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Bitsy's Wisdom 1: You choose your bait for the fish that you want. But once you drop it in the water, you get what you get.
Emma had let her sister, Katy, be in charge of the map, never a good idea.
Field note, she thought to herself, Once leaving the commercial trade route between St. Louis and Springfield, the mountainous roads become increasingly rougher and directional cues more tricky. Without a guide or compass, reliance upon mass-produced cartography is a necessary challenge.
"It looks like we stay on this road for just a little way and then we turn," Katy said.
"Left or right?"
"Do we turn left or right?"
Katy glanced back down at the map uncertainly. "Oh, I'm sure we'll figure it out when we get there," she said.
Emma managed not to roll her eyes, but it was a struggle. Katy was far too willing to just figure things out as they went along. Her plans were willy-nilly and rarely thought through. Her decisions were made on the spot and the outcomes not always what she'd hoped. It was no way for a twenty-five-year-old single woman, mother of a five-year-old, to behave. Emma would have gladly explained all that to Katy, again, but her lecture was forestalled by a convenient road sign.
"There it is!" Katy cried out. "Warbler Lake Recreational Area, two miles."
Emma made the appropriate turn with only a couple of sputtering hesitations of the aging Geo's tired engine. The old car, so dependable on her little inner-city commute, had never made such a journey. And it had never towed a rented trailer with all the worldly goods of Katy Dodson in its wake.
"Warbler Lake," Josh repeated from the back seat, though the way he said it it sounded more like Ogler Lake, which was something completely different. Emma hoped he wasn't being prophetic.
"We're almost there, Josh," his mother told him. "In just two miles we're going to see our brand-new home."
"Yea!" the little guy said, and pumped his fist triumphantly, like an end zone celebration at a football game.
Katy giggled. It was a sound that Emma hadn't heard enough lately. "I'm so excited," her sister confessed needlessly.
Emma nodded. "Now, don't be disappointed if it's not quite how you think it will be," she warned.
"It will be perfect," Katy declared.
Emma was not quite so sure. Experience had taught her that life had a way of not working out the way you planned. And Katy was so hopeful, so trusting, that she could be her own worst enemy. But this was too important. Katy had bet her entire future on it.
Her sister clutched the sales page printed from the computer listing. Katy treated the grainy photo on thin paper as if it were a priceless artifact. In fact, it wasn't even a very good snapshot. It was too far away and the house was practically hidden behind a large outbuilding and the huge, fiftiesera roadside marquee that read Bitsy's Bed & Breakfast. Because of the shade of a huge oak tree on the corner, the actual words were not completely visible. "Bitsy's" was clear. And the two big red B's in the words below it. The rock house in the distance had a wide front porch and a gleaming metal roof. Its actual condition was not described in the listing.
"What does it say again?" Emma asked, and then wished that she hadn't. Katy had read it to her a hundred times, and although it did sound good, there was something missing. Something that Emma couldn't quite put her finger on.
"Ozark Mountain B & B. Great opportunity to own your own business!" Katy read aloud. "Live where you work. Turnkey operation on beautiful lakefront has longtime reputation and repeat clientele. Three-thousand-square-foot building on well-lit intersection at the end of main street. Kitchen renovated to meet all health department standards. In top condition, includes all furnishings, equipment and recipes. Open year-round with seasonal customers and local patrons. Only such business in town. Combined revenues very healthy. Charity-bequeathed estate to sell at low price."
Katy punctuated the last with her own words. "And we bought it!"
"We bought it!" Josh cheered again, clapping.
Emma shook her head. It was hard to be cautious against their enthusiasm. "There is just something
something about the description that just seems odd."
"It's such a bargain," Katy said. "That's what's amazing."
Emma shrugged. "Maybe it's just the whole setup," she said. "I mean, who buys a business on the Internet?"
"Apparently a lot of people do," Katy answered. "Why else would they have them for sale? It's so easy and convenient. I thought it was totally cool."
Katy would. It was a perfect setup for her homebody, single-mom sister. She would have a house of her own to raise Josh in and a small, steady income. It sounded almost too good to be true. And that was exactly what Emma feared.
"What do you think combined business means?" Emma wondered aloud.
Katy shook her head. "Beats me. The thing about the recipes, that's weird. Of course, I'll use my own recipes. I want to make that egg-and-sausage casserole. And then have fresh fruit and popovers, or do you think I should stick with muffins? Muffins might be easier."
Emma glanced over at her sister and smiled. "Whatever," she answered. "Katy, everything you bake always tastes good."
"It's 'cause everything is made with love," she answered.
"Mama made me," Josh piped up from his car seat. "But I'm not a muffin."
Katy half turned in her seat and grabbed his sneaker-covered foot. "You're no muffin, you're a sweet sugar cake and I'm going to eat you up."
She pretended to take a bite out of his shoe and Josh shrieked with delight.
Emma just shook her head. She and Katy were so different. She was three years older, but she might have easily been another species. It was far more than just their physical differences; Katy being blond and Emma being brunette. Emma was tall and lean, rangy on the way to muscular, serious, perfectly put together, in control of her own destiny and completely confident of making her way in the world. She kept her hair clipped short, her nails natural and her makeup sparse.
Katy was soft and curvy, more so since Josh was born than when she'd been a young single. Her hair was long and thick and pulled back from her face in a haphazard fashion that was always attractive. Her clothes were the latest fashion from the big-box stores. And her makeup was a bit more than strictly necessary. She was a woman filled with laughter, despite a life of tough luck. Katy was warm and appealing, with a vulnerability that was somehow irresistible. All the guys were crazy about her.
Katy had only been crazy about one guy, and unfortunately, that had turned out badly.
"This is it!" Katy said, taking a deep breath as they encountered the first few buildings of the little lakeside community. Emma slowed the car to a crawl as they put-putted through the tiny town, silently, expectantly checking it out.
The area was not the most desirable vacation destination in the state. It was not equal in middle-class tourist dollars to places around Branson and Table Rock Lake. That made it more affordable for Katy. It was pretty, though maybe not the most beautiful part of Missouri. Of course, with a state like Missouri, even the lesser landscape was wondrously scenic, and Warbler Lake, nestled into a secluded valley along the edge of the Ozark Plateau, was a pleasure to behold. It was not a stereotypical small town made ordinary by its familiarity. Its disjointed business district ran partway around the edge of the lake and the rest along the highway. And the architecture ran the gamut from Victorian elegance to modern metal warehouse. Strangely, Emma found the mixture appealing. Warbler Lake wasn't some stodgy Christmas card, it was a real place with real people. Maybe it would be a place where her sister could find her home in the world at last.
"Should you try to call Mr. Westbrook?" she asked Katy.
Her sister forced her attention away from the sights to dig into her purse for the phone. The man's number was on her speed dial. Evidence of several calls back and forth in the last few days since her decision to purchase the B & B.
"Real estate is not my principal occupation," West-brook had joked. "Rather, my occupation is Principal."
The little semantic reverse was not particularly funny, but it effectively conveyed the fact that Westbrook served as principal of Warbler Lake Elementary. When Bitsy McGrady, who'd owned the B & B for fifty years, passed away, she left her entire estate to the small-town school system that provided classes for kindergarten through sixth grade. The local board had put him in charge of finding a buyer for the business and he had turned to the Internet to make the sale.
Katy continued to punch numbers into her phone, but with no success. Finally she stared at it and shook her head.
"Shoot!" she said. "No towers."
Emma nodded. "We're probably too far back in the hills."
"I told Mr. Westbrook that I'd call when we got to town," she said. "He's supposed to meet us. He said he'd walk over from school. Isn't that great, Josh? The school is close enough to walk to."
"I could walk to school?" Josh exclaimed.
"Next year," Katy assured him with an excited grin. "Next year you can go to kindergarten. What should we do?" she asked Emma.
She shrugged. "The place is about as big as a postage stamp," Emma pointed out from the perspective of a lifelong city girl. "I'm sure we can find it on our own."
"Oh, look, Mama! Look!"
Both Emma and Katy followed the direction that the little boy was pointing. Warbler Lake, a blue jewel encased within gorgeous green hills, sat out before them.
"It's beautiful," Katy said in an awed whisper.
Emma said nothing, but nodded in agreement.
"Boats, Mama, there's boats and ducks and there's everything!"
He was right. Out on the glistening water, the scene was as pristine as a picture postcard.
As they neared the shoreline, Emma tried to tear her attention from the water to the buildings on dry land. They needed to find Katy's place. Emma needed to help her get moved in, set up and open for business. She loved her sister and adored her little nephew. The past three years, since Katy's marriage fell apart, Emma had helped to pick up the pieces. She was glad to have done that. But she was secretly longing to be on her own again. Next fall, after two starts and stops, Emma would be back in college, at last. Third time's a charm, she reminded herself thoughtfully.
"Mama, there's a park!" Josh exclaimed.
To their right, a huge expanse of land was neatly manicured. Beneath a canopy of tall oaks was a spattering of shaded picnic spots and an old-fashioned gazebo, large enough for summer band concerts or an outdoor wedding. Emma felt certain that for Josh, it was the brightly colored playground area that caught his attention. It featured a high red-and-yellow tower with a spiral-slide escape. She imagined that the little boy was already planning his future there. The road came to an end as the park widened onto a public beach and boat dock. A circular drive around a statue of a giant fishhook facilitated a turnaround.
"Pull in here," Katy said. "There's a pay phone next to the building. I can call Mr. Westbrook and get directions to the house."
Emma eased the car and trailer lengthwise into the pitted asphalt driveway in front of a deserted, miserable-looking, square box of a building, its paint peeling and both of its mismatched door screens hanging precariously.
"Wait for Mama while she makes a call," Katy said to her son.
"I'm ready to get out," the child responded.
"Use the phone," Emma told her sister. "Josh and I will take a minute to stretch our legs."
While Katy ferreted out a couple of quarters, Emma got out of the door and opened the backseat child lock for Josh. The little boy had already released himself from the car seat harness, and he leaped out of the vehicle with the panache of a pirate boarding an enemy ship.
"I like this place!" he declared wholeheartedly.
Emma smiled. Her nephew was always like a little ray of sunshine, his disposition inherited from his mother, no doubt. What he'd inherited from his father was the curly brown hair that resisted the most determined comb and the razor-sharp intellect that Emma hoped would eventually help keep Katy out of trouble.
As Josh hopped and skipped around the deserted, pot-holed parking lot, Emma could hear her sister on the phone.
"Mr. Westbrook, please. Tell him that it's Katy Dodson."
Josh made his way to a line of old rail ties lining a walkway in the front of the building; he traversed them as if they were a tightrope.
"Watch me, Auntie Em!" he called out.
Auntie Em had been Katy's idea, a joking nod to the frumpy, good-hearted mother figure in The Wizard of Oz. The character was a far cry from Josh's real Aunt Emma, but the name had stuck and she was stuck with it.
"You are amazing!" she assured the little guy.
"Yes, we made it fine," Emma heard her sister say. "No, I guess we need more directions." She hesitated, listening. "That's the road we came in on
I can see the fishhook from where I'm standing."
Josh had run out to a signpost and Emma followed, keeping a close eye on him as he neared the street, even if there was no traffic. She could still hear Katy's conversation.
"What do you mean this is it? I'm looking in every direction and I just don't see it."
Josh was hugging the signpost as if he were going to attempt to climb the pole, then leaned back, way back, and glanced up for a moment. His gaze was momentarily quizzical and then alive with excitement.
"Look, Mama, look, Auntie Em, it's the place, the place in the picture."
Simultaneously both the women followed the direction of the young boy's eyes. The faded old fiftiesera sign with three red B's was immediately familiar. Emma felt an instant of surprised elation before she actually read the words before her eyes.
Her jaw dropped in shock only an instant before she heard her sister's stunned voice.
"Bitsy's Bait & BBQ?"