Authors: Cammie Eicher
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
By the time we corner the house, Dwaine has everything under control. Tony, thank goodness, has his bottom half covered again and his ex is clutching BooBoo to her breast and cooing like a dove. I assume Tony is giving his side of the story because his arms are flailing, and he keeps shooting angry glares at BooBoo’s mama.
“All good here?” Carson calls and Dwaine nods. Rather than wait for a ride home in the cruiser, we begin to walk.
Carson takes my hand, and we stroll along without speaking. The peace is so welcome after the events of the day. I suspect Carson shares my feelings because every so often he gives my hand a squeeze, which I interpret as “I still love you even though everyone around you is nuts.”
That peaceful feeling slips away as we walk past Miz Waddy’s empty shop. It’s only been two days, but it seems as if the place is already losing the feeling it’s always had. Seeing the quiet shop makes me think of Miss Priss, who is stuck with me as much as I’m stuck with her. And thinking of Miss Priss makes me think of Eugene, who I still think would be more trouble than the cat.
“What’s wrong?” Carson asks as I slow.
“They wouldn’t kill Miz Waddy, would they?”
“The people who took her.” Seriously, sometimes that man can be so dense.
“We don’t know yet that anyone took her.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake.” I drop Carson’s hand and plant my hands on my hips. “Her family were practically founding fathers of Fortuna, she’s involved in everything and besides, she wouldn’t have left her makeup behind if it was voluntary.”
“Her makeup?” Carson asks with a baffled guy look on his face.
“She just got her fall set.”
He still looks confused, so I have to explain. You’d think at his age he would already know that women in small towns—and cities, too, for all I know—change makeup with the seasons. Here in Fortuna, where there’s no handy cosmetics counter, everyone goes to everyone else’s beauty parties. In the privacy of a living room with a dozen or so other eager women, we have our color checked and try all the new products. Then we order the kits that have the perfect makeup to get us to the next season.
He pretty much gets it then, except for the color thing. His eyes glaze over when I tell him that I’m a summer, which means I need coral lipsticks and makeup with a pink undertone, but that Miz Waddy is a definite autumn. See, there’s another thing about men. They truly believe women live to listen to a forty-five-minute dissection of some stupid play in some stupid football game because we’re so good at faking it. You’d think they’d figure out to mimic interest for ten minutes or so when a woman talks about a dress hem or makeup undertone.
“I still don’t understand,” Carson says as we begin to walk away. He immediately interrupts as I try to tell him once again why I’m a spring and Miz Waddy is an autumn.
“I meant why it matters about the makeup. She can buy more.”
I stand and stare at him, aghast. “You have no idea how expensive that stuff is or that we have to compliment the refreshments that are served afterwards. This isn’t a simple purchase, Carson. It’s an investment. Like your black suits. Would you run away and leave your suits behind?”
The man wisely leaves well enough alone. We begin to talk about the bank records we’ve been poring over and where Miz Waddy was getting the money she moved from bank to bank. I must admit I’m woefully behind on town gossip when I can’t answer even the simplest of Carson’s questions. I don’t know if she has a gambling addiction, sends money to causes that e-mail her begging for help, or supports a starving child in Africa. I have no earthly idea whether she is hiding money from the IRS, keeping it as a nest egg in case the store fails, or has an heir somewhere with access to her regular bank records.
I am impressed, though, with how Carson’s mind works. I’d never, ever cheat on him because he’s my honey boo and we’ll be together forever and ever. But if I was tempted, I’d make sure to cover my tracks darn well. I never want to be facing the business end of his gun like poor Tony was a little while ago.
We turn the corner onto my street and my spirits lift. We are so, so close to my little cottage, a much-needed refuge from the world. My spirits sink when I see the unmistakable figure of Eugene on my front steps.
“Thought you had marching band practice after school,” I greet him.
He nods. “Did. It’s over.”
“Did you come to visit Miss Priss?” I ask, so hoping that is it.
“I’m worried about my mom. I wondered if you could take me to see her.” He gives me a puppy dog look that makes me regret what I’m about to say. I turn it over to Carson.
“You two talk and I’ll throw supper together,” I say, squeezing past Eugene and into the house.
Carson leans against the porch column and breaks the news to Eugene that his mother’s not in a department that encourages visitors. I figure he can do the guy-to-guy thing. He’ll be gentle explaining that Florine’s going to spend the next two and a half days “resting”. I’m not sure Carson will fill him in on the fact her rest will be induced with calming drugs and that before she comes back home, she’ll have spent quality time with the hospital psychiatrist.
Miss Priss looks thoroughly pissed as I walk into the kitchen. She’s sitting on the counter, where I expressly forbade her to be, glaring at her empty dish on the floor. I glance at the clock. It’s a little after six, which isn’t that late for a meal. Not for humans anyway.
I take one of the plastic containers from the fridge, nuke it, and scoop it into Miss Priss’s feeding dish. After spending a goodly amount of time sniffing and staring at my offering, she finally deigns to eat it. That is until she smells bacon frying.
My intent is to make BLTCP’s for Carson, Eugene, and me. For those of you who’ve never enjoyed one, that’s bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and pickle. Those ingredients make for a tasty, tangy sandwich, which I will serve with a side of store-bought macaroni salad. Bacon, it seems, is Miss Priss’s turn on, to quote that venerable magazine Playboy. The aroma brings her winding around my ankles, and when I fail to toss some to her, a rather severe nip on the left one. The wafting scent apparently reaches the porch because Carson and Eugene come into the kitchen together.
“Get…her,” I hiss as Miss Priss targets my right ankle.
The cat snarls as Carson makes a swipe at her, but he’s not one to be deterred. He grabs the kitchen towel off of the oven handle and throws it around her, effectively trapping her claws. Holding her at arm’s length to avoid the nipping teeth, he takes her away. I hear the slam of a door and realize he’s shut her in the bathroom. His early training with aggressive felines has paid off.
“You’re bleeding,” Eugene points out as Carson rejoins us. I glance at my ankle. She did indeed get me good, but I’m pretty sure I won’t swoon from blood loss before the sandwiches are done.
“I’ll live.” I run some cold water onto a paper towel and hold it against the bite. It stings a little, but the bleeding is staunched.
Carson’s been in my home often enough to know where everything is kept. While I wash my hands in the kitchen sink and internally debate the wisdom of braving Miss Priss to get the antibiotic cream, he sets the table and puts the strips of bacon on a paper towel-covered plate. The rest of the sandwich fixings take only a few minutes with the two of us working together, and then we’re sitting down with Eugene to our simple meal.
“Are you sure they don’t put kids in foster care if their moms are nuts?” This time his question has a huge underlying note of pathos. I realize he’s trying to work me, so he doesn’t have to spend another night with his brick-laying, swearing, praying grandmother. He should have known better. I’m tough as nails.
And also too poor to keep feeding a teenager. I do have enough sympathy to give him my sandwich and double up on the macaroni salad. He is a growing boy, after all, even though he probably doesn’t need to keep on growing.
Carson once again explains that Eugene’s mom will be home in a couple of days, and it’s probably good that he’s with his grandmother to keep her company. Obviously, their front porch chat didn’t delve into the possibility that Florine’s residency might be lengthened if she continues to dance, sing, and indulge in whatever habits she’s developed since I saw her last. Of course, my handsome man does tend to be an optimist. I remember early on in our relationship when he actually believed that if he applied ordinary police procedures, he’d get the right results.
Of course, that was before he’d spent much time in Fortuna.
Carson suggests he go with me when I get ready to run Eugene home. I lag back as the two of them head for Carson’s vehicle to let Miss Priss out of the bathroom. I open the door and take a cautious step in. She’s curled up in my sink and shoots me a scathing look when I dare suggest she leave her comfy nest and go eat.
Knowing what’s best for me, I back away and join the guys. I’m hoping that after we drop Eugene off, my sweetums and I can go someplace quiet for an ice cream sundae. A few scoops of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass, topped with caramel syrup, nuts, and whipped cream, would go a long way toward making up for the day I’ve just been through.
We are so in sync that as soon as Eugene waves goodbye, Carson suggests we go back to the motel restaurant, the best place in town for desserts. I think he wants a reward for surviving the last few hours, too, and he loves the sugar cream pie in that place.
Unfortunately, two Fortuna cruisers sit in the restaurant parking lot. Since there are only three cruisers in the fleet, and the third one has a big dent in the fender, I know what’s going on. The second shift officer is driving El Dente on patrol while Dwaine and Luther are here to sit down with Carson.
My fantasies of cooing over cobbler dissipate. Resigning myself to being yet again the third wheel—well, fourth in this case I guess—I step through the door when Carson opens it for me and head for the booth where the local gunslingers are ensconced. Imagine my surprise when my doodlebug grabs my elbow and leads me toward a booth on the other side, far away from them.
My heart soars. We are so simpatico that he understands I’ve had about as much of Dwaine as I can take in one day and am pretty close to hitting my Luther maximum as well. But my elation dims a bit when he whispers in my ear, “Order me a slice of lemon meringue and coffee. I’ll be right back.”
My hope is that he needs the little detective’s room. But no, he goes straight over to the chief and Luther and sits down. My ire begins to simmer. This protective streak of his is beginning to get under my skin. I have a job to do, and doggone it I intend to do it.
I’m about ready to march over there and tell him so when the waitress shows up and announces that tonight’s dessert special is hot fudge cake with cinnamon ice cream. My short attention span shifts from the wrong I’m being done to the ooey goodness of hot fudge streaming off rich chocolate cake, the ice cream melting perfectly…
A throat clearing by the patient server brings me out of my fantasy and back to her pen poised over an order pad. By the time we’ve established that I’m ordering lemon meringue pie for my honey and not lemon cream, Carson is sliding in the seat across from me. I study his face. He doesn’t look guilty, so maybe he was only inquiring as to the current condition of the loony Fortunians currently residing in the locked ward.
“Tell me about your fall festival,” he suggests, reaching for my hand.
“Well, it’s not my festival. I send out the news releases and take care of the flyers they put in the store windows, but my contribution is really quite small.”
Carson smiles. “Tell me about the event in general.”
I smile back. He wants to hear about my little town. How sweet. How thoughtful.
“It’s a big deal,” I tell him. “It always begins on Friday afternoon with a pumpkin chucking contest and ends on Sunday with apple bobbing on the town square. The parade is the high point. Once again, this year’s was really something.”
The parade is easier seen than explained. This isn’t New York; there are no giant inflated balloons bopping around overhead. The students from the high school’s electronic technology program record it, and I suspect copies are stored for blackmail in the future. The local veterans’ group is always first behind the fire engines. Most of the guys are too old to walk, so they ride in a bunch of pick-ups. And since most of them are stone deaf or close to it, the sirens don’t seem to faze them at all.
Their gathering place before the parade is the clubhouse, which opens the bar early for the occasion. A highlight of this year’s ride was Alfred Tooley with a bit too much beer in his system, standing up and saluting the convenience store sign, which just happens to be red, white, and blue. As his fellow vets tried to pull his arm down, he lost his balance and hung across the bed of the truck, half in and half out. Even the sirens couldn’t completely disguise his cursing as his cap fell off his head, exposing his bald pate like a shiny disco ball. Arms flailing, he nearly fell out when the driver stopped the truck and caused a chain reaction.
The high school band, intent on delivering the best version of what I think was an old Monkees’ song, didn’t realize everyone else had moved into slow motion. They kept on marching, trombones swaying and drummers drumming, until the woodwind section ran into the homecoming queen’s convertible. That morphed into a pile-up worthy of a California freeway and ended with flying drumsticks and screaming flutists.
The ambulance from further down the line was summoned. After up righting Alfred and ascertaining only his dignity was hurt, they moved to the downed trumpet section and the tuba player who’d been attacked by a loose cymbal.
Carson finds my recounting funny. Or else he’s having a sudden asthma attack because he leans back, wraps his arms around himself, and emits this weird sound I hope is stifled laughter.
“You can’t find anything like that back in Columbus,” he finally says when he’s able to speak again.