienced in my friendships. I think there’s so much chemistry in friendships, not unlike falling in love. You know when you meet a person and you click and it feels like you’ve known them forever. I love it.
They kind of feed each other for me. I usually get the opening scene in my head and then I have to figure out who the characters are and then they inform the plot and then the characters have to change and grow and that informs the plot some more. So, it’s a chicken and egg type situation for my books.
There’s always a lot of my life in my books – in big and small ways. I see myself in every character in this book except maybe Kitty. For The Sunshine Girls I really used details and events from my mother’s life. She was at nursing school in Iowa in the 1960’s – and she and her best friend traded buttons as a practical joke for years. Having that kind of authenticity made the story come to life for me as I was writing it.