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It would be right at the time that Odella Hatcher stopped by to complain about her windshield-wiper blade that a handsome movie star showed up at Carrie Smith's garage driving a red Ferrari.
As the car approached through the shimmer of late-August heat, Carrie glanced up, then did a quick double take. She'd never seen a Ferrari in Yewville, South Carolina, population 5,000.
"I mean, the right wiper scrapes on the windshield," Mrs. Hatcher said, oblivious to the slinky red car idling nearby. "It didn't used to do that."
Carrie kept an eye on the Ferrari as she lifted the wiper blade of Mrs. Hatcher's Lincoln and flicked experimentally at the loose rubber with a forefinger. She couldn't discern any scratches on the glass, but Mrs. Hatcher was not about to give up.
"Listen to me, Carolina Rose Smith. I didn't believe that wiper blade required changing last week when you cleaned my windshield," she said with righteous indignation. "I wouldn't have okayed it if you hadn't said it was necessary. Look at those scratches. Here. And here."
Carrie still didn't see any scratches. What she could see, however, was Mr. Luke Mason of Hollywood, California, sliding out of his car, big as life. At one time she might have been surprised to spot a movie star in Yewville. But now that those Hollywood people had been swarming all over the place for weeks, getting ready to film a movie about the life of Yewville's own local stock-car legend, Yancey Goforth, it would take much more than a movie star to faze her.
Covertly keeping tabs on the man out of the corner of her eye, Carrie proceeded to clean Mrs. Hatcher's windshield. As she pushed the rubber part of the wiper back into its groove, Carrie said, "There now, Mrs. Hatcher. Let me run some water over the window and you can try it."
Now Luke Mason was whistling through his teeth and bending to inspect the Ferrari's right front tire. Carrie, pointedly ignoring him, turned on the hose and flooded the Lincoln's windshield, waiting patiently while the blades wiped it clean.
"It's not scraping anymore, is it?" Carrie asked solicitously.
"Maybe not," Mrs. Hatcher conceded. She still seemed annoyed, but that was not unusual. Her husband, Vernon Hatcher, of the spotless white suits and big smelly cigars, was the county school superintendent and bestowed upon his wife a certain amount of clout, with which she delighted in clobbering people.
"You just let me know if it gives you any more trouble, hear?" Carrie said. But her mind wasn't on Odella Hatcher. She was more interested in the famous trademark scar on Luke Mason's left cheek, indented so it resembled a dimple. And the streaky brown hair falling carelessly over his forehead. And the piercing blue eyes that shimmered in their depths like Pine Hollow Lake on a sultry summer day.
At the same time, Luke Mason was treating Carrie to a long sweeping glance that took in her high heels and the swirly skirt of the dress she'd donned for worshipping purposes before church this morning. But right now she had to deal with her cranky customer, never mind that Carrie wasn't even on duty today. Smitty's Garage was closed on Sundays, always had been ever since her grandfather, the original Smitty, opened the doors back in 1953.
Luke Mason sauntered into the garage through the open door. Rats, Carrie thought in exasperation. I've got chicken to fry at home, Memaw Frances and Dixie Lee and Voncille and Skeeter's family coming for dinner, and I don't want some movie star wandering around in there.
Mrs. Hatcher had grown even more querulous. "Aren't you going to wipe the windshield off, Carrie? With the squeegee and all? And polish it again?"
"Sure," Carrie said, gritting her teeth. She sudsed the wind-shield, while Mrs. Hatcher picked the remaining chips of pink polish off her acrylic thumbnail. For his part, Luke Mason leaned against the door to her office, folded his arms over his chest and whistled softly to himself.
Let him whistle, Carrie thought with annoyance. She deliberately bent over so he'd get a better view of what he seemed so interested in, though a movie star who had been named World's Sexiest Man by People should have had his fill of ogling and a whole lot of other things back in Hollywood, California.
"Thanks, Carrie," Mrs. Hatcher called out. She squinted through her bifocals at the man standing in the doorway of the station. "Say, isn't that Luke Mason? The movie star? Who is going to film that movie Dangerous right here in Yewville?"
"I'm afraid so," Carrie said with considerable irony.
"Oh, my goodness, it is him. My daughter would dearly love his autograph." Mrs. Hatcher tumbled out of her car, her tight yellow curls quivering with excitement. "Mr. Mason? Mr. Mason!" To his credit, Luke Mason didn't recoil when Mrs. Hatcher demanded that he sign her church program, and he even handed it back to her with a flourish and a smile.
"'To Tammy, I'm sure you're as charming and beautiful as your mother.' Oh, Mr. Mason, you're every bit as nice as the National Enquirer said you were."
"Nicer," Luke Mason muttered, a flare of amusement in his eyes. But Carrie wasn't sure Mrs. Hatcher had heard him. Carrie herself had never considered that movie stars might have a sense of humor, not to mention irony.
Happier than Carrie had ever seen her, Mrs. Hatcher fluttered her hand out the open window as her Lincoln lurched onto Palmetto Street.
Carrie dried her hands on a paper towel from the dispenser on the pillar and marched into the garage, where, by now, Luke Mason was standing in front of her desk, eyeing that old calendar with the picture of Marilyn Monroe. Carrie's grandfather had hung it on the wall in 1955, and for sentimental reasons she'd never removed it.
"Sir, we're not open on Sundays," Carrie said politely, determined to treat Luke Mason just like anybody else. She wasn't about to go gaga over any of these movie folks who were intruding all over the place, occupying counter stools at the Eat Right Café, setting up scaffolding so nobody could walk on the sidewalks and throwing outrageous sums of money around.
He favored her with a friendly smile. "Oh, I thought" Luke Mason aimed a confused glance at Mrs. Hatcher's car as it rounded the corner at Palmetto and Main. "The air in my tires should be checked," he said, sounding resigned and apologetic. "Is there another gas station open in town?"
"Not that I know of," Carrie said briskly as she retrieved the recipe for cheese potatoes from the copy machine, where she'd left it yesterday. It was the whole reason for her stopping by after church.
"I usually carry a tire gauge with me, but it's gone missing," he said apologetically. "I've got one right here," she said, scooping it off the desk and handing it over smartly.
When Mr. Movie Star regained his equilibrium and snapped his mouth closed after dropping his jaw nearly to his ankles, she smiled sweetly. "Air pump's over there," she said, gesturing in its general direction.
"Thanks," he said doubtfully, and though she'd certainly like to get her hands on the Ferrari's engine even for so lowly a job as an oil change, she wasn't about to fall all over herself for the honor of pumping its tires full of air.
Luke Mason was halfway to the Ferrari before he swiveled back toward his. "Is the owner here?" he asked. "Smitty?" That's what the sign over the door said: Smitty's.
"That was my daddy. I'm Carrie Smith, and I inherited the station after he died." Her grandfather had been the first Smitty, her father the second. No one had tried to call Carrie "Smitty" yet, and she hoped no one ever would. She liked her given name just fine.
"Oh," said Luke Mason, clearly surprised. "Sorry if I ruffled your feathers."
"No offense. It happens a lot. Now, I've got things to do, so you go right ahead. You can put the tire gauge on my desk when you're finished with it." With that, she pivoted and headed for the restrooms around the corner, her high heels clicking on the concrete apron surrounding the building.
One thing Carrie hated was a dirty restroom, and she kept the ones at Smitty's sparkling clean. When she had finished with both the men's and the women's, she hurried back inside the garage, expecting Luke to have gone. Instead he angled down tying his shoelace, affording Carrie a better view of a derriere that had been plastered all over the Internet a few months ago.
Like almost everyone else in Yewville, Carrie had gawked at the pictures of Luke wearing nothing but a thong. The photos, drew herself up to her full she asked skeptically. "We're going to shoot scenes in a garage setting. This place is perfect."
"Hasn't the movie company made all its arrangements by now? They've been around for months."
"The scouts originally decided to build the set of a garage in the abandoned Pease Roller Bearing building, but the deal fell through. Now we're eager to locate a garage as true to the era as possible.We want a place with local color." He smiled engagingly, quirking one eyebrow in the way that had made him famous, and she felt a flush of heat building upward from her midsection. That was a surprise; she was too young to be having hot flashes.
In case her physical response was a sign that she was about to be bamboozled by the fabled Luke Mason charm, Carrie shook her head to clear it. "I am well aware of how Whip Productions is paying Bennett Seegers an outrageous sum to use his barbershop for one week in order to film you getting a haircut," she retorted. "But I am flat-out uninterested in renting Smitty's Garage. It was never meant to be a dad-blamed movie set."
He gawked at her as if she'd grown two heads. "I was only offering you a business opportunity," he said. "Whip Productions has funneled a lot of dollars into this depressed economy, and some of that money could be yours." She detected the beginnings of a small smile tugging at the edges of his mouth.
Huh. Luke Mason might as well know that she didn't see things his way. "Well," she said, "the local textile mill closed, and I expect you've already figured out that's why the economy went south. The stupid politicians and their stupid NAFTA treaty did that to us."
"Which is why filming Dangerous here is such a good idea. Our people rent places to live, and they patronize local businesses. They buy gas, too, as I'm sure you realize. I pushed for filming in Yewville because I wanted the money to go somewhere it's needed."
Moviemaking as philanthropy was a new notion, but not one to which Carrie accorded much credence. "That's real nice, Mr. Mason, but not everyone in town is going to kowtow to a bunch of strangers who think money can buy anything and everything," she said.
He seemed taken aback, and she plunged ahead, warming to her subject. "Why, with my own eyes I saw one of your people fork over a fistful of hundred-dollar bills for a car that's been rusting in a field for ten years and has no engine. And Glenda at the Curly Q Salon told my sister that she's getting twenty thousand because you're going to move all her beautifying equipment to a warehouse and bring in old-fashioned hair dryers and pink sinks. Pink sinks! I never heard of such claptrap."
Luke had the good grace to look abashed after this long speech. "Misswhat did you say your name was?"
"Carolina Rose Smith, and I deeply resent a bunch of left coast people taking over my town. Including the courthouse. You are planning to film at the courthouse, aren't you?"
He rallied smartly. "I believe so, for the wedding scene. Yancey Goforth got married in a simple civil ceremony because he had a big race coming up that week."
"It's not necessary to tell me about Yancey Goforth, who was one of my granddaddy's best friends. And while I'm at it, your costar, Tiffany Zill, does not look anything like his wife. Mary-Lutie Goforth was short and plump and had a sweet face, not all planes and angles like Ms. Zill's, with which I am familiar because her picture is regularly plastered over every tabloid at the Piggly Wiggly."
Luke Mason seemed stunned at her tirade. "I guess you've wanted to get those things off your chest for a long time," he said, rubbing the back of his neck and regarding her with a rueful grin.
That whacked the wind out of her sails, all right. "I guess I have," Carrie admitted unwillingly.
"Maybe I should explain a bit about how we work," he said, continuing in a reasoning tone. "I don't resemble Yancey Goforth. In fact, he was much handsomer than I am. Still, I like to think that I'll bring my own talent to bear on the role."
Did he really mean that about not being as good-looking as Yancey? The admission was a bit of humility that was totally unexpected.
Luke fished a few coins out of his pocket. He wore snug-fitting jeans, and his thigh muscles rippled under the denim. He stepped up to the Coca-Cola machine and dropped in a series of quarters. Two Cokes slid to the bottom with a clunk, and Luke handed her one.
"I don't " she began, staring down at it.
"Of course you do," he said smoothly as he popped the top off his Coke with the opener attached to the machine. After a moment, Carrie opened her bottle, too. She sipped, studying Luke Mason. Somewhat to her amazement, he wasn't wearing a gold chain necklace like every other male who lived in California, if you were to believe those TV shows where they told you everything you never wanted to know about celebrities.
"This is the best Coca-Cola I've had in ages," he said consideringly. "It's hard to find the old-time six-ounce glass bottle anymore. Vending-machine Coke usually comes in cans."
This at least was something Carrie knew about. "Granddaddy put that machine in. It's one of the few left in the state. The price has gone up since the old days, though. I remember when a Coke used to cost a quarter." She couldn't have explained her chattiness, couldn't have said why she was running on about soda pop as if it was the most important topic in the world.
"I remember those days, too," he said with a grin.