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Charlene Nancy Boyd, Chancy for short, loved antiques so much that she was willing to work 24/7 to find and preserve them. On balmy spring days like this one, however, she was happy to find a good excuse to leave her shop and venture into the beautiful Ozark hills. Dogwood trees had started to lose their white blossoms and the oaks were producing tiny chartreuse leaves that would grow, darken and soon fill the skyline.
The auction at the old farm place off Hawkins Mill Road was the kind that always made her sad. A couple's lifetime worth of belongings was being liquidated. Both Jewel and Pete Hawkins had passed away and their heirs were selling their entire estate, one piece at a time.
Those items that didn't interest surviving relatives were often the most valuable, Chancy knew, and she wanted to be there to bid. If she bought something that eventually brought a profit, fine. If she let nostalgia or enthusiasm influence her and paid too much, that was simply part of the business. She much preferred auctions to private sales because she was far too softhearted when it came to the old people who were selling their last treasures.
The crowd massing around the long tables of household goods set up in the farmyard was filled with familiar faces. Chancy greeted several acquaintances before she noticed Miss Mercy Cosgrove, a former schoolteacher she saw often, particularly in church.
Chancy waved and joined the elderly woman. "Morning. Great to see you. How've you been?"
The thin octogenarian gave her a welcoming hug, then shrugged. "Passable, considering. If I'd known how many aches and pains I'd have at this age I'd have taken better care of myself years ago."
"I know what you mean." The back of her hand rested against her lower back. She made a fist and rubbed a sore spot through her blue sweatshirt. "I get a catch every once in a while, too."
"Young thing like you?"
"I'm nearly thirty, Miss Mercy."
"That's impossible." She held out her hand waisthigh. "I remember when you were only this tall. Cute little thing you were, too, not that you're not still pretty." Eyes misty with fond memories, she studied Chancy's face. "Still got those adorable little dimples, I see. I imagine you have to beat the boys off with a stick."
Chancy couldn't help chuckling. In her teens she'd adjusted to the fact she wasn't popular the way many of the other girls were. "I think I may have hit a few of those guys too hard," she said with a smile. "Word must have gotten around because I haven't had to beat any of them off since high school." And not really then, either.
"Well, more's the pity," her former teacher said. She tittered behind her hand. "'Course, I shouldn't talk since I never remarried after my husband passed away."
"We're probably both smart to stay single," Chancy offered. "Marriage is highly overrated."
Mercy laid a hand on Chancy's arm. "Now, dear, you can't judge every couple by you know who."
She certainly did. The turbulence of her parents' union was well known to practically everybody, thanks to the longevity of juicy gossip in a small town. The atmosphere in the modest house where Chancy had grown up had been so volatile she'd moved out as soon as she'd been able to amass enough capital to start her business, and although that move had undoubtedly saved her life, she'd often wondered if her presence could have prevented her parents' untimely demise. "I should have been there to talk some sense into them," Chancy said, remembering.
"Nonsense. Nobody can predict what a tornado's going to do. If they'd gone to the storm cellar like reasonable folks would have, they'd probably have survived. They were grown–ups, Chancy, honey. They made their choice and it was the wrong one. That's not your fault."
"I know, but…"
Mercy held up a hand. "Hush. No more of that silliness.You and I can no more be responsible for life and death than we can fly. When the good Lord decides my time is up and takes me home, I don't want anybody down here to blame themselves. I'm sure your mama and daddy don't, either." She smiled sweetly.
Chancy gave her a cautious hug, mindful of her frailty. "Thanks for reminding me who's really in charge, Miss Mercy. You always were a wise lady."
"Just repeating what the Good Book says." In the background, the auctioneer began making his opening announcements. Chancy tensed, half listening while she asked, "Are you going to stay for the fun?"
"I wouldn't miss it. Got my eye on that green Depression–glass butter dish of Jewel's over there. Hope it doesn't go too high."
"I promise not to bid against you," Chancy said. Her glance passed over the crowd, assessing the competition. She knew most of the antique dealers present and would try to pass the word to them to back off and let Miss Mercy have the winning bid for the butter dish. Most would listen. These were country people. They basically looked out for each other in a manner few outsiders could comprehend.
Interceding in this small way would be Chancy's opportunity to repay the former teacher who had befriended her as a child and provided a temporary refuge from the daily emotional storms she'd faced at home.
The remembrance of her unhappy childhood settled like a rock in her stomach. She consciously pushed aside the negative feelings and began to wend her way into the throng, intent on trying to influence the bidding in favor of her old friend and mentor. As far as she could tell, there were only three dealers present who consistently bought Depression glass. She'd start with them.
The twin–engine Cessna 310 flew low over Serenity and set up for a landing at the rural airstrip. There was no control tower but that didn't bother pilot, Nate Collins. Considering some of the storms he'd encountered in the course of his job, nothing much rattled him. The excitement of being a storm–chasing meteorologist had influenced him so deeply that he often felt a letdown when nothing dangerous was in the offing.
He banked, flared and set the wheels of the plane on the numbers painted at the end of the short runway. The challenge of perfect wheel placement gave him gratification even though he could have safely landed much farther down the asphalt. Cutting the power, he taxied to transient parking where a beatup old green pickup truck waited.
An elderly man wearing denim overalls and a frayed jacket over a blue shirt got out of the truck, shaded his eyes beneath the bill of a sweat–stained baseball cap and waved.
Nate set his jaw as he returned the greeting. Grandpa Ted looked more unsteady every time Nate visited. Good thing he'd done his homework and lined up a retirement home for him and Grandma Hester before he'd left Oklahoma. It was high time they gave up this hard, dreary lifestyle and moved into a place where they'd be properly taken care of. And where he could look in on them every day if need be, Nate added, feeling pleased with himself for having taken the initiative and solving everyone's problems ahead of time.
He turned off the plane's engines, secured the controls and climbed down to chock the wheels and tie the wings down. As soon as he'd finished, Ted greeted him with a bear hug and a slap on the shoulder while the old, shaggy, black–and–white farm dog riding in the back of the truck barked a greeting.
"Good to see ya, son," Ted said. "Good flight?" "No problems," Nate answered, grabbing his overnight bag and laptop computer. "I see you've still got that noisy old dog."
"Yup. Domino and I are a pair. We're both still hangin'in there. He's good company, especially when I want to sit on the porch and watch the world go by."
"How've you been? And how's Grandma?"
"Oh, you know us," Ted said with a wide grin splitting his leathered face. "Even old age can't keep us down. Your Grandma's been bakin' ever since we heard you was comin'. She's made all your favorites."
Nate rubbed his flat stomach with his free hand. "Good thing I don't get to visit that often or I'd be fat as one of those pigs you used to raise when I was a kid."
"Speaking of being busy, how's the storm chasin' business? After all those hurricanes a few years back, are tornadoes startin' to look tame?"
Nate laughed and clapped the old man lightly on the back. "Not from where I stand. I'm glad I could sneak away for a few days. Tornado season is almost here and I never know what may pop up."
"How's this week look? Can you stick around a little while, do you think?"
"Probably. There's a high–pressure ridge in place that should keep most of the bad weather out of the plains, at least for a few days. I'll keep my eye on it."
Nate walked toward the truck with his grandfather and paused to ruffle the old dog's silky ears before he asked Ted, "Mind if I drive? I still have a soft spot in my heart for this old pickup."
"Not at all. Keys are in it. It'll be my pleasure to just ride for a change." He chuckled as he hoisted the legs of his overalls and climbed stiffly into the passenger's seat. The door slammed with a rattle and a dull bang. "Reminds me of the time I was teachin' you to drive and you ran us into that ditch over by the Mullins place."
"In this very same truck, back when it was almost new. I'm amazed you didn't yell at me," Nate added.
"We did have some good times, didn't we?"
"That, we did." Ted's shoulders shook with silent humor. "I wasn't too sure it was gonna work out when you first came to stay with us but you turned out all right, son. Yes, sir, you surely did."
"Thanks to you and Grandma Hester," Nate said, sobering. His fingers tightened around the steering wheel. "I owe you both a lot."
"Nonsense," Ted said. "You don't owe us a bloomin' thing, boy."
"Still, I'm thankful I'm in a position to take care of you the way you took care of me."
Watching his grandfather out of the corner of his eye to gauge his reaction, Nate saw him stiffen and push himself up straighter in the seat.
"You ain't gonna start that nonsense again, are you?"
Nate ignored his scowl. "It's not nonsense. You and Grandma deserve a chance to kick back and relax."
The old man sighed and shook his head as if he thought Nate was addled. "If I don't have my chores and my shop and Hester don't have her kitchen and garden to tend, we might as well curl up and die right now. I appreciate your concern, truly I do, but we're not ready to retire from life."
"Okay," Nate said. He didn't want to start off on a sour note. There'd be plenty of time to discuss making sensible changes during the remainder of his visit.
He drove out of the airport and headed down Byron Road. To his surprise, cars were parked on the grassy shoulder on both sides of the two–lane road as he neared its junction with Hawkins Mill Road.
"What's going on here?" Nate asked.
"Farm auction." Ted grimaced as if it pained him to say the words. "The Hawkins place. Jewel went first. Ol' Pete was lost without her. He didn't last three months after she died. Didn't think he would."
Nate arched an eyebrow but held his peace. Jewel and Pete Hawkins had been friends and neighbors of his grandparents for literally decades. Losing them both so close together had to have been difficult. He saw no need to point out the obvious correlation between their lives.