Off in the distance, the steep hills of the Missouri Ozarks were shrouded in blue, arcing to meet a seafoam sky, dipping into timbered hollows and fresh-water lakes – all of it way too close for Jonathan Van Castle’s comfort.
From under the brim of his Stetson, Jon stared out the tinted bus window at the rolling pastureland that marked the start of the hill-and-lake country in the southern half of the Show-Me State. His fingers, long and tipped with calluses from his guitar strings, drummed on his thigh. He’d grown up in that backwoods, and every turn of the wheels brought him closer to Monaco. And his ex-wife. Ex-wives had a way of spoiling even the prettiest scenery, and his was a regular vandal.
Unearthed from mothballs eight weeks ago, the Van Castle Country Tour bus took the leading country rock singer in America and his band around the curve on the two-lane highway. The bus slowed as it entered Cordelia, the last burg of any size before the lakes. The town slumbered in bucolic glory under the haze of late July.
Inside the custom-built bus, his companions were quiet. Beside him on the opposite end of a leather sofa, bass player Zeke Townley put his long legs up and locked them at the ankles. Idly, he flipped through the pages of GQ. In a set of swivel chairs nearby, several security guys played cards with the band’s stylist Sidney. Today Sidney’s hair was green, his pants purple. Snores issued from behind a curtain at the rear of the bus where Van Castle’s drummer Three-Ring slept.
Several dozen of his crew and his business manager, Peter Price, had gone ahead to Lake Kesibwi, another fifty miles down the road. They were likely already lined up on deck chairs at the Royal Sun Resort, knocking back beers.
Jon squirmed, and Zeke nudged him with the toe of a black boot that matched the bass guitarist’s hair, beard, and eyes. “Ants in your pants?”
“No, just the pants. Damn uncomfortable.”
Zeke eyed the fringed leather pants with the air of a man whose perfectly creased white trousers would never dare ride up.
Jon grimaced. “Got up late, and these were on the floor.” They’d left Kansas City at nine, not an early wake-up call – unless you were coming off two gigs at Sandstone, and umpteen others at similar burgs.
Zeke nodded and looked out the window.
The driver took Cordelia’s outlying area of tract housing and fast food joints at an even gait. As they passed a schoolyard, some kids paused in their play, wrapped grubby fingers around a chain-link fence, and gaped. No wonder. Rendered in Outlaw Purple Metallic, a pair of outsized guitars plastered the sides of the bus.
“Look familiar?” Zeke asked.
“Haven’t been through here in eighteen years.” A scared teenager on a Greyhound bound for the big time. Zeke knew all that. They’d been together ever since Jon had stepped off that bus and into a bar in Nashville.
“And what changes time has wrought.” Zeke’s voice was laconic. Zeke’s middle name was laconic. “Take away the cars, plant a few hitching posts, and it’d look like it did a hundred years ago.”
The highway narrowed into a shaded street lined with gingerbreaded Victorians and airplane bungalows, all fronted with broad porches. Jon noted the padded swings, the hanging pots of fuschia and ferns, the freshly-swept walks. His mother had liked fuschia.
“I always wanted a house like one of those.”
“Let’s see. A manse on twenty acres outside Nashville versus Ma Kettle’s abode in the middle of the back of beyond. Tough decision.”
Jon’s lips curved, but he didn’t comment. A home, a mansion didn’t make.
“I’ll raise you two.” Sidney threw two quarters on the table. “And I’ll see you.”
The change hit wood. The bodyguard Roy, rock-hard and squat in a seat near the driver, groaned. Sidney swept up the pot.
Following the highway sign, the driver curved onto Main, one of four streets framing a church in the middle of the town square. Looked like God and state must have battled for supremacy, and God had won. The lawn around the church was sun-crisped, but ribbons of red geraniums cabled the walkways twisting between maples and sycamores. Surrounding the church were rows of two-story brick buildings, each with lower level shops and upper level windows with white trim, shades half-pulled like lids drooping over sleepy eyes. Leftover from Fourth of July, patriotic bunting drifted from concrete cornices.
The bus slowed to a judicious crawl. A get-up like this spelled money to small town sheriffs with their eyes on the municipal coffers. Around here, money was scarce. Jon knew.
Up-in-the-Hair Beauty Salon slid by, its windows full of flounced pink curtains and steam, followed by Peg O’ My Heart Cafe. The meat loaf was on special. A few doors down was O’Neill’s Emporium. Out front an old geezer swept the sidewalk. As the bus passed, the guy propped forearms on his broom handle and watched. Merry-Go-Read Bookstore stood next to the Emporium. Except for the old guy, the square was empty. According to the driver, this month was one of the hottest Missouri had ever seen.
They neared the green-and-white striped awning of a parlor on the corner.
Zeke’s eyes were amused. “Sin-Sational Ice Cream? The mind boggles.”
“About as clever as those last lyrics you came up with.” Jon snorted. “’Maiden fine in my mind?’ Gimme a break.”
Zeke lazily kicked Jon’s thigh. “Let’s see. And what did you come up with? Oh, that’s right, I remember. Nothing.”
The corner of Jon’s mouth hitched, although inwardly he sighed. As the trip to Monaco had neared, words had dried up.
The bus braked at a stop sign.
Jon leaned toward the driver. “Stop at the park.” Zeke raised narrow eyebrows, and Jon shrugged. “I need a walk.”
“What you need is a spine. She won’t eat you.”
He wondered. “Just give me a few minutes to get the wool out of my head.”
When Jon got off the bus – alone, despite bodyguard Roy’s protests – Sidney gave his hair a pointed look. “Tuck it under, or you’ll be sorry.”
Jon rolled his eyes at the stylist, and wondered why he kept Sidney around, except for the obvious entertainment value. Sidney cheated, and his garb wasn’t a country fashion statement. A moment later he felt penitent. Shit. It wasn’t Sidney.
Still, he left his trademark blonde-and-brown ribboned hair pulled back, not up and under.
* * * * *
Minutes later, he found himself fervently wishing he’d listened to Sidney, but mostly missing Roy.
He hadn’t tucked his hair up, he hadn’t stayed in the park. He’d picked Maple Woods Drive at random. Now, his boots scuffed along, not with the pace of a leisurely stroll, but with the stiff-legged gait of a man wanting to run and trying to hide it.
Sweat rolled from under his hat, but he didn’t dare take it off. He’d already caught a startled look from a young woman with apricot hair. She’d been lounging on the porch swing of a rambling bungalow about a block behind him.
He pulled the brim on his Stetson low, and glanced behind. Sure enough, she’d followed. She was about a half-block back, her hair looking like it had exploded from her head like shook-up Neff’s Peach Soda. She was just this side of skinny. And he’d bet she was fast. He picked up his pace, hoping to put more distance between them before she realized she’d seen what she’d seen.
“Jooonathan Vaaan Castle!”
She shrieked, then shrieked again.
Shit. It was like the blaring of bugles. Her screech pierced the rattle of air conditioners, stilled the birds, almost tore a crack in the earth. Screen doors banged open. Faces peered out.
She started running, still hollering. He started running, still sweating. And pretty soon a whole gaggle of women had fallen in with her.
He darted into an alley, crashed over a picket fence, hugged the side of a house, caught his breath, moved on, and pretty much lost himself in the lanes and alleys between the park and the square.
Just in time, he glimpsed a green-and-white striped awning. Sides heaving, he burst onto Main, saw nothing, saw nobody, and bounded across the street toward the church. Running low, darting between trees, he flew up the sweep of steps at the church entrance. The doors were ornately carved, heavy oak – and locked.
Swearing under his breath, he twisted, just in time to see the redhead and her rabble-rousing crowd – well, really only a half dozen women, but even two was one more than he could handle in this condition – explode from the ice cream parlor. They must have gone in through the rear.
The apricot head started to swivel his way. With what he thought was admirably fast thinking, he dove over the railing and into a clump of shrubs. Hat askew and flat on his back, he laid perfectly stil, mostly because he wasn’t sure he could move. Thirty-five was way too old for this crap.
The voices faded and he raised his head. The square was empty. No sign of anyone, not even the geezer.
Jon stood up, swiped his fingers through his hair, and plopped the Stetson back on his head. He didn’t know which way they’d gone, and he didn’t know if he could outrun them again.
As his heart slowed, his brain kicked back into gear. All he needed to do was call the bus and tell the driver to pick him up… He pawed at his pants, then dropped his hands and groaned.
He’d left his damn cell phone back on the bus.
He needed a phone. He studied his options, which weren’t many. Both the Emporium and Merry-Go-Read had “Sorry, We’re Closed” placards leaning in the windows. In small town fashion, the proprietors had closed for the noon hour. He shuddered at the idea of entering the beauty shop, which left the ice cream parlor and Peg’s diner, both undoubtedly stuffed for lunch.
He was about to check out another street, when the door to Peg’s arced open.
A tall, slender girl with short lemon curls, and a not-so-short lemon dress, stepped from the cafe. Her gaze focused dead ahead, she neared Merry-Go-Read, and pulled out a key.
While her attention was on the lock, he took a step toward her. A branch snagged his boot. He lurched forward, crashed out of the shrubs, windmilled across the green, and caught himself just short of a dive onto Main.
Her head snapped sideways, and she froze.
No girl, a woman. In her late twenties, or early thirties. As their eyes met, the line of a new lyric darted into his brain; it always happened at the damnedest times. China blue eyes… Such a surprise. He steeled himself for a shriek of recognition. Instead, she bent her head to the lock, her movements now frantic.
A distant voice sounded from Maple Woods Drive. “Back this way!”
Shit. He bounded across the street, straight at the blonde.
She glanced up, then fumbled some more at the knob. The door swung open.
The redhead burst into view, head turned away as she shouted over her shoulder. Without missing a beat, he charged into the blonde’s back, shoved her inside, and slammed the door. Chimes jangled.
The blonde skidded into the bookstore and barely kept her feet. Skirt swirling, she spun around to face him. They stared at each other. She was a looker. No trend-setter, but a looker. The dress was old-fashioned, sleeveless, but even buttoned up to the neck, it didn’t hide her willowy figure. A silhouette of long legs was spoiled only by a pair of flat, brown shoes. Her curls were caught back by a ribbon, not gunked up by mousse. Nothing lined her eyes… china blue eyes… except a fringe of dark lashes and an arc of dark brows. Emotion, not powder, colored her cheekbones. The lack of window-dressing was nice.
He realized by the widening eyes what she saw. Not Jon Van Castle, a top pick for People’s Sexiest Men in America, but a long-haired crazy in a clown outfit stained with sweat.
Looking like she faced a mad dog, she backed up and kept going until her hips bumped the counter at the rear.
“What do you want?” Her voice was hoarse, but her chin came up.
He held a finger up, and turned away to peek past the edge of faded curtains. The redhead-led crowd milled about in confusion. He locked the door.
Behind him, a dial tone buzzed. Quiet as a sigh, she’d moved behind the counter and picked up a phone.
He closed the space between them, his boots gunshots on the pocked wood floor. “Don’t.” He made the word more plea than threat. “I only want to use the phone.”
Some of the color returned to her face, but a vein pulsed in her long neck. Carefully, he placed a hand over her hand holding the receiver, and let a smile renowned for making women swoon spread over his face.
He squeezed her fingers. “Please.”
She moistened her lips. How had he missed the mouth? Rosebud, definitely rosebud. And with those sweet lips parted, she looked… well, not to be immodest, she looked kind of swoony herself. Familiar as it was, that look was something coming from her.
He looked down at the hand he held. A band wrapped her ring finger. He loosed his grip. That was territory he never wandered into.
“And the locked door?”
She paused, keeping her eyes on his, and wordlessly handed him the receiver. He held onto his smile, still waiting for recognition, shocked surprise, but she only folded her hands on the counter and waited.
Feeling unreasonably irritated, he dropped the smile and reached to punch a number. Then stopped. All he knew were his speed dial numbers. One for Peter Price. Two for Zeke. And three for Roy. Helluva lot of good that’d do him now. He slammed down the phone.
The woman paled again. God, she probably thought he was a robber – or worse.
“I, uh, changed my mind.” He thought fast before she screamed, and bedlam ensued. Last thing he needed was his face splashed all over the National Tattler – again. “I decided to shop.”
“Honest,” he added, thinking he might touch her hands, to reassure her, that’s all. When he moved, though, she drew back, slowly like she didn’t want to spook him. Sweet Jesus, there was something about her.
“Then, may I help you?” Her voice hardly wobbled, and her chin stayed up. He admired her for that.
He tipped his hat back, tried an I’ll-charm-you grin. “Sorry about shoving you. I stumbled.”
“Mmm.” Her baby-blues said she didn’t buy it. “So, what are you shopping for?”
What was he shopping for? He glanced around, and noticed for the first time the quantities of children’s books and videos spread out on tall shelves like notes on a staff. Everything was neat as three quarter-time, except for one corner that was piled with cartons. Runners as faded as the curtains ran between shelves, a kid-sized table squatted in front of the bow window. The walls were blotched with stains. The odor of mildew underlay the smell of her perfume, and the light from the window was harsh against the miserly glow of several globes – one cracked – that hung from the stamped-tin ceiling. He’d guess the place wasn’t a gold mine.
He pushed himself up. “Kids’ books. I’m looking for kids’ books.” Wouldn’t hurt to show up with presents for Melanie and Michael before he hauled them out of the only home they knew. “For my daughter.”
“How old is she?” She hadn’t moved, but her voice was stronger, maybe because this was familiar ground.
“Ten, maybe eleven.”
There was silence, and he read her mind. He warmed. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t remember Melanie’s age. His ex-wife Belinda defined “visitation rights” narrowly. If he couldn’t come to them – and he usually couldn’t – he couldn’t see them. Period. She named every excuse from school schedules to fear of flying (which he thought was her own invention) whenever he suggested they visit Nashville. But this time he had her over a barrel – and she knew he was ready to crack a whip.
“Does she read a lot?”
“I think so.”
Another silence. He felt stupid. “What about these?” Recognizing a title, he motioned to a some books. Little House on the Prairie was a damn fine TV show, even in reruns, no matter what Zeke said.
“Which ones has she read?”
The question held the tone of a challenge. He shot a look over his shoulder, but except for an odd light in her eye, her face was smooth. Still, he bristled. Everybody judged him. What did she know?
It was a challenge. Something had moved her beyond alarm.
He straightened to his full height, which was a good six feet, but, he belatedly realized, only a couple inches taller than her. She didn’t look intimidated, only disapproving.
“I want the whole series.” He gathered them up and spilled them on the counter, liking it when she jumped. Moving over the runners, he grabbed a couple of Disney CDs, a few videos, and some picture books. “And these.”
“X-Men aren’t very popular with girls, and these picture books are too young for an eleven-year-old.” Then she added, disdain no longer hidden, “or even a ten-year-old.”
“I have a son, too. He’s younger. Five. Definitely five. I’ll take these, too.”
She sniffed. If he meant his extravagance to impress her (and he suspected he did), his ploy hadn’t worked.
A thought struck him. He’d forgotten his fan club. He paused at the window, but saw nobody. He pressed up closer to see down the street. A wrinkled face, pocked with liver spots and grizzle, popped from the side and peered back. He got an impression of sharp bones and bib overalls before the face disappeared.
He fell back. “Who in the hell is that?”
“Paddy O’Neill. He owns the Emporium and takes pride in knowing everything that goes on in this town. You’re a stranger. A rather odd-looking stranger. I’m sure news of you is now winding its way down to Peg O’ My Heart. Will that be all?”
He blinked at the sudden flood of words. The appearance of the town’s rumor monger had obviously dispelled the rest of her nervousness. It had increased his. “Huh?”
“I said, is that all?”
“That’s it.” He needed to get out of here, but he returned to the counter and leaned against it. He watched her hands as they ruthlessly sorted his merchandise. They tapered long and narrow, proportioned, strong but feminine. Musician’s hands. His eyes traveled from her hands, adorned by a cheap watch and that blasted wedding band up to her face. He tried to make amends. “So, do you have kids, too?”
She snapped up like an overtight guitar string. “No.”
Under a glare as hard as sapphires, he held up his hands. “Sorry.” He fumbled for a change of topic. “You and your husband own the shop?”
“He’s dead. That will be $243.60.” She held out a hand.
About to suggest rudeness wouldn’t help sales, he changed his mind when he saw her hand shook. “I’m sorry. Really.” And he was, for upsetting her, but not, he realized, because her husband was gone.
He dove a hand in his pocket, but emerged with only a few melting M&Ms. “Uh –”
She snatched a container from under the counter, yanked out a towelette, and thrust it at him.
Dare he ask her out? He hadn’t had a real date in years; he hadn’t wanted to risk one. Wiping his fingers, he considered. He doubted she was the type to play “come see my guitar,” or visit a man she didn’t know in the confines of his resort cabana. Or, he gave a sigh, go out with the madman who’d almost knocked her on her butt.
But those eyes… He smiled, thinking chatty might do it. “Ah, that smell reminds me of the last time I saw Michael. He was three, still in diapers.” He wadded the towel and when she didn’t take it, stuffed it in his pocket. His hand still came up empty. He felt his face flame around his smile. No cell phone. No wallet.
“I don’t have the first Wilder book.” Another pause. “You haven’t seen your children in two years?”
“Don’t judge me. What book?” Maybe he didn’t want to ask her out, after all.
“You asked for the whole series. Big Woods is out of stock, although I can order it if you’ll pay in advance. And I’m not judging you. I don’t even know you.”
“In my experience, that’s not a requirement.” If the news of his two-year absence had thrilled her, the next piece of information he had for her would drive her wild with excitement. “I have a problem.”
Picking up a pen, she nodded emphatically, but said, “It’s not a problem. We deliver to the Sedalia and lake areas, both Ozarks and Kesibwi. I can have it there within a few days.”
She laid the pen down, and explained in the same voice she would use with a village dunce. “You see, in order to deliver the book, we have to know where to deliver the book.”
“Jesu–” She gave him a hard stare. “I mean, jeepers.” Jeepers? “I know that. I meant, that’s a clever way to get my address.”
Her mouth went slack, but she recovered fast. “Really. You might be good-looking. You might be extremely good-looking. To some people. But let me assure you, I have no intention of using your address for anything besides delivery.”
He shuffled his feet. So, he wouldn’t be asking her out. Better for everyone, anyway. “You really don’t have a clue, do you?’
“I don’t believe I’m the one who’s clueless. And if you don’t wish to give me your address, that’s fine.”
Once more, she picked up the pen and waited. Great, now she thought he was a paranoid, arrogant madman.
“What the hell. I’ll be at the Royal Sun Resort for the next six, seven weeks.”
“And your name?”
A drum roll filled his head. “Jonathan Van Castle.”
Her eyes rolled halfway up. “Is that with a capital V and C?”
He deflated. “Yes. Deliver it to the front desk. They’ll get it to me.”
“I still have a problem.”
“Which problem are we discussing?”
“I seem to have left my wallet in –” He backed toward a door he assumed led to a storeroom with a delivery door, and motioned toward the pile of books. “Just pack it all up. I’ll be right back.”
He turned, headed through the back room before she could protest, and found the delivery door. Just as he’d thought, it led to an alley.
“We do have a front door. The one you came in.” She’d paused in the doorway, arms crossed.
He peered up and down the alley, then looked at her over his shoulder. “My phobias.”
“Oh, yes. Your phobias.”
The thermostat in his face ratcheted up another notch. He turned and almost banged the nose Country Dreaming called “regal” into the jamb. Muttering a curse, he slipped out.
Dodging through the warren of alleys at full tilt, he wondered if he’d gone nuts. What difference did it make if he returned? From the tone of her voice to the slant of her eyebrows, it was obvious she thought he was a jerk. A few bucks wouldn’t change anything, and it wouldn’t matter even if it did.
He reached a copse of trees that bordered the back of the park. The bus slumbered in a clearing, and hadn’t gone undetected. He spotted an orange head among a few women leaping to try to see through the tinted windows, but most milled yards away around the park entrance. Roy stood at the closed bus doors, thick arms crossed. Only his eyes moved, sweeping the park and finally lighting on Jon. His chin, the edge of an anvil, moved up a notch in acknowledgement.
Taking a deep breath, Jon sprinted. He was on them in seconds. Before the women could squeak, Roy had shoved him in the bus, and muscled in after him. The driver slammed the doors.
Roy flopped into the first available seat and mopped at his head with his bandanna. Jon patted thanks on his shoulder.
Zeke turned a page of his magazine. “Having an adventure, my man?”
Jon leaned down to give the driver directions, then shoved Zeke’s feet off the couch and took their place. Zeke gave him a look of mock annoyance, and straightened the crease in his trousers.
“Just a slight detour,” Jon said.
The driver shifted into gear. Zeke’s eyebrows shifted higher.“She must really be something.”
“She? I just found something I want –”
Jon frowned. “And I forgot my wallet.”
The driver eased up to Merry-Go-Read. The bus halted with a hydraulic wheeze. The bookstore lady couldn’t help but notice.
Jon stood up, signaling Roy. The other security guards also stood, abandoning their cards, and got out. Sure she was watching, Jon bypassed his usual leap from the bus, gathered his dignity, ignored Zeke’s eyebrows, and promenaded between his sentries the eight feet to her door.
Inside, everything was still in its place, including the bookstore lady. She stood behind the counter, her hands folded, and if she’d noticed his triumphant return, she didn’t betray it by even a blink. “$243.60?”
Wilting, he approached. “I know. You told me.” With one final flourish, he handed over a Platinum Visa with Jonathan Van Castle emblazoned across the front.
Now she would recognize him. She would finally put two and two together. He pasted a modest look alongside a grin, and waited for her hand to fly over her fluttering heart. But she only slid the card through the machine, and waited for it to belch out a receipt.
His grin faded. He reached for the card, but she pulled it back, and slid the receipt in front of him. “Please sign.”
Hell. He grabbed a pen, scrawled his John Henry, and when he was done, she by-God picked it up and compared it to the card. Satisfied – and she’d better be – she offered him the card and receipt. He snatched them from her.
“Thank you. Have a nice day.” Polite words, no smile.
He’d have a nice day all right, no thanks to her. He grumbled his way to the door. As he reached for the handle, voices crescendoed outside.
The soft scent of honeysuckle tickled his nose. The bookstore lady had moved up behind him. “My goodness. Mari! What is she doing?”
“My little sister.” Her tone was grim.
Roy held the redhead back as she and her friends tried to force their way to the bus. Apparently they thought he was in it. Jon turned to look at the bookstore lady.
For once, she was looking back. “Who are you?”
Finally. He let his slow smile surface, but didn’t reply. Instead, he chucked her gently under the chin. Curiosity turned to a glare. He opened the door, and stepped into his world. Squeals rose, hands reached, but his guards held firm. As he swung into the bus, his smile lingered.
Zeke glanced up. “Get what you wanted?”
“A phone number? A date?”
“Nope.” He tossed his sack down, settled onto the sofa, and locked his hands behind his head.
Zeke raised an eyebrow.
“I got the last word.” And he hadn’t had to say a thing.
The memory of a pair of startled big blues stayed with him all the way to Monaco, making him grin. Once in Monaco, though, Belinda wiped the smile right off his face.