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Plain Jane & the Hotshot
By Meagan McKinney
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Meagan McKinney
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You she-cubs need to think of something other than men and makeup." Hazel McCallum, the matriarch of Mystery, Montana, furrowed her brow in concentration as she continued speaking to the young woman sitting next to her in the car.
She slowed down for the empty logging truck that growled up the mountain slope ahead of them, then rambled on, "I know one goes with the other, but this trip's just for the gals. No men allowed."
"I wear hardly any makeup, Hazel, you know that. And as for men, I'm not exactly attracting them like flies to honey - with my bad luck, I'm not going to have to be reminded to put all my boyfriends in the toy box for a weekend." Joanna Lofton almost laughed. Hazel darn well knew she was the little gray mouse of Mystery, and that the matriarch was coyly trying to forget that fact made Jo's alarms go off.
"But all that girlie froufrou won't matter up on Bridger's Summit," Hazel rattled on, as if purposely not hearing Joanna. "There might be a few males up there, I suppose, but only if you count the bears, too."
"Bears?" Jo's eyes widened. The plain-Jane highschool music teacher was Montana-born and -bred, but even she was used to civilization. Her neighborhood in Mystery Valley was a world of cedar town houses and tiny tourist shops, with picturesque cattle ranches seen only from the road, Hazel's vast Lazy M spread included. Bears, rattlesnakes and other hazards of the wild were seldom encountered in the valley anymore.
The Bitterroot National Forest, in sharp contrast, was practically the old frontier untamed, and Jo was having second thoughts about letting her friend Hazel talk her into the trip.
Jo had agreed without really thinking about it. Hazel said the girls' weekend would do her good, perhaps get her out of the funk she was in. But there was never any talk of being mauled by wild animals.
"Did I hear the word bears?" Bonnie Lassiter interjected nervously from the back seat. "Grizzly bears?"
Hazel and Stella Mumford, the other woman who, like Hazel, was well into her seventies, laughed as if on cue.
"You believe these two youngsters, Hazel?" Stella teased. "You'd think both of 'em are from Manhattan. Bonnie, even a townie like me knows you'll find few grizzlies anymore in the lower forty-eight."
Jo glanced behind her to exchange a sympathetic glance with Bonnie. They were both the same age, twenty-five, and both from Mystery. Jo knew Bonnie was a divorced hairstylist who worked in Mystery Valley's most popular salon. They were also both starting to realize they had committed themselves to ten rugged days in the unfamiliar wilderness.
Hazel saw their covert glances, and a sly smile pulled at her lips.
The cattle baroness might have looked petite behind the wheel of her cinammon-and-black Fleetwood, her suede driving gloves only enhancing the "little old lady" impression. But there was nothing fuddy-duddy about the seventy-five-year-old's driving skills, nor her fierce passion for Mystery, which was why she had embarked upon her latest endeavor of playing matchmaker in order to keep her beloved town young and alive.
"Move it or lose it, bull-whacker," she muttered, the Cadillac swooping out smoothly to pass the truck.
Jo tried to feel excited about the adventure in store for her. If she didn't know better, she'd have sworn Hazel was going to try to hone those matchmaking skills on her, but Hazel had described the Mountain Gals Rendezvous as a lot of fun and a sort of female confidence-building course. The older women, all "graduates" of the course themselves, no longer actively participated in the more-strenuous activities; they only supervised, letting the younger women take turns leading each other in a series of mental and physical challenges.
And no men were allowed. Hazel had made that clear before Jo would even consider coming. Jo didn't want a fix-up. After Ned, all she wanted was to lick her wounds and stay very far away from the flames that had burned her.
"Low country's in the rearview mirror now," Hazel said when the birch-covered foothills were abruptly replaced with steeper slopes and gradually thinning timber.
"Jo, I hope you at least were a Girl Scout," Bonnie declared, "because I sure wasn't. Only place I ever camped out was in the backyard."
Jo looked back at Bonnie, sending her friend a hesitant smile. "I think I know some heavy-duty survival skills - like how to roast marshmallows."
It was a harmless joke, but Jo's timidity seemed to irk the outspoken and hard-charging Stella.
"My goodness, Jo," she scolded mildly, "do you know you're so timid you even have a one-sided smile? Put your whole mouth into it! Pretty girl like you, it's a shame. Where did you inherit that shyness of yours? If I didn't know it for a fact, I'd never believe your momma was Miss Montana. Hon, when you've got a dazzling smile, don't hide it under a basket."
Jo realized Stella meant well. But the heat of resentment came into her face at yet another reminder that she lived in her mother's beauty-queen shadow, inadequate, a flawed colorless chip off the dazzling marble block.
Other girls were allowed to develop their own personalities, while Jo was expected to effortlessly replicate her mother's charming, gregarious, photogenic, always "on" vivacity. The ironic result was to make a naturally shy girl even shier.
"Never mind who was Miss Montana," Hazel interceded, sensing Jo's discomfort. "It's all history now. The point is, any gal needs a backbone, not a wishbone. The rendezvous is just what these town girls need to put some stiff in their spines."
Hazel's right, Jo tried to rally herself, the past is just history now. She was on a new road to a new outlook on life. The hurt couldn't count so much if there were no men around, even if that hurt caused by a cheating English professor in a midlife crisis left a hard, piercing sadness down deep where language couldn't soothe it.
At the sudden, unwelcome memory, Jo felt the warm and stinging threat of tears.
"Five more minutes and we're officially campers," Hazel announced as she swung the car off the blacktop road onto a narrow gravel access lane. Although bigger trees had thinned out, stunted jack pines closed in on the lane and cut off any distant view.
Excerpted from Plain Jane & the Hotshot by Meagan McKinney Copyright © 2003 by Meagan McKinney
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.