Read an Excerpt
Last Chance Beauty Queen
By Ramsay, Hope
Forever Copyright © 2012 Ramsay, Hope
All right reserved.
Mirrors never lie.
Caroline Rhodes caught the fleeting spark of surprise in her own eyes as she studied her reflection in her Camry’s rearview. Despite her professional wardrobe and flawless makeup, the mirror still reflected an image of the small-town Watermelon Queen she had once been. She touched up her lipstick and gave herself one last implacable stare. As usual, the humidity had gotten to her hair. She sleeked it back into its ponytail, but a few stray curls refused to be tamed. It was hopeless.
She snatched her black Coach briefcase from the passenger seat and covered the distance over the blazing blacktop to the front doors of the Columbia Hilton in less than a minute. Icy air greeted her as she passed through the glass doors and headed toward the steakhouse restaurant in the lobby. The heels of her pumps clicked over the marble floor like hammer blows. With each heel strike, the tension coiled inside her.
She was here to meet Hugh deBracy, the umpteenth baron of somewhere in England, who probably looked down his nose at people who came from small rural towns in the middle of nowhere.
DeBracy had come to these shores to buy up a little bit of that rural land so he could put up a textile machinery factory. Caroline’s boss, Senator Rupert Warren, wanted to make that happen. There was the matter of two hundred new jobs at stake.
But there was a teeny-tiny problem. The land Lord deBracy wanted wasn’t for sale. Caroline’s job was to make this problem disappear—a feat that would take a miracle.
She stepped into the dark, cold environment of the steakhouse and scanned the sparse luncheon crowd. She had never seen a photo of Hugh deBracy, but she found him without any trouble.
He was in his mid-thirties and wore a Savile Row suit and a slightly loosened regimental tie. Except for his curly Byronic hair, the man looked like the dictionary definition of an uptight English aristocrat. He sat at a booth halfway down a long row, and he looked up from the menu he’d been perusing as if he could sense her studying him.
The man’s gaze widened as if in recognition. He stood, dropping the menu and nervously tightening his tie.
His glance dropped to her ankles and then rose in a slow circuit that moved up her bare, suntanned legs and the professional silhouette of her business suit. The gaze stopped when it reached the hint of lace at the V of her jacket where, predictably, it stuck.
As an ex–beauty queen with a bustline to match, Caroline was used to this, even if she hated it. It was tough to be taken seriously when people discovered that you once wore a ridiculous pink and green dress accessorized by a rhinestone tiara and a sash across your breasts.
Caroline squared her worsted-clad shoulders and walked forward. His gaze rose to meet hers. The corner of his mouth twitched, and his eyes—the color of scotch whiskey—softened.
“Miss Rhodes?” he asked.
The sound of her name spoken with those clipped British vowels did something totally inappropriate to her insides. Boy, she really needed to find a meaningful love life, one of these days—after the election. In the meantime, she’d continue to find escape in those romance books featuring suave English heroes.
No doubt this secret addiction to historical romances was the reason her girl parts got hot and bothered by Lord deBracy’s accent. She had to remember that this guy had the ability to royally screw up her life and her career.
She reached for a cool nonchalance that she didn’t for one instant really feel. “Lord deBracy?”
“Um, that would be Lord Woolham. The title applies to the peerage, not the surname. I am delighted to meet you.” He nodded his head but didn’t extend his hand in greeting, which kind of belied his words.
Crap. She had screwed up, and she really hated doing that. She should have researched English titles before she set one foot in this restaurant or opened her mouth. Despite her gaff, she gritted her teeth, gave him a professional smile that was not too big and not too small, and took her seat in the booth facing him.
“I want to thank you for meeting me here,” he said as he took his seat. He turned and nodded at the waiter in true aristocratic fashion.
“It’s not a problem. Senator Warren wants me to help you in any way I can,” Caroline said. Her words were misleading. Being here with him was a problem. She had everything at stake: her career and her family. His Lordship had nothing at risk, except a potential factory.
The waiter came along, and they ordered: roast beef for him and a small house salad for her. When the waiter left, his Lordship opened the business conversation.
“So,” he said, leaning forward slightly. “According to the senator, you’re the woman who can help me solve my real estate problem.”
She looked him straight in the eye. And his eyes were so warm and brown they didn’t seem to match his stiff formality. She wasn’t going to let him see how badly she felt outclassed here. So she forced herself not to look away. “I’m good at what I do. But Senator Warren has given you assurances that might be unjustified. There are serious complications.”
“I see. Would you care to elaborate?”
No. She wouldn’t. If given her druthers, Caroline would get up and run like a greyhound to the nearest exit. But she was stuck. The senator really, really wanted this factory built.
“I’m afraid this is a very difficult case,” she said, trying to quell the butterflies in her midsection. The waiter came back with deBracy’s house salad before she could say anything more.
His Lordship put his napkin in his lap and began cutting the lettuce with a single-minded purpose that verged on obsession. “How so?” he asked. “According to my partner, who was assembling the land for the factory until his untimely death, the parcel of land in question is not being used productively.”
Wow. How totally smug of him. No doubt Lord Woolham thought that the only productive use of land was in supporting the lifestyles of the rich and aristocratic. “How much do you know about the parcel in question?” she asked.
“Not very much, except that the fellow who owns it won’t sell. It’s a very small piece of land, too, which makes it even more irritating. I have offered quite a bit of money for that small piece of land.”
Like he couldn’t actually pay more if he wanted to—not that more money would solve this particular problem. “Do you need this particular piece of land for the factory project? Couldn’t you—”
“Without it, I won’t have access to the rail line or the main highway. I need to acquire it or there will be no factory.”
The waiter returned and placed a huge portion of roast beef in front of his Lordship and an itty-bitty salad in front of Caroline.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” deBracy asked, frowning down at her tiny plate.
She ignored his question. She was not about to discuss her struggle with her weight with a member of the English aristocracy.
She picked up her fork and speared a piece of romaine. “Lord Woolham,” she said, “I’m just so sorry, but there is nothing I can do to help you get that land.”
He looked up as he cut his beef. A little half smile played at the corner of his lips. Was he satisfied that she’d gotten his title right? The cad.
“The senator told me that you could fix anything.”
The senator had asked too much of her this time. “I’m not a miracle worker.”
“So tell me why you think it will take a miracle, then.” DeBracy conveyed the meat to his mouth and chewed. The muscles worked in his cheeks, and he managed to look debonair, even with his mouth full.
She leaned forward. “The man who owns the land isn’t going to change his mind. Trust me on this.”
“Is that because he’s an eccentric? I’ve heard he’s a bit ’round the bend.”
Caroline laid her silverware across her plate and dropped her hands to her lap. She intertwined her fingers and squeezed. She wanted to be anywhere but there, having this conversation. Senator Warren shouldn’t have asked her to do this. But if Caroline could find a solution to Lord Woolham’s problem, she might just get the promotion she’d been working for—and that job in Washington, DC. So she sucked in a deep breath and said, “The man who owns the land speaks with angels.”
“Really? How remarkable. What do they say?”
For the first time, Hugh deBracy had surprised her. “You did hear me, didn’t you?” she asked.
“I’m not deaf. What do the angels say?”
“They’re opposed to selling the land.”
“Well, that’s predictable. We’ll just have to convince the angels otherwise, won’t we?”
“Um, I don’t think we can do that. You see, there are additional complications.”
“Aren’t there always?” His voice was laced with impatient arrogance.
“Yes, but these are really big complications.”
“There’s an eighteen-hole miniature golf course on the land.”
“Mini-golf?” DeBracy had stopped chewing. It was hard to tell if he was shocked, amused, or surprised.
“Yes, miniature golf. You know, small holes, putting only, lots of fiberglass hazards and obstacles.”
His Lordship nodded, one cheek still filled with unchewed beef.
“Only in this case,” Caroline continued rapidly, determined to get the truth out quickly, “there are eighteen holes each depicting either an Old Testament Bible story or a chapter in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The place is a bit notorious, actually. It was featured last year in the online guide Bizarre America: The Ultimate Guide to Tasteless Tourist Traps.”
His Lordship choked on the steak he had neglected to chew. His face turned red, and for a moment, Caroline thought she might have to perform the Heimlich maneuver. She couldn’t live with herself if Golfing for God were the cause of his untimely demise. That might solve one problem for her, but it would certainly annoy the senator.
Luckily, first aid was not required. His Lordship cleared the obstruction and reached for his water glass. His Adam’s apple danced as he swallowed. The motion was almost hypnotic.
Caroline pulled her gaze away. “I guess your late partner didn’t tell you about Golfing for God, huh?” she said once deBracy had finished his water.
He laid down his silverware and then wiped his lips with his napkin. “No, George didn’t provide those details. I did hear from the real estate chap that the owner of the land in question is a complete nutter. But I was given to understand that the business on the property is no longer in operation. Is that not correct?”
Nutter. UK vernacular for crazy as a loon. Great, just great. “Golfing for God was hit by a hurricane and a lightning storm last fall. It’s not currently in operation, but there is a movement to—”
“Good, then I should be able to negotiate with the man who owns it. I’m planning to pop ’round to have a look tomorrow.”
It was her moment to choke. Luckily she didn’t have any food in her mouth. “You can’t do that.”
“I don’t know who you’ve been dealing with in South Carolina, but anyone in Last Chance will tell you that trying to get Elbert Rhodes to sell his property would take a miracle. Literally.”
“Elbert Rhodes?” His eyebrow curled upward. The man ought to have a quizzing glass.
Her face burned with embarrassment. She had managed to tell the truth, and now she would have to endure his snotty, snide, superior laughter. He was not going to take her seriously.
“That’s right, Lord Woolham, Elbert Rhodes, the owner of Golfing for God, is my father.”
Hugh looked down at Caroline with some surprise. The wanker who owned the land was her father? That wasn’t good. What had the senator been thinking?
He studied Caroline for a long moment. She didn’t look like the daughter of a wanker. At first glance, she looked the very model of a professional woman, but there was something not quite right about that. Her face was fey and otherworldly, and she looked rather like an Arthur Rackham illustration of the Queen of Faerie, with slashing eyebrows, pale skin, and unruly hair as dark as the ravens in the Tower of London.
She tilted her head, exposing a long, swan-like neck set off by a little gold necklace with a small crucifix. Their eyes met and connected. His cheeks heated.
He had not counted on Miss Rhodes being so dishy. He had expected an older and rather ordinary woman, given what Senator Warren had said about her. He forcibly relaxed his shoulders. He needed to keep his mind on business.
“Well then,” he said, his voice sounding thin. “Does Senator Warren know this?”
“And he sent you here anyway?”
“And you’re here, aren’t you? You haven’t come to sabotage me.”
“No, Lord Woolham, I’ve come to try to talk reason to you. My father is eccentric, and he’s never going to sell out, so the best thing all the way around is to avoid a confrontation and look for another site for your factory.” She pulled a folder from her briefcase and handed it to him. “I took the liberty of asking the South Carolina Department of Commerce to give me some suggested alternate sites.”
Hugh took the folder but didn’t bother reading it. “I already have this report.”
“Yes. And it’s no use, really. You see, my late partner, George Penn, already purchased the land adjacent to Golfing for God, and the man who sold it is not interested in having it back and returning the money I spent on it. So I intend to build my factory right there, in Last Chance. I will have your father’s land, one way or another.”
Or he would lose his shirt and Woolham House in the bargain. He was mortgaged up to his neck, and he had only one chance to tap into the lucrative U.S. market for textile machinery. But he wasn’t about to tell her that. She was, for the moment, as much an adversary as a friend.
He watched her for a moment, halfway expecting her to get her back up. After all, he did sound like a melodramatic villain in a set piece.
Instead she smiled. “Good luck with that. Believe me, you would solve any number of family problems if you could convince Daddy to part with Golfing for God.”
“Not very loyal, are you?”
She let go of a nervous laugh. “Don’t assume that I’m opposed to your project because it’s my father’s land that’s in question. I’m not against building new factories in South Carolina. Factories create jobs and economic growth that our state badly needs. I don’t think I’d shed any tears if Golfing for God was bulldozed. You have no idea what it’s like to grow up having a father who speaks with angels and runs a putt-putt place dedicated to the Almighty. But it’s Daddy’s land and his decision, and his decision is unshakable.”
“Are you refusing to help me?” He wouldn’t blame her.
Her smile faded. “No. The senator wants me to help you, and I want to please him. But to solve this problem, we’re going to have to find an alternate site for your factory. Building it on Daddy’s land isn’t going to happen.”
“Look, Miss Rhodes, I think I’ve made it clear that I’m not interested in starting over somewhere else. I need to go down to Last Chance and speak with the leaders of the town council and with your father, and maybe even his angels, if I can get them to play along with me. I’d like you to help me arrange some meetings tomorrow, if you’d be so kind.”
Miss Rhodes closed her eyes and leaned back against the banquette. She looked miserable and lovely. He sympathized with her plight, but he was in his own tight spot, too.
And failure wasn’t an option.
“I’m not good at scheduling meetings with angels,” she said.
He had to stifle a little laugh. “The town council will be good enough.”
She opened her eyes and gave him a frank and direct stare. She had lovely green eyes. “This would be a terrible time to visit Last Chance,” she said.
“Because it’s Watermelon Festival time.”
“Yes, it’s a big deal in Last Chance. Allenberg County devotes a full week to extolling the virtues of the melon. It’s also an excuse for a bunch of activities that would bore you.”
“What kind of activities?”
“Oh, you know, the usual Watermelon Festival kinds of things—demolition derbies, seed-spitting contests, country music sing-alongs, pie-baking contests, carnival rides, and the official kickoff parade this Saturday, followed by a barbecue where they smoke two pigs.”
The smile he’d been fighting suddenly won. “That’s brilliant.”
“Brilliant? What’s brilliant?” She seemed genuinely surprised by his reaction.
“A country fair such as the one you’ve described would be perfect. It’s just the sort of occasion that brings out all the local politicians. I could save a great deal of time. Everyone will be in one place.”
“Well that’s true, but—”
“Senator Warren put you at my disposal until this issue is resolved. I perfectly understand your conflict, Miss Rhodes, but your local knowledge will be invaluable. So I would like you to make arrangements for us to go to Last Chance for this festival. I’d like to be invited to the reviewing stand for the parade on Saturday. Perhaps we can drive down tomorrow afternoon, and have a few meetings on Friday, and then I can do my politicking during the festival over the weekend. I’d like you to arrange a few personal meetings between myself and the various officials, not to mention introducing me to your father.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Miss Rhodes said in a strident tone. “Last Chance is in the middle of nowhere. It’s near a swamp. And it’s hot. Much hotter than England. And we have snakes and alligators living in the Edisto River, which runs right nearby. And most important of all, there aren’t any fancy hotels there, where a person such as yourself might stay overnight.”
Hugh had already read several South Carolina tourist guides on the flight over from the UK. He was well aware of the swampland. And now that he knew, Hugh fervently hoped that George hadn’t purchased any of it, although from the looks of it, George was so incompetent he just might have.
Hugh had only himself to blame for trusting George with his money. He could almost hear Granddad’s voice in his head pointing out every single one of Hugh’s shortcomings. Telling him, in no uncertain terms, that he would never be a success at anything important.
But he would make a success of this. And this beautiful woman in the dark gray business suit might be the only person who could help him achieve that success.
He had to be strong, assertive, and arrogant if he was going to get the job done. He gave her an imperious stare and said, “Miss Rhodes, I intend to build my factory in Last Chance, South Carolina. If I have to go on safari to get there, I will. So, I would appreciate it if you would arrange accommodations for me, and schedule some appointments.”
She stared up at him for a long moment as emotions from indignation through acquiescence played across her features. And then something changed in her mien. A mischievous spark ignited in the depths of her green eyes that was neither anger nor submission. She was up to something the way the pixies always got up to trouble in the childhood stories Aunt Petal had told him.
Caroline gave him a big American smile. “Well, I guess I could ask Miriam Randall to put you up. She lives in a large Victorian house that used to be a hotel a hundred years ago. She sometimes takes in boarders.”
He had no idea who Miriam Randall might be, but by the twinkle in Caroline’s eyes, he had a feeling he might have just made a terrible mistake.
Caroline slammed her briefcase down on the threadbare carpet in her office cubicle. The senator’s Columbia office was in a tired old building not far from the state capitol. The traditional-style mahogany furniture had scars marring every surface, and the standard-issue blue leather chairs looked like they had been in use during the Wilson Administration.
She loved her office just the same. Having this semiprivate cubby was a sign of her rank, as well as all of her hours of dedicated service since her graduation summa cum laude from the University of South Carolina.
She’d landed the job with Senator Warren right out of college and had started her career as a caseworker, helping people with their Social Security Disability issues. In just a few years, she’d made herself indispensable. Two years ago, she’d become the administrator of the senator’s main state office. When the election was over this November, she hoped to land a job in the senator’s office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
But the election was going to be tight. The senator faced two challengers—a Democrat and a populist Independent. So landing a new factory for South Carolina would be of significant political benefit. If she could clear the obstacles for Lord Woolham’s factory, the promotion she coveted would be hers.
Caroline fell into her squeaky office chair and rested her head on her desk for a long moment.
Clearing the obstacles for this factory to be built in Last Chance would be impossible. Even worse, this assignment had the potential to blow up in her face and undermine the senator’s trust in her.
Senator Warren knew she came from a small town. And he knew Daddy’s land was at stake. But she had worked hard to keep the most embarrassing details of her background quiet.
She’d gotten rid of her small town wardrobe. She had learned, through painful experience, to keep her mouth shut and think before she said anything stupid. She was circumspect and professional in everything she did. She didn’t want to embarrass Senator Warren. And she certainly didn’t want to embarrass herself or her family.
But Lord Woolham was going to blow her cover. And her attempt to talk him out of building in Last Chance had fallen on deaf ears.
DeBracy was going to visit Last Chance, and Caroline couldn’t stop it from happening. Given the situation, it was probably better for her to accompany him. At least that way, she might be able to control the damage to her career.
But before she arrived in Last Chance with his Lordship in tow, she needed to issue a general warning to the folks back home.
She picked up the telephone and dialed.
“Rocky, darlin’, what a surprise,” Ruby Rhodes, Caroline’s mother, said on the other end of the line.
Momma and everyone in Last Chance had always called Caroline Rocky because her first name was Sirocco and she had three brothers named Stone, Clay, and Tulane. Losing her quirky name was part of Caroline’s makeover. A senator’s aide didn’t need a name like Rocky Rhodes. A senator’s aide wanted a plain name that was easy to spell. Of course, no one in Last Chance ever called her Caroline.
She clutched the phone and squeezed her eyes shut. “Momma, I have some news.”
The silence on the other end of the line seemed to last for hours. “Bad news? Are you all right, sweetie?” Momma asked.
“I’m okay. But I have a huge problem. I’ve been asked to help the man who wants to buy Golfing for God.” Caroline said it really fast on the theory that news like this was better delivered rapidly, in the same way that it was better to rip off a Band-Aid quick.
“The senator, who else?”
“And you said yes to this?” Momma apparently had heard every word despite Caroline’s delivery. The headache Caroline had been fighting finally blossomed into a throbbing cluster of pain over her right eye.
“Uh, no, I didn’t say yes,” Caroline countered. “I told Senator Warren that it was impossible. But you know how he doesn’t listen.” Caroline massaged her eye socket, smearing her eyeliner.
“His inability to listen is one of the reasons I’ve never voted for him,” Momma said.
Caroline didn’t respond. Momma was a Democrat. Senator Warren was a Republican. Enough said about that.
Caroline snagged her purse off the floor and tipped it over on her desk searching for the little green bottle of aspirin she always carried. “Look, Momma, I don’t want to help this man get Daddy’s land.” She found the green bottle, and cradled the phone against her shoulder.
“Then why did you call?”
The adult-proof cap finally gave way, and Caroline popped two of those babies into her mouth without any water. She fell into her chair, closed her eyes, and let her head drop back against the high back. “Because,” she said, “the stuck-up English lord who wants to buy Daddy’s land just told me that he wants to pop ’round for a visit during the Watermelon Festival.”
“Pop ’round? Really?”
“Those were his exact words. He’s like one of the dukes in those romance books you like so much. He’s arrogant and uppity and wants to get his way. He’s asked me to make accommodations for him and to schedule meetings with members of the town council.”
“You ought to put him up at the Peach Blossom Motor Court just for spite,” Momma said.
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
“I can’t believe I said it either. Maybe we could send him into the swamp in a canoe without a paddle or mosquito spray.”
Caroline would have laughed if her head didn’t feel like it was exploding. “If I do that, Senator Warren will find out, and that would make the boss cranky.”
“Honey, you should quit.”
Caroline ignored that familiar refrain. “It gets worse. The senator wants to come and hang out with his Lordship in the reviewing stand for the Watermelon Festival parade. He’s going to bring his daughter, and you know what a snob Cissy is. Although to tell you the truth, Lord Woolham might give her a run for the money.”
“You’re not helping.” Caroline’s voice sounded whiny.
“Did you want my help?”
Caroline gritted her teeth. “Momma, I don’t really have a choice. The man’s going to come to Last Chance whether I bring him or not. So I figure the best thing is to bring him there, let him see the situation, and then convince him to relocate his factory someplace else. I was calling to let you know the situation.”
“And to ask for your advice. I really do need to find a decent place to stash the baron for the duration. It can’t be the Peach Blossom Motor Court. I was just thinking that maybe Miriam Randall could—”
“Oh, that’s perfect,” Momma interrupted before Caroline could finish her sentence. “You know,” Momma continued, “if anyone can beat that English devil, it would be Miriam Randall. You sit tight and let me make a few phone calls. I’ll get back to you. And I’ll put fresh sheets on your bed. Are you planning to stay through the Watermelon Festival? Or is this another one of your quick trips?”
Just thinking about coming home during the Allenberg County Watermelon Festival made the pain in Caroline’s head redouble. Coming home meant running into Bubba Lockheart.
“I’ll be there over the weekend, at least, maybe a few days more. It depends on Lord Woolham and whether I can get him to see reason.”
“Really? Well, that’s something, isn’t it? It’s been a long time since you attended a Watermelon Festival.”
Caroline consciously unclenched her teeth and tried to relax. It was almost impossible. Coming home for the festival was the last thing she wanted to do. She had bad memories of her last Watermelon Festival, twelve years ago, when Bubba had proposed to her in front of everyone in the town.
She’d been all dressed up in her Watermelon Queen dress, with her hair all poufy and a tiara on her head. She’d been having a great time, until Bubba destroyed it.
She hadn’t handled the situation well. She’d opened her mouth and spoken in anger. She didn’t want to marry Bubba, but she sure wished she could take back the ugly things she’d said.
That moment with Bubba had changed her. And she’d learned her lesson. Now she held her tongue and tried very hard to always keep her cool.
But she had also avoided coming home during the festival. She may have learned from her mistake, but she didn’t want to come home every year and relive it.
Caroline pushed the awful memories out of her mind. “Momma, I really appreciate your help and understanding.”
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line and then Momma said, “So I reckon I’ll tell Dale Pontius to count you in for the parade float.”
Caroline sat up in her squeaky chair. Dale, a member of the Last Chance Town Council, had directed the arrangements for the Watermelon Festival parade since cat was a kitten. “What float?” Caroline asked.
“The seventy-fifth anniversary float,” Momma said, confirming every single one of Caroline’s sudden fears. “Dale came up with this wonderful idea about inviting all the old Watermelon Queens who still live in the county to ride on it. Miriam and I are so excited about it. I even found my old costume, and would you believe it, it still fits. Rachel and Millie are making a pink and green pantsuit for Miriam. She’s the oldest living Watermelon Queen, did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.” Stark, naked terror made Caroline’s hands go clammy.
Momma continued speaking. “I know exactly where your dress is. I’ll get it out and run it right down to the cleaners.”
“Momma, I can’t—”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure you can.” Momma always said stuff like that. She didn’t believe anyone couldn’t do anything if they put their mind to it.
“Okay, Momma, I won’t. Besides, I have to be—”
“Honey, if you come to the festival and you don’t ride on Dale’s float, folks around here will talk. I don’t think you want that, do you? Especially after what happened the last time you wore that dress.”
“Momma, I have moved on in my life. Now, if only Bubba could do the same.”
“I’m not so sure you have moved on.”
Caroline was not about to rehash the Bubba situation. So she took a deep breath and said, “Look, I’m coming home to do a job. I’m not going to put on that dress. You know good and well that it won’t help Bubba or me to move on with our lives if I dress up like a Watermelon Queen again. And besides, how is Lord Woolham going to take me seriously if he sees me in a dress like that? Really, Momma, I need to convince him to give up on Daddy’s land. For that I need to be professional, you know?”
“Well, I suppose there is some truth in that,” Momma admitted. “But you know how Dale gets this time of year. Once he hears you’re going to be in town, he’s going to want you riding on that float in your old dress.”
“Well, he can’t make me do it.”
“All right, sugar. I understand. So when can I expect you?”
“Tomorrow, late afternoon. His Lordship wants me to drive down with him so I can give him the whole briefing on the town. And I’m so not looking forward to that.”
“You know, sweetie, we’re not all that bad.”
“Momma, that’s not what I meant. What I meant was that Lord Woolham is going to look down on all of us. I hate people who do that.”
“So do I.” Momma paused a moment. “Well, I’m sure we can figure out some way to run him off. Believe you me, I can think of all kinds of ways to run off an Englishman. After all, my forebears did a real good job of running the British ragged in the swamps during the Revolution.”
Caroline made no comment. Momma, despite her liberal leanings, was eligible to join the DAR. Not even Hettie Marshall, the Queen Bee of Last Chance, could do that. Momma was sweet, but she sure did keep score when it counted.
The next morning, Haley Rhodes leaned on the table in Granny’s kitchen and peered under the lid of the cardboard box. Granny shooed her away. But then Granny lifted up the box lid and a big heap of fluffy green and pink material popped out. Granny pulled out the dress and gave it a shake.
It was the most beautifulest thing Haley had ever seen. It was pink on the top and had a whole bunch of skirts in fluffy layers, each of them a different color of green. In the bottom of the box sat a glittery tiara.
It was a Watermelon Queen dress, and when Haley grew up, she was going to be a Watermelon Queen. Being a queen ran in the family. Granny had been one. Aunt Rocky had been one. And Momma, who Haley couldn’t remember, had been a Watermelon Queen, too.
Lizzy, Haley’s big sister, said being a Watermelon Queen was dumb. She said it was demeaning to women. Haley didn’t know what the word “demeaning” meant, and she didn’t care. She was going to be queen one day.
“Isn’t that pretty?” Granny asked.
“Oh, yes,” said the Sorrowful Angel with a yearning that made something hitch in Haley’s chest.
Haley turned around and stared at the angel who was hovering in her usual space right by the broom closet in Granny’s kitchen. The Sorrowful Angel had been with Haley for a long, long time. In all that time, she had never said a single word before. Mostly she wailed and wept, especially at night.
“Sugar, what’s the matter?” Granny asked.
“The angel just talked to me. She’s never done that before.”
Granny looked down at Haley with that look grown-ups sometimes got whenever the angel was mentioned. Like a lot of grown-ups, Granny was starting to lose her faith in the Sorrowful Angel. Haley knew it was hard to believe in something that you couldn’t see.
Most folks thought there was something wrong about seeing angels, even though the people in the Bible saw angels all the time. Even Haley’s daddy thought it was bad to see angels. Daddy made Haley visit a special doctor two times a week—even in the summertime—all because she could see the angel.
Dr. Newsome was supposed to fix people who saw things that weren’t really there. But Dr. Newsome would never fix Haley because her angel was real. Just ’cause no one but Haley could see the angel didn’t mean the angel wasn’t real.
And that meant that Haley was going to have to go see Dr. Newsome for the rest of her life, if she couldn’t figure out a way to get the angel to go back to Heaven.
“What did the angel say?” Granny asked.
“She said the dress was pretty.” Haley tilted her head and squinted up at the angel. “Granny, I don’t think the angel agrees with Lizzy.”
Granny chuckled. “Honey, I don’t think many folks in this town agree with Lizzy.”
“Well, when I grow up, I’m going to be a Watermelon Queen, just like my momma was, even if Lizzy thinks it’s stupid.”
Grown-ups got a look on their face whenever Haley talked about Momma, too. Momma was with Jesus and had been ever since Haley was two years old. Momma and Haley had been in a big car wreck, but only Momma went to be with Jesus.
“Granny, do you still have my momma’s dress?” Haley asked.
“I don’t know, honey. She was living with her own momma when she was a queen. Your daddy might have the dress up in his attic, though. Oh my, but she was so beautiful.” Granny ran her hands down over the top of Haley’s head. “With honey blond hair, just like yours. I declare your daddy was so smitten with her the day of the parade. He was just eighteen.”
“And he stole her away in the night, after the barbecue, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“And she got married wearing her dress, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did. Nearly ’bout surprised everyone in town when those two came back in the morning.”
“I want to be a Watermelon Queen and get married in my pretty pink and green dress.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see how you feel about it when you’re older.”
“You mean I have to decide if being a queen is demeaning.” Haley frowned. “What does that mean anyway?”
Granny laughed. “I have no idea.”
“Momma didn’t think she was being demeaning, did she? I mean when Daddy ran off with her.”
“No, sugar, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure she loved your daddy like life itself. As far as I know, your momma was the only Watermelon Queen who ever got married in her queen dress.”
“But Bubba Lockheart asked Aunt Rocky to marry him the night of the watermelon parade, didn’t he?”
Granny shook her head. “I do declare, Haley Ann Rhodes, you know the story better than I do.”
“And Aunt Rocky was ugly to him and that’s why Bubba spends too much time at Dot’s Spot, right?”
“Who did you hear that from, young lady?”
“Miz Bray says that all the time. I know you’ve heard her say it.”
“Yes, I have. But it’s not something you should repeat, do you understand?”
“But Bubba loved Aunt Rocky.”
“Not like your momma and daddy,” said the angel.
Haley turned again toward the broom closet. The Sorrowful Angel was looking sad again. Tears ran down her cheeks.
“Did she speak again?” Granny asked.
“What did she say?”
“That Bubba and Aunt Rocky weren’t like my momma and daddy.”
Granny chuckled a little. “Well, then, she’s a well-informed angel in addition to being a sorrowful one.”
Rachel Polk closed the file she’d been reading. Sick worry nestled down in her gut as she got up from her desk and hurried into the workroom. She quickly photocopied the entire contents of the file and then returned it to Mr. Marshall’s desk, where the darned fool had left it, right out in the open.
The file detailed how Country Pride Chicken was not fully compliant with the state’s health and safety codes.
Rachel had suspected that her employer was cutting corners. But it was infuriating to see it written down that way and left out, while her idiot boss went off to play golf with his country club friends—something he did at least three times a week.
If Mr. Marshall didn’t do something quick to fix these problems, the state might close the plant down. And then Rachel would be out of a job. Heck, half the town would be out of a job.
Rachel sat there staring at the papers on her desk, paralyzed by fear and indecision. What was she going to do? She ought to blow the whistle. But if she did that, everyone might have to go on unemployment.
Just then, her cell phone rang. She checked the caller ID. It was Rocky. Rachel thanked the Almighty for the diversion.
“Hey, what’s up?” Rachel said.
“I’m coming home for a few days,” Rocky replied.
“During the Watermelon Festival? Really?”
Rachel knew good and well that if Rocky came home at festival time, Bubba would go into a tailspin. Not that it would be Rocky’s fault if that happened, but everyone would blame her. And Rachel would be caught right in the middle.
Like she always was.
Like she was caught in the middle of her life.
“Yeah, can you believe it? I haven’t been home for a Watermelon Festival since I was eighteen. But I don’t have a choice. This snotty English baron wants to buy Daddy’s golf course so he can put up a textile machinery factory. The senator wants me to show him around town.”
“Wow. Does your momma know this?”
“Yeah, she does. Momma’s ready to organize a canoe trip for his Lordship right into gator-infested swampland.”
Rachel laughed. “That sounds like your mother.”
“Well, it’s not a bad idea, you know. I’m thinking once the snooty baron actually sees rural South Carolina up close and personal, he’ll go rushing back to civilization. Then maybe I can convince him to build his factory upstate.”
“What’s wrong with rural South Carolina?”
“Nothing, honey. You know that. I know that. But trust me, this uppity English baron will not love our town the way we do.”
“Do you actually love Last Chance?” Rachel asked.
“Sure, why do you ask?”
“I don’t know, Rocky. You don’t come home much.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone before Rocky said, “I’m really busy with my job, Rachel. I don’t have that much time to come home. And besides, I’m not the one who moved back to Last Chance. We’d see a lot more of each other if you’d stayed in Columbia.”
Rocky and Rachel were practically like sisters. They had grown up together, gone to college together, and started careers in Columbia together. But three years ago, Rachel had decided to move back to Last Chance.
Rachel had only one regret about that decision—her best friend didn’t understand, and probably never would. Rachel decided not to poke that wound again. She was happy Rocky was coming home. It had been a long time since they’d seen one another.
“So when are you coming?” Rachel asked.
“I’m driving down with the baron this afternoon, late. I thought you and I could have dinner at the Pig Place and catch up on things. And then maybe you can help me brainstorm a few ideas for how to scare his Lordship away from Last Chance and my daddy’s land.”
“Uh, maybe you don’t want to scare him away.”
“What? Of course I do.”
“Well, maybe that’s a dumb idea. I’m just saying. The economy around here kind of sucks. We could use some foreign investment.”
“Not if it means bulldozing Golfing for God.”
“I realize that. But what about someplace else in Allenberg County?”
“Rachel, is something wrong?”
Rachel hauled in a big breath. “Yeah, but I can’t talk about it now. I’ll see you tonight.”
Hugh deBracy wore one of those Irish tweed caps that made him look utterly exotic in the land of ball-cap good ol’ boys. He also looked right at home behind the wheel of the silver Mustang convertible. Somehow Caroline should have known his Lordship would show up driving something like this.
He might even have succeeded in conveying a certain savoir faire, except for the fact that the South Carolina humidity had turned his hair into an unruly mass of curls that his oh-so-cool tweed cap couldn’t constrain. He was cute, in a shy, sexy, duke-ish kind of way—exactly like Mr. Darcy.
And he maneuvered that Mustang with all the cool skill of Darcy on horseback, too. Quite impressive.
But he was still a big problem.
And her best idea for solving this problem was to hope that he’d take one look at her hometown and see it as a big joke.
And that bothered her. A lot.
She may have kept her background a secret from her Columbia friends and work associates, but she didn’t see her town as a joke.
Baron Woolham would, of course, snob that he was. And she would use his snobbery to help him see reason and save her daddy’s land.
So she played up the quirkiness of her hometown during her briefing, giving him an uncensored description of the tangled web of relationships between the members of the Committee to Resurrect Golfing for God, the Ladies Auxiliary, the Garden Club, and Nita Wills’s Book Club.
Halfway through her discussion of the enmity between Lillian Bray, chair of the Auxiliary, and Hettie Marshall, chair of the Committee to Resurrect Golfing for God, it occurred to her that she might have a fighting chance to make him see reason if she could get the Last Chance church ladies to collectively scare the bejesus out of him.
Maybe Miriam Randall would come up with some kind of matrimonial fortune for him that would send him packing. His Lordship would not be amused by Miriam Randall. Caroline was sure of it.
And even if Miriam failed to scare him, Caroline could always count on the greased watermelon race, or the seed-spitting contest, or the demolition derby. Those events were a whole heap of fun, but she doubted that his high and mightiness would see it that way. He’d be shocked and awed and appalled.
“Crikey, that’s different,” his Lordship said when Last Chance’s water tower finally came into view on the horizon.
Oh good. Caroline could hardly contain her joy. She was sure Hugh deBracy was getting the message loud and clear, with just one gander at the water tower’s striped watermelon paint job.
“I see your town takes watermelons seriously,” deBracy said.
“Watermelons are important to our town,” Caroline replied in her best straight man voice.
“I would have thought soybeans were more important, judging by the acres of them we’ve passed.”
Caroline cast her gaze over the endless fields of beans on either side of the road. He recognized soybeans when he saw them? That was a surprise. Most city folk wouldn’t know a soybean from a corn stalk.
“Well, it’s true,” she said, “soybeans are the cash crop around here, but they aren’t nearly as colorful or flavorful as watermelons. And besides, no one ever took a soybean to Washington and made history.”
“In 1933, Josiah Rhodes, one of my distant cousins, took a two-hundred-and-ten-pound watermelon up to Washington and presented it to President Roosevelt himself, in person. Had his picture taken with the president and everything. Since that was one of the most historic things ever to happen to our town, our leaders commemorated the event with a parade. And before anyone could say ‘Jack Robinson,’ the parade became a week-long celebration of pink and green. The water tower wasn’t repainted that way until the 1950s.”
“Oh, I see. It’s all rather like the Harvest Festival in Woolham. Only in that case, it was a very large turnip, and the king in question was Henry the Seventh. We haven’t painted our water tower like a turnip, though, I must say.”
“Henry the Seventh?” Holy smokes, he wasn’t even fazed for one second by the water tower or the watermelon story.
“Hm. Yes, I believe it was Henry the Seventh. It was centuries ago. We Brits have very long memories.”
“I guess. Do you have turnip queens?” She couldn’t resist asking.
He played it utterly straight and answered her. “No, we usually trot out the old Celtic gods, I’m afraid. It gets the vicar into a right grumpy mood. And since my Aunt Petunia helps organize the annual celebration, I’m afraid I get an earful every Sunday in October until Samhain comes and goes.”
Caroline stared at him for a long moment. He didn’t exactly fit the stereotype, did he? What would happen if he wasn’t put off by the town’s quirkiness?
Of course he was going to be put off. Once he met Daddy and visited Golfing for God, he would realize just exactly what he was up against. He looked like a rational kind of guy. He would come around—eventually.
And if Golfing for God didn’t do the trick, she would have to put Momma’s plan into action and organize an expedition to the mosquito-and-gator-ridden parts of the swamp. Maybe he would tip the canoe, and there would be a feeding frenzy.
The soybean fields gave way to sixties-style ranch houses built back into stands of tall pines. Eventually the pines thinned, and the speed limit plummeted. The houses started to sprout porches and yards with old shade trees. Then, almost without warning, the speed limit hit fifteen, and they motored into the incorporated town of Last Chance, South Carolina, its two city blocks decorated end to end in pink and green.
On the right stood Bill’s Grease Pit, the local auto repair place sporting a vinyl banner welcoming tourists to the festival. Down the street on the left, the front windows of Lovett’s Hardware had been draped with watermelon bunting. Across the street, the Cut ’n Curl had a hand-appliquéd watermelon flag flying. Of course, the Cut ’n Curl was permanently painted pink and green on both the outside and the inside. Caroline knew this personally because she’d helped her mother paint the place.
She hadn’t been home for the Watermelon Festival in years and years. But once, a long time ago, it had been a magical time of year. Her nostalgia grabbed her by the throat. She may have made herself over into a serious city girl, but she’d never managed to lose this deep-seated attachment to Last Chance. Caroline pushed a raft of syrupy emotions back where they belonged. “If you hang a right up there at the stoplight, on Baruch, I’ll show you Miz Miriam’s place.”
Hugh pulled the Mustang onto a drive that led to Miriam Randall’s home, which turned out to be a large wooden house decorated with vast quantities of Victorian-era ornaments.
The house wasn’t in very good nick, but it stood in the midst of an amazing and slightly wild garden. A pair of old live oaks, trailing long beards of Spanish moss, dominated the yard, while a perennial border with drifts of orange and lavender bloomed in a sunny patch along the front side of the wraparound porch. A neatly trimmed boxwood hedge perfumed the air with its tangy scent.
Garden magic, of the kind his aunts believed in, enveloped this place. Were Aunt Petal ever to visit, Hugh had no doubt that she would find a veritable army of sprites and pixies living here.
The cherry red 1970s vintage Cadillac Eldorado convertible parked in the drive was also a thing of beauty. A shirtless man wearing a baseball cap, a sheen of perspiration, and a pair of holey blue jeans was bent over the car’s long bonnet applying wax. The man looked up as Hugh cut the Mustang’s motor.
“Hey, little gal,” the man said. He approached the car in a limping gait, opened the Mustang’s passenger side door, and then pulled Caroline into a big, sweaty hug that was… well… quite friendly.
A wave of resentment prickled over Hugh’s skin as he got out of the car. He had been telling himself all morning that the dishy Miss Rhodes was off limits. Unfortunately, his libido had not been listening.
“Okay, Dash, that’s enough.”
The man let go and turned in Hugh’s direction. “So I reckon you must be Lord deBracy. I’m Dash Randall, Miriam’s nephew.”
“It’s nice to meet you. Thanks for allowing me to stay at your home.” Hugh ignored the mistake in the form of address and smiled.
“He’s Lord Woolham, not Lord deBracy,” Caroline said. “I looked it up last night online. DeBracy is his last name, but his title is Woolham because that’s where he’s from. I don’t expect you to understand how it works, but I know that his Lordship is really picky about his title.”
Hugh heard the tone in Caroline’s voice. Apparently all that pretending to be Granddad was having some impact.
Good. People always took Granddad seriously. Right now Hugh needed everyone in Last Chance to take him very seriously—maybe fear him a little. One couldn’t underestimate the power of fear.
Randall pushed the brim of his cap up, revealing a pair of cool blue eyes. “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m an American,” he said.
Excerpted from Last Chance Beauty Queen by Ramsay, Hope Copyright © 2012 by Ramsay, Hope. Excerpted by permission.
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