Read an Excerpt
While "Mac" MacCarthy hadn't counted on peace and quiet when he returned to his office, he hadn't anticipated an opera-singing cockatoo, either.
December might not go as well as he planned.
Assuming the only logical explanation, Mac pushed his way through the connecting interior doors of the bakery adjacent to his engineering office. "All right, Dinah, what did you do to him?"
Dinah Rollings, owner of the Taste and See Bakery, looked up from her cash register. "To whom?"
Mac cocked his head toward the racket behind him. "I've got Luciano Pavarotti in feathers perched on my credenza. Very funny. Now tell me what you did to Curly so I can hush him up before cats start prowling the alley."
With both doors open, Dinah could evidently hear the bird. Her face was half surprised, half amused. "Not bad. That's from The Marriage of Figaro, I think. Didn't peg you for an opera fan."
Mac looked quizzically at his smirking neighbor. "You didn't do this?"
She raised an eyebrow. "No."
"Gil?" Mac named his best friend who, while no fan of opera, had been known to love a good joke.
"Haven't seen him."
"Cameron?" Dinah's new husband didn't seem the type, but as a former New York City native, Cameron might have opera in his background. And pranks.
Dinah shot him an incredulous look. "Not a chance. Look, Mac, I don't know who might have…"
At that moment, Pavarotti—the real one—belted out the aria in question from the stairway between their businesses' doors. And Curly, Mac's yellow-crested-cockatoo-recently-turned-tenor, joined in.
The second-floorapartment had been empty since Cameron and Dinah got married. Evidently, it wasn't unoccupied anymore. Opera music flooded the hallway when Mac opened the door that led upstairs.
Dinah came to the door. "Okay, maybe I do know who could be…"
Curly chose that moment to chase his avian muse, leaving his perch in Mac's office to bolt up the stairway in a squawking white streak of feathers and falsetto.
Mac took the stairs three at a time, ruing the fact that repairmen at his house necessitated that Curly spend this week at the office with him. Curly almost never bolted, but when he did, he went full out. Nothing good could come from this. Mac was a few steps from the top when he heard the shriek.
Taking the last risers in two strides, Mac looked in the apartment door to find a blond woman cowering behind a music stand, holding what looked like a conductor's baton as if it were a broadsword. The operatic waltz blared from a set of speakers on either side of the room, and Curly stood ducking and bobbing in time with the music from atop a bookcase to Mac's right.
"What is that thing?" she said over the loud music. Actually, shouted might have been more accurate. Shouted with great annoyance. Curly wasn't a small bird, and he looked like an invading white tornado when he flew anywhere. Mac could only imagine how frightening, at first sight, it was.
"That's Curly," Mac introduced, feeling ridiculous as he yelled above the orchestration. "He won't hurt you. He seems to get a kick out of your music."
Her eyes were wide. "It's not mutual. Get him out of here." She seemed to realize how harsh she sounded, for a split second later she nervously inched over to the stereo and turned down the volume before adding "Please."
"Aww," Curly moaned as the music quieted down. That was pretty tame considering all the smart-aleck replies Mac had taught the bird over the years.
Dinah burst through the doorway behind Mac. "Mary! Are you okay?" She went over to her, while Mac called Curly down off the furniture. "I'm sure that's not the welcome you were expecting."
She had every right to be annoyed. Mac's own ma could get spooked by Curly on occasion, and she knew what to expect from the feathered comedian. Curly had the good sense to look sorry for his actions, putting his head down and trying to hide under Mac's arm. "I'm okay, I think," Mary said shakily. She was a pale thing, with ice-blue eyes and hair only a shade sunnier than Curly's snow-white coat. "No damage done, unless you count my nerves."
Dinah took her arm. "Mary… it's Thorpe, isn't it? Mary Thorpe, this great ferocious beast is Curly. And this is Mac MacCarthy. Sorry you had to meet under such goofy circumstances."
"I'm really sorry about this. Curly's usually more civilized, and he's hardly ever in my office. And he's never gone bananas over… um… whatever you were playing… before. I didn't even know you were up here."
"It's okay," she allowed, but it didn't sound like she meant it.
"Curly," Dinah addressed the guilty bird, "you just scared the pants off Middleburg Community Church's new drama director."
Serves Mac right for skipping church to go to a special service with Gil and the guys from Homestretch Farm last Sunday. Gil ran a unique reform program on his horse ranch, and occasionally "the guys"—as the juvenile offenders were known around town—visited churches in their old neighborhoods. Still, Mary didn't look like the kind of person Mac thought would be leading drama at MCC. Actually, he didn't even know MCC was planning a dramatic performance. Since his decision to run for mayor against "lifetime incumbent" Howard Epson, hadn't Middleburg seen enough drama without having to make more? Not that anyone could be judged by how they weathered a cockatoo air strike, but this Mary seemed a little small and frail for the job. Mac had seen herds of mustangs more compliant than the MCC congregation. "Brave soul. Sorry you had Curly here for a welcoming committee."
At the mention of his name, Curly poked his head up and gave Mary a wolf whistle. Dinah laughed. Mac rolled his eyes and thought about getting a dog.
"Are you an opera buff?" Mary asked Curly, putting the baton thing down.
"Not until today," Mac replied. "I've never seen him do that before. He usually just bobs around when I play Bill Monroe."
Mary gave him a blank look.
"Bluegrass music. Curly's more used to that than…"
"Mozart?" she offered. She shrugged. "I give him points for good taste."
"And bad manners," Mac added as he nodded at the bird. "Say goodbye, you rascal."
"Bye bye," Curly squawked, winking one large black eye.
"I'm really sorry again. Welcome to Middleburg. I'll keep Curly under tight surveillance for the rest of the week until the repairmen are gone at my house." Mac shifted Curly to his left hand and extended his right.
She shook it. Her fingers were small but very strong. "I'll turn down the volume so he isn't tempted again."
Mac glared at Curly. "Tonight we bring your other cage over here. No more free flying around the office for you, bud—repairmen at home don't buy you a license to make trouble here for the neighbors."
"Happy Birthday, by the way," Dinah announced as they made their way downstairs. "Park your bird and come on over for some mint chocolate chip biscotti. You need them."
No one ever really needed anything from Taste and See, but Dinah was very good at making people think they did. The woman's trademark enthusiasm had only doubled since she had married Cameron Rollings, who used to live in the apartment Mary now occupied.
"My birthday's not for another twenty-nine days, Dinah."
"It's December first, so it's the first day of your birthday month. Close enough."
Mac furrowed his eyebrows. "You're not going to say that every day from now until the thirtieth, are you?"
"Whassamatta?" Dinah teased, reviving her native New Jersey accent. "The passing decade getting to you?"
Sure it was, but that's not the kind of question he was going to get into with armchair therapist-baker Dinah Rollings.
"No," he said, applying a smirk. "Turning thirty is not fatal. Not yet."
Mac had barely settled at his desk when he saw his mother press her face against the glass window of his front office. She yanked open the door and stood in the entry-way, one hand on each hip, a look of utter disgust on her face.
"I can't take much more of this nonsense," she said as Mac's father filed in behind her. "Land sakes. If one more person looks at me sideways just because you up and ran for mayor…"
Mac stood up. His mama was in the room, after all. He had manners, even if his bird didn't. "I sort of thought all the ruckus would die down when the holidays got here."
Pa walked over to sit in the guest chair of Mac's office. "If you ask me, it's just gotten worse." He shook his head in a combination of disbelief and amusement. "Y'all know what you got into?"
He did. God had hounded him for months. He had very good, very personal reasons for taking this unconventional step. He was no stranger to wild ideas like this, anyway. As a matter of fact, Mac preferred to shun the norm whenever possible.
Which often drove his mama nuts.
Ma waved her hands in the air. "As if this campaign weren't enough. Now there's this Christmas pageant. I thought they were just off their rockers thinking that hiring some Christmas drama director would help mend fences. You know Howard's already announced that he's gonna be in the play, don't you? You'll have to as well, to keep Howard from getting the upper hand." She blew out a breath and shook her head. "This won't be a distraction, it'll be a disaster."
As far as Mac was concerned, it already was.
Mary Thorpe stood in the empty sanctuary of Middle-burg Community Church and whispered a prayer of praise. I'm here. Oh, Lord, it's amazing, what You've done. I'm here. The place was just what she'd envisioned; a steepled white church with a blue door on a rolling hillside with an old organ and wooden pews that had seen decades of worship. It even had a preschool attached—something she loved. This afternoon, she'd heard a tiny-voiced rendition of "Jesus Loves Me" that made her heart bubble up in happy relief. This is it. A real Christmas.
She inhaled. The place was infused with a wholesome, old-fashioned atmosphere. She ran her hand across a chipped, aged music stand and thought of the soprano soloist catfight she'd witnessed at her previous part-time job as the second chair violinist at a Chicago opera company. Not to mention the near nuclear-level war between coworkers at her other temporary job at an advertising agency, and thought "no more." She picked up a battered hymnal from a nearby pew. From now it'll all be "Peace in the Valley." It's perfect.
"Are you ready?" Pastor Dave Anderson's voice broke her reverie as he came up the aisle beside Mary. "Most folks were reluctant to do this drama at first, but Sandy Burnside, Howard and the other church elders convinced them." Anderson folded his arms across his chest and inclined his head toward Mary. "Still, y'all ought to be warned—they're an opinionated bunch, my feisty flock."
Mary tossed her blond ponytail over her shoulder and put her hands on her hips. "You haven't seen the Mid-American Orchestra String Section. Opinionated doesn't even begin to cover it. I'm ready to handle this."
"You know," the pastor amended, handing her a dozen copies of the nativity script they'd agreed upon, "I think maybe you are." He winked and crossed the sanctuary to his office.
Mary sat down on the pew and smoothed her hand over the stack of scripts. Middleburg was everything she'd prayed for. Her new address—Ballad Road—charmed her, dotted with shops and diners. And all the streets had musical names! Walking here, she had passed a quaint park with a sign that read "Tree Lighting, Wednesday, 7:00 p.m., Bake Sale to follow." Tree lighting. Bake sales.
God, in His wisdom, had led her to the middle of nowhere. The absolutely perfect place to disappear.
This Sunday was just like his last Sunday at MCC; half the congregation avoided him in the church parlor after Sunday service. Dodging a sour look from Matt Lockwood, Mac focused his attention on Mary Thorpe. "Dinah told me you took cream and sugar," he explained, handing her a cup of coffee.
"She's nice. My apartment smells fabulous every morning, but I may put on ten pounds before New Year's." Mary smiled and waved to another member of the congregation. "They are an interesting bunch. Hey, I hear you're one of the reasons I'm here. Well, you and Howard Epson. The campaign and all. I thought I'd seen seriously dramatic local politics back in Chicago…."
Mac shrugged. "I'm not asking him to stop being mayor. I'm just asking to be a choice. We haven't had a choice for mayor since I was in high school. I think I'd do a great job, but if Howard wins, I'll actually be okay with it."
Mary took a sip of coffee and seemed to consider him.
Okay, it was sort of a cheesy speech, but that's really how he felt. He didn't want to start talking like a politician just because he ran for mayor, but lately stuff like that just jumped out of his mouth. "No really," he went on, not liking how she narrowed her eyes, "if people still want Howard, then that's what Middleburg should get. But they should think about whether they still want Howard."
"Speaking of what the people want, you do know you're both supposed to be in the production? Pastor Anderson told you, didn't he?"
"Oh, I've heard. I think I can manage something along the lines of third shepherd from the left."
She looked a bit tense. "Um, it's more involved than that. You've got a starring role. You're Joseph."
While Mac didn't like the idea of playing such a large role, he was sure Howard would be even less pleased. "And what about my worthy opponent?"
"Oh, we found the perfect part for him." She offered a weak smile. "He's God."
Mac stood in the barn at Homestretch Farm, having just finished a hearty Sunday dinner with Gil and his wife, Emily. After the meal, Gil had invited Mac to join him as he took care of a few things around the farm. That usually meant Gil had something on his mind, and Mac wasn't that surprised when Gil cleared his throat and sat down on a hay bale. "Emily said you got in another row with Howard at the diner."