The second Clara Quinn pushed open the door of the Raven’s Nest bookstore, she knew she’d picked the wrong moment. For one thing, her cousin, Stephanie, stood behind the counter, holding a feather duster and wearing a red spot that burned in each cheek, which meant the infamous Quinn temper was in full bloom.
For another thing, the elegant blonde at the receiving end of Stephanie’s fierce scowl was the owner of the stationer’s next door, and a constant thorn in the sides of both cousins. Roberta Prince’s fists dug into her slender hips and her voice was shrill with indignation as she demanded, “What do you mean—bulldozed? Are you suggesting I browbeat my customers into buying my products?”
Luckily Stephanie’s full attention was on her opponent and she didn’t see Clara gently close the door and back away from the store.
This was Tuesday, Clara’s day off, and normally she would be relaxing on the beach in the warm May sunshine, watching Tatters chase the waves back into the sea. The big shaggy dog loved the water, and tirelessly bounded in and out until she called to him. Right now she’d give anything to be back on that beach, instead of facing the prospect of walking into a volcanic argument between her cousin and Roberta Prince.
Across the narrow street, a hunky dark-haired man balanced on a ladder while he pounded a nail into the nameboard of his hardware store.
For as long as Clara could remember, Parson’s Hardware had been an institution in Finn’s Harbor. Her father had practically used it as a second home, and every Saturday morning had stopped by, whether to buy the latest tools and gadgets or just to chat with Vern Parson. Now Vern was retired and her father had passed away, though the hardware store continued to thrive on Main Street.
Clara squinted against the sunlight as she watched the new owner fasten his own name above the door. She’d been dating Rick Sanders for a few weeks now, and was beginning to get used to the rush of pleasure she felt every time she saw him.
At first she’d been wary of getting involved again since her last disastrous relationship, but Rick had won her over with his thoughtfulness, honesty and fun-loving nature. She was gradually taking down the walls, and each time they were together she became a little more comfortable around him.
Smiling, she sauntered across the street, happy for the excuse to put off her visit to the bookstore.
Rick stared down at her when she called out to him, his gray eyes looking almost colorless in the glare reflected off the windows. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods? I thought this was your day off.” He frowned at the nameboard, then, apparently satisfied, tucked his hammer into his tool belt and started down the ladder.
“It is. I’m running an errand for my mother.”
“Glutton for punishment, huh?” Reaching the ground, he grinned at her. “Or is this just an excuse to come and see me?”
Clara laughed. “Maybe a little of both.” She looked up at the nameboard. “Rick’s Hardware. It has a nice ring to it.”
“Yeah.” He followed her gaze. “I’ve been meaning to change the name ever since I first bought the place. I thought about naming it Sanders’s Hardware, but I think Rick sounds more appealing.”
“Me, too.” She sent a reluctant glance at the Raven’s Nest. “I guess I’d better get over there and rescue Stephanie. She didn’t look too happy just now.”
“Roberta doing a number on her again?”
“Well, you know Roberta.”
“Indeed I do.” He took hold of the ladder, twisting his head to look at her over his shoulder. “Do you have a minute? I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“Sure.” She followed him into the store, waving to Tyler, his young assistant, as they walked by the check stand. Passing by shelves loaded with cans of paint, electrical supplies, an assortment of faucets, shower heads and bathroom cabinets, she wondered what kind of favor she’d agreed to do.
Rick stacked the ladder in the storeroom at the back of the store, and when he came out again, he held a roll of paper. “I promised a pal of mine I’d put one of these up in my window. He gave me a few of them, so I thought you might put one up in the bookstore.”
She took the poster from him and unrolled it. “Oh, I heard about this—the Hometown Rodeo. It’s part of the Memorial Day weekend festival.”
“Yeah. The owners of the Hill Top Resort sponsored it. They thought it would add to the festival, now that their new resort has put Finn’s Harbor on the map.”
“It’ll be different, that’s for sure. I don’t think there’s ever been a rodeo around here, at least as long as I can remember.”
“It should be fun.” Rick tapped the poster with his forefinger. “My buddy, Wes Carlton, is a calf roper competing in it, so I said I’d help out by putting up the posters.”
“Well, we’ll be happy to help, too.” Clara rolled up the poster. “We can put it next to the festival ad. I think—”
An anxious male voice from the other end of the store interrupted her. “Rick? Can you come here a minute?”
Rick frowned. “Sounds like Tyler’s got something he can’t handle.”
He started up the aisle, and, abandoning what she was going to say, she followed him, calling out as she reached the door, “See you later.”
Rick waved a hand in response, his attention on a customer who was curling his fingers around an imaginary object while he tried to explain what he wanted.
The sun warmed Clara’s back as she waited at the curb for a line of cars to pass by. The sea breeze, heavy with the fragrance of sand and seaweed, fanned her face. On either side of Main Street, tourists strolled down the sidewalks, stopping every now and then to peer into the windows of the little shops.
Colorful awnings shaded them from the sun while they gazed at seashells and sand dollars, antique dolls and handcrafted jewelry, toy boats and rows of postcards depicting the Maine coast.
It hadn’t been that long since Clara had left New York to return to her hometown, but already the memories of the bustling city were slipping away. At times like these, watching the sun sparkling on the water in the harbor at the base of the hill, she felt almost as if she’d never left Finn’s Harbor, and that her life in New York had been nothing more than a dream.
With a start she realized the road was clear, and darted across to the other side. Roberta was still standing at the counter when Clara pushed open the door. Stephanie, however, seemed calmer. Apparently the two women had settled their differences.
Her cousin looked surprised as Clara walked up to the counter. “You’re supposed to be off today. What are you doing here?” Stephanie demanded, while Roberta ran her gaze up and down Clara as if she were examining an offensive statue.
Clara played a mental image of herself—jeans, sneakers, tank top and green striped shirt. Her dark hair had been blown around by the stiff sea breezes and she’d been putting off a haircut for way too long.
Roberta’s slim black skirt was a tad too high above the knee. Her sandals added to her height by at least three inches. The crisp pink blouse bared her arms from the shoulder, and a string of pearls gleamed around her neck. She wore her smooth bleached hair pulled back in a bun and, unlike Clara, who had dashed a spot of lipstick across her mouth and dabbed at her eyelashes with the mascara brush, had obviously spent a good few minutes creating a masterpiece on her face.
Suppressing a sigh, Clara turned to her cousin. “I need to buy a copy of Flight to Marcana. Mom can’t find it in the library and she’s dying to read it. I promised her I’d pick up a copy for her today.”
Stephanie nodded at the closest aisle. “It’s a great book. There’s some on the end display.”
“I’ll get one.” Clara walked over to the end display, automatically patting the shoulder of Madam Sophia, the lifesize model of a fortune-teller that served as one of the store’s mascots, before plucking a copy of the book from the shelf.
“I’ll never understand why people read that garbage,” Roberta said, as Clara carried the book back to the counter. “All that crap about other worlds in outer space. Vampires and ghosts, people traveling through time—no wonder our children are growing up with identity problems. They don’t know how to deal with the real world.”
Stephanie looked as if her hackles were rising again. Clara laid the book on the counter, saying mildly, “Fantasy and sci-fi books are extremely popular, which is why we specialize in them and why the Raven’s Nest does so well. Normal people know it’s fiction. They don’t take it literally.”
Apparently offended by the insinuation that she wasn’t normal, Roberta gave her a lethal look. “Well, maybe they should. There’s too much violence in those things. It’s bound to have an effect on children’s minds.”
They’d had the same argument before, and knowing Roberta, there was no point in continuing it with her now. Wisely, Clara decided to change the subject instead. She held up the poster to show it to her cousin. “I told Rick we’d put this up in the window.”
Stephanie took it from her. “What is it?”
“A poster for the rodeo. Remember, Tim told us about it the other day?”
Roberta sniffed. “Tim Rossi seems to spend an awful lot of time in here for a deputy sheriff. You’d think he’d have better things to do, like chasing criminals, for instance. I’m surprised Dan doesn’t do something about that.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes, but kept on studying the poster in silence.
“As for rodeos,” Roberta added, “I can’t imagine why the town council thinks it’s such a good idea. The Memorial Day festival has been around for years and managed perfectly well without adding something so utterly vulgar. Imagine all that dust and noise, not to mention the smell of those animals.” She wrinkled her nose. “Disgusting. The fairgrounds will never be the same. Who wants to sit on grubby hard benches surrounded by screaming spectators watching a bunch of cowboys being flung to the ground? Bor-ing!” She stalked to the door, nose in the air. “You won’t catch me anywhere near that place.”
The door closed behind her, leaving only the heavy fragrance of Obsession hanging in the air.
Stephanie let out her breath on an exasperated sigh. “That . . . woman. I’d like to put her in an arena with a raging bull.” She put down the poster and moved to the register, where she began entering Clara’s purchase.
“She’d have the bull running back to the chutes with his tail between his legs.” Clara dug in her purse for her credit card. “So what was the fight about earlier?”
Stephanie raised her eyebrows. “How’d you know about that?”
“I came in the door in the middle of it.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“I know. I backed out when I saw you two facing off like a couple of territorial wolves.”
“Yep, that’s me.” Clara swiped her card through the credit card machine. “So what was it about, anyway?”
Stephanie sighed. “Roberta had the brilliant idea for a joint promotion.”
“Promotion. She wants to set up a tent on the sidewalk during the Memorial Day festival outside our two stores, with tables for our combined sale-priced merchandise.”
Clara thought about it. “That might not be such a bad idea.”
“The festival is this weekend. How are we supposed to put all that together in three days?”
“I guess it is a little short notice.”
“She wanted to hire musicians, a juggler and a fortune-teller, among other just as stupid things.”
Clara grinned. “A fortune-teller?”
Stephanie waved a hand at the model. “Like that. Crystal ball and everything. She said it would advertise all the weird stuff we sell.”
“And what did you say to that?”
“I told her that there was no way I was going to participate in such outlandish commercialism. That our customers come to our store to quietly browse the shelves, enjoy a peaceful cup of coffee and a pastry in the Reading Nook and take all the time they want to make up their minds about what they’d like to buy.”
Clara nodded. “But we did have a tarot card reader here last Christmas.”
“She was tucked away in a corner, where people could consult her in private. She wasn’t sitting in the middle of a bunch of musicians and a juggler.”
Stephanie almost gagged on the last word, and Clara patted her shoulder. “Calm down. I’m sure you got your point across.”
“You wouldn’t believe the price she wanted us to pay for all that nonsense.”
“Hmm. I can see why that made the idea even less appetizing.”
“We couldn’t afford it, for one thing. Even if I’d wanted to do it, which I don’t.” Stephanie shuddered. “Can you imagine—all that mess and noise blocking the sidewalk? I doubt if Dan would allow it, anyway.”
“Did you tell Roberta that?”
“No. I told her I wasn’t going to bulldoze our customers into buying our books.”
“Ah. I guess she didn’t much care for that.”
“She went ballistic.” Stephanie shook her head. “I think she was just mad that I wouldn’t go along with her expensive, harebrained scheme. I don’t get her. She’d use those kinds of tactics to get people into her store, yet she puts down the rodeo as vulgar and disgusting.”
“In a way I have to agree with her. Rodeos are definitely not my thing.”
“Then why are you so anxious to put up the poster?”
“I’m not anxious.” Clara picked up the poster again. “I’m just doing a favor for Rick. One of the calf ropers is an old buddy of his.” She stared at the garish photo of the rodeo clown that took up most of the page.
He wore black and white striped pants, a black and white checkered coat and a black vest with a splash of red beneath it. His face was white except for a bright red nose and large red circles around his eyes. Black lines spread out like spiderwebs across the circles and at the corners of his mouth, which had been painted with huge yellow lips.
A shiver slid down Clara’s back. There was something about clowns that rattled her chains. She was about to put the poster down when suddenly the walls of the bookstore melted away. Recognizing the onslaught of a vision, she braced herself.
She was in the dark. Stars blinked at her from a black sky, and only a sliver of a new moon looked down on her. The sound of a car engine split the silence with a dull roar, and she realized she was in a parking lot—one she didn’t recognize. The smells of hamburgers and barbecue sauce wafted from a well-lit building on the far side.
The roar grew louder, then a figure appeared before her, running. As he turned his face in her direction she saw two red circles around his eyes and thick yellow lips, glowing in the faint light from the far-off streetlamp.
The next instant a truck caught up with him, plowed into him and threw him into the air. She heard his scream and shut her eyes, unwilling to watch him smash into the ground.
“Clara! Speak to me!”
Stephanie’s urgent voice jerked her eyes open. She was back in the bookstore, the poster still trembling in her hands.
Her cousin’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “It happened, didn’t it? You had a vision. What was it?”
“Shhh!” Clara looked around in alarm, afraid someone would overhear. She had spent most of her life trying to hide the fact that she had inherited the family curse, as she called it. Many members of her family had some version of the Quinn Sense—a sixth sense that allowed them to interpret dreams, tell when someone was lying and occasionally see the future.
Clara’s version was unpredictable, and was rarely there when she needed it. The worst part of it were the visions, which popped up at the most awkward times, plunging her mind into the past or the future while her body remained, helpless, in the present.
Fortunately the episodes were usually brief, and she was able to attribute her odd behavior to a bout of indigestion. Her biggest fear was that someday she’d be “out” for so long her weird legacy would be revealed and people would consider her a freak. She couldn’t bear the thought of having to explain it all to Rick.
Stephanie was the only one who knew Clara had the Quinn Sense, and she had been sworn to secrecy. Since neither of them had siblings, they had turned to each other for company, and had grown up practically joined at the hip. They had shared everything, from toys and clothes to their deepest secrets.
Stephanie had waited in vain to develop the Sense, and bitterly resented the fact that Clara had inherited it while she hadn’t. Clara, on the other hand, would gladly give the wretched so-called gift to her cousin and be rid of it once and for all.
She met Stephanie’s gaze and sighed. “Yes, I had a vision, but I don’t know what it means.”
“So what did you see?”
“It was this clown. It looked like he was being run down by a truck.” She looked back at the poster and shuddered at the memory of the clown flying through the air. “I just hope it’s not an omen of something bad happening at the rodeo.”
Stephanie pulled a face. “Doesn’t something bad happen at every rodeo? I’ve never been to one, but I’ve seen bits of them on TV. There’s an awful lot of men being tossed off horses and bulls and narrowly escaping being trampled to death.”
Clara grinned. “Guess we’re just not big fans of rodeo around here.”
“I didn’t say that.” Stephanie picked up a handful of gift cards and began stacking them in a holder. “I think it would be fun—all those cowboy hunks showing off their muscles. I could go for that.”
Clara pretended to be shocked. “That’s no way for a married woman and mother of three to talk.”
Stephanie leered at her. “A woman can dream, can’t she?”
The doorbell jingled just then and Clara turned to see Rick in the doorway.
He looked relieved when he saw her. “Oh, great. You’re still here. You took off so fast I didn’t have time to ask you.”
Anticipation made her tingle. They hadn’t been dating long, and time spent with Rick was still new enough to be exciting. “Ask me what?”
He held up two tickets. “Come to the rodeo with me? Wes gave me free tickets and a promise of a tour if we got there early enough.”
Clara could feel Stephanie’s gaze on her. Having just declared her dislike of rodeos, she’d look like a hypocrite if she accepted Rick’s offer. Then again, her cousin would totally understand why she couldn’t turn down a date with him. “I’d love to go. When? What time?”
Before Rick could answer, the doorbell rang again, and Roberta sailed in. She was breathing a little hard, suggesting she’d made a mad dash to get into the bookstore before Rick left.
Gliding over to his side, she took the tickets from his fingers. “Oh, my,” she purred. “Tickets for the rodeo! I just adore the rodeo. Are these for sale?”
Clara gritted her teeth.
To her relief, Rick plucked the tickets back. “Sorry, but these were a gift from a buddy, and I’m taking Clara.”
Roberta raised her delicate eyebrows. “Really?” Her tone implied that Rick was making a grave mistake. “Too bad. I would have loved to see it. I don’t suppose your friend has any more tickets floating around?”
“I’ll ask him when I see him,” Rick said, then turned his back on the woman. “These are for opening night. That’s tomorrow. I’ll pick you up from here. Can you get away early?”
Clara looked at Stephanie, who was frowning at Roberta as if she were putting a curse on her. “Okay with you, Steffie?”
Her cousin waved a careless hand at her. “Of course. I’ll ask Molly to cover for you. She could use the overtime. She has her eye on a new car.”
“Then I guess we’re all set.”
“Great!” He looked at Clara. “Five thirty work for you?”
She nodded, trying to ignore the dark looks Roberta sent her way. “I’ll be ready.”
Rick was halfway out the door when Roberta called out, “Oh, Ricky! I need to talk to you.” She ran after him, slamming the door behind her.
Stephanie shook her head. “Does that woman ever give up?”
Clara laughed. “I doubt it. She’s wasting her time. Rick’s made it very plain he’s not interested.”
“Well, I shouldn’t think so. You two obviously have a good thing going.” She cupped a hand behind her ear. “Do I hear wedding bells sometime soon?”
“No, you don’t. We barely know each other, and it’s much too soon to even think about the future.” Deciding it was time to talk about something else, Clara held up the poster. “Where shall we put this?”
Stephanie nodded at the window. “If you think you can crawl past all that stuff, it can go in there.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
It took her several minutes to weave her way through strands of beads, crystals swinging on silver strings and the stuffed raven perched on a large portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Across the street she saw Roberta standing in front of Rick’s store, barring him from entering. She was gesturing with her hand, gazing up at him while a torrent of words flowed through her lips.
Whatever she was saying apparently had no effect, since Rick placed his hands on her shoulders, gently moved her to one side and disappeared into the store.
Roberta paused for a moment, staring after him, then, with a toss of her head, marched back across the street to the stationer’s.
Smiling, Clara unrolled the poster, trying not to look at the clown as she taped it to the window. A couple of passersby paused to watch, and she gave them a wave before scrambling back into the store.
“So,” Stephanie said, as Clara joined her behind the counter, “you’re going to sit on grubby hard benches surrounded by screaming spectators watching a bunch of cowboys being flung to the ground.”
Clara punched her lightly on the arm. “Shut up. I’m going on a date with Rick. That’s all that matters.” And for the rest of the day, that’s all she could think about.
She spent the afternoon running errands then took an enthusiastic Tatters for a walk on the beach. The big dog strained at his leash the moment they hit the sand, dragging Clara along behind him.
“Stop that!” She dug in her heels and hauled on the leash. “You know very well you can’t run without a leash until after eight o’clock. It’s the law.”
Tatters turned his head to look back at her. Poop on the law.
Clara tightened her grip. She’d offered to take care of Tatters when Rick’s ex-wife had dumped the dog on him. As unnerving as it had been to discover she was able to read people’s minds, nothing had prepared her for the shock of finding out she could read Tatters’ thoughts. Or that he could understand every word spoken to him.
She had to restrain herself from answering him, knowing how ridiculous she looked holding a one-sided conversation with a dog. Instead she gave the leash a sharp, warning tug and prayed he’d behave.
To her relief he trotted along at her side, though every now and then he’d give a puff of frustration, his gaze on the seagulls circling overhead. Tatters loved nothing more than to charge down the beach, leaping and barking at the screeching gulls. Since that could only happen during the summer when the evening sky was lighter for longer, he made the most of it when given the opportunity.
Clara often wondered if he and the birds were actually having a verbal battle, flinging insults back and forth. If so, the seagulls were fighting a losing war.
By the time she arrived back home, her mother had started dinner.
When Clara had first left New York to return home, she’d moved in with her mother on a temporary basis, just until she found an apartment. The search had been more difficult than she’d anticipated. At first she’d resented her mother’s constant probing into her private life, both past and present, but gradually she’d come to realize that Jessie was simply being a little overprotective, and genuinely cared about her daughter.
They’d managed to compromise. Clara was making an effort to be less secretive, and Jessie was striving to be less intrusive. There were still times when one or the other stepped over the mark, but things in the Quinn household were a lot less tense than they had been—to the point where Clara no longer scanned the TO RENT columns in the Harbor Chronicle or combed through the ads on craigslist.
The moment she opened the front door, her mother yelled from the kitchen, “Wipe that dog’s feet before he comes in here!”
Tatters uttered a low, threatening growl, and Clara quickly laid a hand on his neck. “Down, boy. Give me your paw.”
Tatters lifted a front leg and Clara checked it out. The walk back had dislodged most of the sand, and she brushed off what was left. After a few grunts from the dog, and a soft warning from her, his paws were clean enough to satisfy Jessie.
Clara walked into the kitchen with Tatters at her heels. Her mother stood at the stove with a stir-fry sizzling in front of her. The smell of ginger and peppers reminded Clara she was hungry. “Need any help?”
Jessie glanced over her shoulder. “You can set the table for me, if you like.”
“Sure.” Clara walked over to the counter and opened a cabinet door. “Before I forget, I won’t be here for dinner tomorrow night.”
“Going out with Rick?”
“Uh-huh. He’s taking me to the rodeo.”
“Oh, I heard about it on the news. They had to renovate the fairgrounds for it. I hope they get their money back.” Jessie turned, a spatula gripped in her hand. “I didn’t know you liked the rodeo.”
“I don’t.” Clara took down a couple of dinner plates. “At least, I’ve never been to one. I know they have them occasionally in Maine, but I always thought it was more a Western thing. I like horses, though, so it should be okay.”
“And Rick will be there,” Jessie said slyly.
Clara was about to answer when a flash of light almost blinded her. Blinking, she found herself sitting on a hard bench, the sun full in her eyes. Not again, she thought, as she lifted a hand to shade her face from the glare. Two visions in one day was a little much.
In front of her she saw a huge arena, covered in sawdust. The seats were empty, the stands quiet. She was completely alone.
No, not quite. A movement to her right, high up in the stands, caught her eye. It was a figure in a black striped jacket and black and white checkered pants. He turned to look at her. Huge red circles surrounded his eyes, and a big red nose gleamed in the sunlight. He lifted a hand to wave at her, then, to her dismay, he slowly toppled forward and started bouncing headfirst down the stands.
An almighty crash made her jump. Her mother’s voice, high-pitched with alarm, demanded, “Clara? What the devil is the matter with you?”
Clara blinked again as the sunlight faded. She was back in the kitchen, pieces of a broken dinner plate lying at her feet and her mother’s horrified gaze on her face.
Although Jessie had learned about the Quinn Sense from Clara’s father, so far her daughter had managed to hide from her mother the fact that she had inherited the gift. Jessie was the last person in the world Clara wanted to know her secret. Her mother was a born gossip, and Clara was certain the news would be passed along to all Jessie’s cronies. It would only be a matter of time before Rick heard about it.
She had come close to being discovered more than once, but never this close. Staring down at the broken plate, she muttered, “I’m so sorry. It just slipped from my hands.”
Jessie frowned. “You’re not usually this clumsy. Are you feeling all right? For a moment there you looked as if you were in some kind of trance.”
“Heartburn, that’s all. I need to eat.” She dropped to her knees and began picking up the pieces.
“Wait! You’ll cut yourself.” Jessie reached under the counter for a dustpan and brush. “Here. Use this.”
Clara took it from her, trying to curb her resentment. She wished, fervently, that she could be rid of the Sense once and for all. It was ruining her life. Bending her knees, she began swiping the broken pieces into the dustpan.
Tatters got up from his mat, strolled over to her and pushed his nose into her arm.
Looking into his eyes, Clara murmured, “Thanks, Tats. I’m okay.”
“Tats?” Jessie sounded shocked. “Do you young people have to abbreviate every name you hear? You wouldn’t believe how many people call me Jess. It makes me sound like a board game.”
Clara straightened. “Actually, it’s a sign they like you. Like a show of affection.”
Jessie sniffed. “I can think of better ways to show affection.”
Clara had to smile at that. Tipping the broken pieces into the trash can, she said, “I’ll buy you a new plate tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother.” Jessie reached up for another plate. “I never liked this set, anyway. I’ll get out the best dishes. It’s time we used them instead of keeping them hidden away.”
Clara took the plate from her mother. “But they were a wedding present from Grandma. You only use those on special occasions.”
Jessie smiled. “Every time I have dinner with you, it’s a special occasion. You were gone for ten years in New York and I hardly saw you at all. Someday soon you’ll be announcing you’re getting married, and you’ll be gone again. So I might as well make the most of the time I have with you now.”
Clara could feel her cheeks growing warm. “What makes you think I’m getting married?”
“Your face when you come home from a date with Rick.” Jessie turned back to her stir-fry. “I’ve never seen you look like that before.”
Deciding there was no answer for her mother’s observation, Clara set the plates down on the kitchen table. “If we start using the best china we should eat in the dining room. We haven’t done that since Dad died.”
“We haven’t had dinner guests since your father died.” Jessie glanced over her shoulder at Clara. “How about inviting Rick here for dinner some night?”
It wasn’t the first time Jessie had suggested she invite Rick for dinner. So far Clara had managed to avoid the issue. She knew it was only a matter of time before she would have to either give in or deal with a barrage of questions from her mother.
In spite of Jessie’s good intentions, she would no doubt want to know every intimate detail about Rick’s life, both past and present. She’d be interrogating him all through the evening, and Clara wasn’t ready to face that embarrassment.
“We’ll see,” she said, and rummaged noisily in the cutlery drawer, hoping to distract her mother.
Jessie must have taken the hint, as she said no more, and Clara was able to enjoy a fairly peaceful meal. She offered to do the dishes while her mother settled in front of the TV to watch the news.
When Clara walked out of the kitchen, Jessie waved a hand at her. “Look at this. They’re talking about the rodeo.”
Clara gave the TV a wary glance. So far, whenever she’d seen a picture of the rodeo or it had been mentioned in detail, her mind had been whisked away somewhere. She was very much afraid that the clown in the poster was in danger, and she felt obligated to warn him. She just couldn’t figure out how to do that. Even if she could explain how she knew he was in harm’s way, it was totally unlikely he would believe her.
It was a problem she’d faced more than once in the past, and no matter what she did, the outcome had usually been awkward at best and downright unnerving at times.
Rick had told her that Wes had offered them a tour before the show. Perhaps, if she met the clown, she could say something that would put him on his guard. Considering how she felt about clowns, she was looking forward to that possibility with a certain amount of dread.
“Clara’s going to the rodeo tomorrow,” Stephanie said, nodding at the TV. The video of a cowboy thrashing around on the back of a bull was accompanied by roars of approval from the spectators in the stands, while blaring country music tried to drown them out.
Her husband sat on the couch next to her, apparently oblivious to the noise. His focus was on the phone in his hand, which emitted burps and bleeps with annoying regularity. So intense was his concentration, he failed to acknowledge his wife’s comment.
Stephanie leaned over and punched him in the arm.
The phone squawked, and George looked up. “You killed my avatar.”
Stephanie compressed her lips for a moment. “I didn’t kill anything, but if you keep ignoring me for that silly phone that might change.”
George sighed and leaned back. “Sorry. I was trying to relax my brain. It’s been a tough day.”
“How about relaxing it with some intelligent conversation?”
George looked around the room. “Your father is here?”
She punched him on the arm again. “Enough of the smart mouth. I want to talk about the rodeo.”