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It was a good thing that my two best friends, Elise Penny and Annie Carpenter, were with me or I probably would have hijacked the next pickup truck lumbering down the street and ended up somewhere in Canada.
Annie, who'd been catching snowflakes on her tongue, grabbed my hand and held on. Annie may be twenty years younger than me but what she lacks in age she makes up for in wisdom. She's the kind of person who always seems to have one ear tilted toward the sky, as if she's expecting at any moment God is going to whisper something in it. And I'm convinced that He does on a regular basis.
I tried to work up enough saliva so that I could talk, but my mouth had gone as dry as the fields in the middle of July. If you live in Prichett long enough you begin to think in farm metaphors. It started happening to me about three years after I'd moved here, and I look at it as a permanent condition—like crow's feet or cellulite.
"It can't be him." There it was. My voice. Well, a reasonable facsimile anyway. It must have come out at a slightly higher pitch than normal because a flock of blackbirds in the tree over our heads began to rustle around and protest.
"Someone must have rented the limo for an anniversary or something."
There was no other reason that a limo could be stop-ping right in front of the Cut andCurl. Which happened to be the beauty salon that I owned.
"If there was an anniversary, it would have made the marquee," Elise said. She grabbed my other hand and leaned forward, staring intently at the sleek black vehicle that was now purring alongside the curb.
This was wishful thinking on Elise's part. Her name had been on the marquee for three months now. The marquee was a sacred relic and it hung off the old theater on Main Street like an arm with a compound fracture, announcing all the news that Mayor Candy Lane decided was noteworthy.
Elise had been a contestant in the Proverbs 31 Pageant and had recently won the state title. So far, she'd set a record for having had her name on the marquee the longest. Because she didn't like the attention, I knew she was secretly hoping that someone else would have something happen to them that was noteworthy enough for the sign to be changed.
"Not possible," I muttered, staring at the ground. I was beginning to have memory flashes. You know, those little things buried so deep inside that only a reality explosion will bring them to the surface.
And right now I was remembering that Phoebe Caine, a former acquaintance in my life D.A.—During Alex—would spill Everest-size amounts of delicate information when bribed with Godiva chocolates. And this was the woman I'd spoken to on the telephone a month before, making her promise that she wouldn't tell anyone that I'd called.
But this had nothing to do with the limousine. Did it?
"You better go talk to him. He's looking this way," Elise murmured.
"Who's looking this way?" Denial. It's a pitiful thing. You'd think after this many years, I would have figured that out. But no. It had become my first weapon of defense.
"Alex Scott." Annie said the name so matter-of-factly that she could have been talking about Mr. Bender at the hardware store instead of one of the biggest names at the box office.
There was no way he could recognize me at this distance. I'm a hairstylist. I see my reflection in the mirror all day and it's nowhere close to the one that looked back at me when I was in my early twenties. More wrinkles. Not to mention the rest of me. There was more of that, too.
I had the weird, surreal feeling that I was watching one of his movies. The driver, who looked like he was moonlighting from his other job as an NFL linebacker, got out and started unloading luggage from the trunk. Luggage. People were starting to pause in midstep and stare. Limousines in Prichett just weren't that common. Now if someone had parked a combine in front of my shop, no one would have blinked an eye.
I swallowed to dislodge my heart, which had wiggled its way into my throat and was beating ten times faster than usual.
God, can You explain this? I mean, what is this!
Talking to God is something new in my life and it is getting easier and easier for me, thanks to Annie's influence. I'm trying to settle into listening, too, but somehow that isn't as easy. I frequently remind myself that God gave me two ears and one mouth and there must have been a good reason for that divine design. But just because I was spending time with God and starting to make peace with my past didn't mean that I wanted to work things out—face-to-face—with it. I hadn't let myself think about Alex for oh, all right, at least twenty-four hours, which is ridiculous because the last time I'd seen him was ten years ago. I was hit with the sudden urge to escape into a quart of Ben and Jerry's, and never come out. Hiding. I'd turned it into an art form. Esther Crandall, a friend of mine at the Golden Oaks Nursing Home who practically oozes wisdom from every pore, told me that one of God's favorite words is surprise and I am now a card-carrying believer that it's true.
The proof was standing next to a black limo. Alex Scott was in Prichett.
He was staring in our direction, his shoulders slightly hunched against the chill in the air. That might have had something to do with the fact that he was dressed for California in late October, not for Wisconsin. We knew better. My winter coat was already on red alert, hanging on a hook beside the door with my wool gloves tucked into the pockets.
I could feel Elise and Annie looking at me. My toes suddenly curled inside my shoes as if they'd formed their own survivalist agenda. My brain picked up the signal. Make a break for it. Unfortunately, Annie's fingers were still woven into mine. I couldn't run without dragging her along with me and she'd just found out a month ago that she was pregnant with twins. It probably wouldn't be fair to the little newbies to get them involved in my mad dash out of Prichett.
I could tell the second he recognized me. His hand lifted in a hesitant wave and he started walking toward the park, which up until five minutes ago had been a quiet retreat from a stressful morning in which I had to use scissors and half a jar of peanut butter to get a package of bubble gum—chewed—out of a four-year-old girl's hair while her mother watched in an almost catatonic state.
"We'll talk to you later," Elise said, peeling my hand away from hers.
"You can't leave me alone with him." Breathe, Bernice. In. Out. In. Out.
"You'll be okay," Annie said, but there was a shadow of a frown between her eyebrows.
"You called him," Elise reminded me.
I had called him. Right before I'd chickened out and told Phoebe, his publicist, not to tell him that I'd called.
"I called him but I didn't expect he'd show up here! Where am I going to put him?" I demanded. "There is nowhere in this town that I can hide him. Candy probably has a five-pound sack of birdseed with his name engraved on it already."
As I'd said before, Candy Lane was Prichett's mayor. Somewhere in the fine print that outlined her mayoral duties, it must have said something about hunting down unsuspecting tourists and gifting them with a bag of birdseed—she also owns the feed store—or sending them to Sally's Café for a piece of pie. On the house. They had to pay fifty cents if they wanted it à la mode.
My breath stalled again because Alex was a hundred feet away and closing in fast. It isn't fair that some men are hurt-your-eyes good-looking. And it wasn't fair that the years had carefully chiseled character into the lines on his face while they'd used a jackhammer on mine. His hair was shorter than I remembered, but still as dark as espresso. His skin was evenly and disgustingly tanned.And his eyes didn't need tinted contact lenses to make them any bluer. He looked the same but different.
There were too many years separating us. And every one of them disappeared the second he smiled. "Hi, Bernice."
* * *
Alex Scott was one of those things that happen to other people. Beautiful people. People who are ushered to the head of the line and accept that it's their right. People who own houses scattered all over the world.
But somehow he became something that happened to me. Our paths crossed when I worked in Los Angeles as a hair-stylist for the rich and infamous. Nell, my boss, had been called to a movie set for a hair emergency and as her stylistin-training—I handed her the curling irons, combs and scissors—she'd made me come along. It turned out the hair emergency belonged to an actress who had tried to trim her own bangs. She'd cut it when it was wet and hadn't allowed for proper shrinkage, so when her hair dried it had climbed up to the top of her forehead.
She was crying and carrying on, and I watched for about ten minutes as everyone tried to alternately encourage, sympathize and cheer her up. Even Nell, who was used to this sort of thing, looked as though she was about to cry.
The whole situation was ridiculous and if no one else was going to point that out, then I figured it was my civic duty. "Oh, please! It's not your arm or your leg you cut off, it's just hair!"
There was complete silence as everyone in the room gawked at me. Then, someone clapped. Loudly. Deliberately.
It was Alex Scott. I recognized him the minute he'd stood up, unrolling his six-foot-two frame from a chair in the corner. He gave me a mischievous wink. "She's right. Let's speed this up a little, okay? I have a dinner date tonight."
The actress harpooned me with an evil look and then pouted up at him. "A date? You didn't mention that before."
He'd shrugged and I'd tried not to stare. Alex Scott's career was just starting to take off and it occurred to me that the set we'd been called to was for his latest movie.
I shot a nervous glance at Nell. I'd only been working for her for six months and I knew I was dispensable. There were only a few hundred people willing to thank me for my stupidity and jump into my shoes.
The actress was still fuming but at least it was a silent tantrum now. Nell was smiling.
I wondered if she smiled right before she fired her assistants.
"Go ahead and see what you can do," she told me.
Instead of firing me, she handed me her scissors.
The actress began to fuss and fidget, obviously as doubtful about this sudden turn of events as I was.
"You aren't queasy at the sight of blood, are you?" I asked her.
Her eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"Because if you don't sit still, I might accidentally cut your earlobe off or something. I'm new at this."
She sat still.
Working with Nell, I never ceased to be amazed at what constituted a crisis. An extra two pounds from a weekend of pasta overload. A blemish erupting on a forehead. These were the things that normal women lived with every day and they had to pluck their own eyebrows besides. I started to wonder if I had the patience to deal with this kind of thing on a regular basis the way Nell did.
"You see, with the shape of your face you could be bald and still look beautiful," I told her, hearing the frustration creep into my voice. Yup, that tone will win friends and influence people, Bernice. As far as I was concerned, she had no right to complain about her looks, shrunken bangs or not. Not when some people—present company included—had features that were put together like a human Picasso. "You don't need the bangs anyway. Watch this."
A half hour later there was a crowd of people in the trailer and a very happy actress admiring her reflection in the mirror.
I turned to give Nell her scissors back. She shook her head.
"You keep them, sweetie. I have a feeling that you're going to need them." Laughing, she walked out the door.
"Yeah, famous people love to get yelled at," I muttered under my breath.
"So, how about dinner?"
I heard the question but continued to pack away my toolbox full of supplies.
"You do eat, don't you?"
I looked up and there was Alex Scott, standing two feet away. And he was looking right at me. "You're kidding, right?" I said the first words that came into my mind. "Does it look like I pass up that last piece of cheesecake?"
"Happens to be my favorite, too. So what do you say?" What do I say? What do I say to Alex Scott—Alex Scott—asking me out for dinner? I say that I somehow got sucked into an alternate universe, that's what I say.
But even in an alternate universe, I'm sure that the beautiful people only ask other beautiful people out for dinner. "Why?"
"Because I've been forgetting some things that maybe you can help me remember."
With that first date flashing before my eyes, I was only dimly aware of Elise squeezing my hand to bring me back to reality.
And the reality was that Alex had found me. Again. "Annie, you did need some help with those curtains this afternoon, didn't you? We better scoot." Elise had to use one hand to peel the other one away from the death grip I had on it.
"I do need help." Annie was trying really hard not to grin.
Everyone looked at me, waiting expectantly. Introductions. I could do those.
"Alex, these are my friends, Elise Penny and Annie Carpenter," I said, squeezing every drop of polite etiquette into my voice instead of screaming at him. Whatareyoudoinghere?
"It's nice to meet you. I'm Alex Scott."
Honestly, was it even necessary to say it? Thanks to cable, everyone with a television set knew who he was.
"I thought we were going to pick out fabric together," I said, narrowing my eyes at Elise and Annie. Subliminal message coming through. Don't you dare leave me!
"You two probably have a lot of catching up to do," Elise said.
"You've got that right," Alex said cheerfully. As if on a silent cue, we all fell into step together. Bless their hearts,Annie and Elise could sense that I was still poised to bolt and they positioned themselves protectively on either side of me as we walked toward the salon. I was on my lunch break and my next appointment was in forty-five minutes. I calculated the time it would take to push Alex and his luggage back into the limo and finish what was left of my tuna sandwich. I'd probably even have a few extra minutes to clean out my comb drawer.
"I'll call you two later." As soon as I get rid of him.
"Sounds great." Annie linked her arm through Elise's and she did a funny hop-skip step as they walked away that reminded me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Lions and tigers and movie stars. Oh, my!
Now we were alone. But not. Alex was oblivious to the attention we were getting as he looked up and down Prichett's Main Street, absorbing his surroundings. I tried to see it through his eyes and wondered if he'd be able to appreciate it. For the past ten years, this was the view I saw out my window every day, both from the salon and my upstairs apartment. It wasn't perfect but I loved it. Maybe that's why I loved it.
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