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Confessions of a "Wicked" Woman
By Susanna Carr
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Susanna Carr
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBuck nekkid cannonball.
That's how Jack Logan and his friends would have greeted the swollen stream twenty years ago.
Hell, he would have done that ten years ago.
Jack studied the stream and knew that those carefree moments were long gone. Today he wore a crisp police uniform and stood a safe distance from the edge. It was quiet except for the sound of rushing water. Instead of a gangly bunch of kids, Jack was with Old Man Schneider, who always wore a bow tie and hat for every occasion.
Schneider took off the newsboy cap and rubbed his bald spot with a gnarled finger. "Doesn't look good."
The old man's nose twitched. "More rain is coming."
Jack looked up at the sky. The clouds appeared innocent, but he knew better. As much as he hated to admit it, Schneider was right. You didn't live round these parts for this long without being able to smell the rain coming.
He returned his attention to the river that flowed nearby and fed the stream. "Do you remember it ever being this high?" he asked the old man.
Schneider puckered his lips. "Nope."
"That's very reassuring," Jack said dryly.
"Ach, I'm wrong, Little Jack."
Jack clenched his jaw. Wasn't there a statute of limitations on childhood nicknames?
"How could I forget?" Schneider put his cap back on and readjusted the brim. "The flood of '70."
"Would that be 1870 or 1970?"
The old man's rheumy eyes twinkled. "1970."
Jack didn't recall his parents ever talking about it while he was growing up. Then again, he hadn't exactly been the most attentive kid. "It got this high?"
The old man gave a sharp, decisive nod. "Yep."
And the town survived. Good to know. Jack felt the weight slip off his chest and he breathed a little easier.
"Of course," Schneider continued, "it didn't rain after that."
Jack's shoulders sagged.
"It was like God wrung the clouds dry," the old man said, gearing up for a long story.
More rain was coming. Jack was certain of it. They were going to be dealing with a flood. People would be looking to him for answers.
And he had none.
Jack remained still until the sickening dread evaporated. Schneider's stirring rendition of the Flood of 1970 faded in and out. He hoped he wasn't going to be tested on it.
What he needed to remember was that he was trained as a police officer. He came from a family of them. He had the experience, even if he was new at being sheriff.
Fortunately, he didn't have to do it all. The impending flood wasn't solely his responsibility. He could work with the mayor, the city council, and the fire chief.
Aw, who was he kidding? The city council was a joke. It was every alderman for himself, making sure he got the one and only plow to shovel his street first thing in the morning after a snowfall.
At least the fire chief was experienced, responsible, and intelligent. But the guy had been fire chief since Jack was a kid and was desperate for retirement. Jack couldn't blame him and he had a feeling that would happen in a matter of weeks.
That left the mayor, and everyone knew that Dean was an idiot. The only reason he got the job was because his opponent died during the mayoral campaign. Rumor had it that Dean still managed to lose to a corpse in the election. Whether it was fact or fiction didn't really matter anymore. Dean had planted his butt in the mayor's office and showed no signs of leaving.
Jack knew he wasn't one to judge. His own election was a close call, and he couldn't shake off the feeling that he got the job because his dad, the late and great Big Jack, had been the best sheriff the town had ever seen.
Maybe the gossips were right, but it was too late to do anything about it now. His detractors kept bringing up his misspent youth. Jack didn't feel that was an issue. The real issue he kept to himself.
He knew better than to let anyone know that he was in over his head. That there were times like today when he knew he wasn't ready for whatever lay ahead. How much faith could a town place on their sheriff if they knew he was scared? Not much.
Schneider looked up at the sky and sniffed. "Yep. Trouble's coming."
The old man's words disrupted Jack's train of thought. He reluctantly looked up and felt the first raindrop hit his cheek.
Stephanie Monroe stepped on the brakes and wiped the fog from the windshield with the side of her hand. "Venus Gold," she yelled into her cell phone, "you are supposed to be back at the office."
"Yeah, I know," her business partner replied, sounding somewhat apologetic. "But something came up."
"And you didn't want to give me any advance notice?" Stephanie asked in a growl. "Did you decide that I would eventually figure it out?"
Stephanie exhaled sharply. Why wasn't she surprised? This is what happens when you go into business with a stylist to the stars who was better known for her irreverent lifestyle than her avant-garde creations.
Stephanie could imagine Venus right now. She would be lounging sideways on a comfy chair-the woman could never sit properly-and probably painting her toenails in her favorite color of the month, wild cherry red. With glitter.
She, on the other hand, was freezing. Stephanie rubbed her bare arms, but the goose bumps didn't go away. She turned up the heater, but only tepid air streamed weakly through the vents.
Stephanie regretted not changing clothes before hopping onto the plane. The snug yellow halter top, low-slung periwinkle blue jeans, and dark blue platform sandals were perfect for the trendy L.A. scene. Wearing something head-turning was good for business, but today, it was only good for getting an upper respiratory infection.
Wasn't America's heartland supposed to be hot in the summer? She glared at the rain pinging against her SUV. Stephanie would have known about the chill had she gotten the chance to watch the Weather Channel like she did every day. But noooo, this is what she got for disrupting her daily schedule.
"You run Venus & Stephanie ... fine without me," Venus said, the static intruding. "Anyway, I'm only ... gone for a while."
"Yeah, I believe you said you were taking a weekend trip back home." Stephanie squinted through the streaked windshield. It was dark and there were no landmarks or signs to guide her. Unless she was supposed to follow the moon or watch which way the corn blew. If that was the case, she might as well declare herself lost right now. "That was two weeks ago."
"Really? Has it been that long?" Venus sounded genuinely surprised. "I'll be back ... a week. Two, tops. I promise."
"Two weeks!" Stephanie's hands squeezed the steering wheel, her knuckles turning white. The situation was worse than she realized.
"It's no big-"
"Yes it is," Stephanie argued, the panic gurgling in her stomach. "I can't put together Jennifer's outfit for the awards ceremony."
Venus's pause clung and the static crackled. "Oh, yeah."
"Oh, yeah?" Stephanie repeated, incredulous. "That's all you have to say? You forgot that you're supposed to be creating an outfit that will get us international coverage?"
"I'll call Jennifer and talk to her," Venus said in the very breezy tone that always made Stephanie quake in her four-inch heels. "She'll understand."
"Why don't you tell her that face-to-face?" And she would sit in the meeting to make sure Venus didn't lose the commission.
"Jennifer ... in Mayfield?" Venus snorted. "Not likely."
"No." Stephanie pressed her lips together and tried to count to ten to restrain her temper. She made it halfway. "You need to come back to L.A. and tell her." Stephanie wondered how she was supposed to be the makeup artist in the partnership but wound up adding babysitter to her job description.
The static garbled Venus's reply. "What?" Stephanie asked, wincing as she tried to make out the words. "There was interference."
"I said ... get ... as soon ... I can."
Oh, this phone connection was really annoying her. "That's going to be sooner than you think."
"I can't hear ..."
"I'm coming to get you," Stephanie said, enunciating each word. If Venus knew what was good for her, she'd quietly return to L.A. Stephanie was aware that was wishful thinking on her part. "Quiet" wasn't in the wild woman's vocabulary.
Venus's laugh came through loud and clear. "This connection ... bad. I thought you said ... coming to get me."
"I am. I just reached Mayfield. I think." She grabbed the wrinkled map and glanced at it. She was stunned that travelers still used paper maps. Then again, she couldn't believe the rinky-dink car rental didn't have a GPS available.
"And ... no way can you handle small town ..." Venus continued, her voice wavering in and out. "Not even for five minutes."
"You'd be surprised," she muttered.
"Stephanie?" Venus called over the hissing static. "Stephanie, are you there?"
"Unfortunately." She reached for the phone as she drove through a puddle. A giant fan of water sprayed out and slapped the side of her vehicle.
Stephanie yelped as the tires lost traction. The SUV suddenly had a mind of its own. Her feet froze with indecision, her mind racing as she tried to remember what to do in case of hydroplane. Of course, she never encountered this problem before since she believed in preventative measures. She always had her tires checked.
"Stop it!" she said aloud, her voice thin and reedy. What did that TV news magazine say? Fragments of the intense, action-packed segment flickered in her mind, transposing art with reality, which wasn't what she needed at the moment. "Uh-uh ... don't brake, don't accelerate. Got it."
"Check your rearview mirror." Her wild gaze flew to the mirror and she watched the road behind her drift to one side. Why was she doing this? There was no one else around. "Think of something useful!"
Shift to neutral? Sounded good, but for all she knew she was making it up as she went along. Stephanie shifted the handle to neutral with jerky moves.
The SUV fishtailed and Stephanie's moan dragged from her throat. She must be doing something wrong. Maybe she did all of this out of sequence. That sounded like her.
Whatever the problem was, the vehicle still wasn't responding. Then again, she hadn't crashed spectacularly. Ha! Venus had been wrong all these years; she could think positively. If she lived through this, Stephanie would be sure to tell her.
"There's something else. Something else ..." Her fingertips tapped maniacally against the wheel. Steer? Probably. But was it where you want to go? Maybe it was where you don't want to go? Or was this all for when you hit an ice patch?
Knowing her luck, she was following the procedure for brake failure. Her arms locked as she slowly rode out the puddle, keeping her tires straight. The moment she was able to regain control of the SUV, Stephanie firmly pressed her foot down on the brake pedal.
She sighed with relief and rested her forehead against the wheel. She wanted to hurl. Her shoulders were tense and aching. Pain pricked at her neck, thanks to her awkward sitting position, but Stephanie couldn't quite release the steering wheel. "Venus-" She stopped, turned her head, and listened, realizing they had lost the connection. Stephanie grabbed the phone, hung up, and redialed with shaky fingers. Nothing.
She was in a dead zone. In more ways than one, Stephanie decided, peering through the windshield. She tossed the phone onto the passenger seat with disgust.
It was so damn quiet. Silent, almost. All she heard was the rain, the wind, and the windshield wipers that managed to smudge the one spot on the glass that was at eye level. The rhythm of the wipers was getting on her nerves. It was like they were whispering hurry ... hurry ... hurry.
She was hurrying. It wasn't her fault that Venus decided to take a trip down memory lane at the most inconvenient time. It wasn't her fault that she had to come and get her. And it certainly wasn't her fault that Venus's hometown was three hours away from civilization.
Hurry ... hurry ... hurry. The windshield wipers obviously didn't play the blame game. They didn't care if she was stuck in the middle of nowhere, a place showing no signs of intelligent life. That she was surrounded by fields of something she couldn't even identify.
Stephanie quickly fiddled with the radio, trying to find a station. She might as well hear the monotone guy with the thickest Midwestern twang who discussed crop prices. She could listen to country music, even though she hated it with a passion. At this point she would take the static over the silence.
She'd accept anything but another cheerful weather report. After all, she knew it was raining. She knew they were experiencing a cold snap. She got that. She was living it.
Okay, so maybe she wasn't the best of travelers, Stephanie thought, as she tuned in to hear the riveting news about soybeans. She never performed well when she was hungry, cold, and tired. She preferred comfort over adventure. She got motion sickness easily and bugs from miles around would seek her out.
And since she didn't even want to take this trip, Stephanie felt she was entitled to be grumpy. It seemed that with each step she took getting closer to Venus, the need to turn back grew stronger. Like when she got on the rattling airplane and the flight attendant handed out earplugs. Right then and there, Stephanie had to fight the urge to bolt.
But instead, she had stayed in her seat on the airplane, legs crossed, elbows tucked in as the sweaty businessman took over the armrest. She knew she had to take the trip. There had been no other choice.
Sure, she had other things to do rather than chase after her business partner, Stephanie thought, as she slowly headed down the country road that stretched before her like a shiny black ribbon. She didn't even need to refer to her PDA to remember her to-do list.
Stephanie reached a fork in the road. Unable to recall seeing this on the map, she flicked on the interior light and studied the multicolored knot of lines. She might have gotten along just fine without a college degree, but why did she always feel incredibly stupid when reading a map?
She felt a spurt of satisfaction when she found the minuscule spot on the map. Flipping the light off, she made a left turn. Her car crept down the road for several miles, the rain starting to pour, before her headlights caught the sign partially hidden by an overgrown tree.
Welcome to Mayfield. Population 13,000.
She was here. Stephanie sat straighter in her seat and pressed her foot down on the gas pedal. She was almost at Venus's house. She was one step away from returning home.
Excerpted from Confessions of a "Wicked" Woman by Susanna Carr Copyright © 2005 by Susanna Carr. Excerpted by permission.
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