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C.J. started to say she was the church's secretary, not a matchmaking service, but she decided to bridle her tongue. After all, Blake Dix, the new music director at Trinity Baptist Church, had recently arrived in Hot Coffee, Mississippi, from Las Vegas. He was probably in culture shock.
"You might try hanging out at Chat 'N Chew BarBQ. That's the only spot in Hot Coffee that has any action."
"Thanks for the tip." The chair banged against the worn wooden floor as Blake stood up and tossed a bundle of papers on her desk. "Would you type those for me? I need them by tomorrow."
"Sure. I'll rearrange my social calendar."
"You're a hoot, C.J."
She wanted to throw her shoe at him and yell, "I could have a social life if I wanted to," which was a baldfaced lie.
It's true that she lacked grace and beauty, but women homelier than she had lovers and husbands and babies and sweet little houses all their own. C.J. didn't know what she was doing wrong. Maybe her expectations were too high. Maybe she should settle for less than intelligence and integrity and kindness. And it wouldn't hurt if they weregood-looking, to boot. Maybe she should quit longing for excess and be satisfied with the likes of Leonard Lumpkin who wanted to move her to his farm and make her a domestic goddess.
Maybe she should just quit dreaming.
She did, temporarily. C.J. set to work typing. If she hurried she would be home by eight o'clock. Not that it mattered. Nobody was waiting for her except her dad, and he would barely notice what time she got home. Just the same, she stopped typing long enough to call and say she'd be late.
She was the only twenty-five-year-old she knew still living with her daddy. Not that she minded taking care of Sam: in addition to being a wonderful parent, he was the only hero she'd ever had.
In high school everybody had said C.J. was "going places." So far the only place she'd gone was to Itawamba Junior College only fifty miles from home.
Not that she minded home, either. C.J. liked the little yellow cottage on the outskirts of town. She enjoyed the pecan trees in the front yard and the big pasture in back that harbored an assortment of strays her father had collected over the years - a Siamese cat, four dogs of undetermined lineage and Suzy the fat cow. The animals were the only evidence left that Sam had once been the county's finest veterinarian. C.J. had planned to follow in his footsteps, perhaps even set up practice with him, but the accident changed everything.
She pushed the accident from her mind as she drove home. When she turned into the familiar driveway she saw Ellie Jones's little red VW bug parked in front of the house. It wasn't unusual to see Ellie there. She and C.J.'s mother, Phoebe, had been best friends as well as sorority sisters. Since Phoebe's death Ellie had been a mother to C.J., a quiet strong presence hovering over her and Sam like a guardian angel.
C.J. found Ellie and Sam on the back porch drinking lemon balm tea, he still in bedroom slippers and she in tennis shoes with her feet propped up on the railing.
"Ellie! You look wonderful."
"Piffle. I'm a dried-up old prune with a face like the map of China. Sit. I brought cookies."
"Yum." C.J. grabbed three, nevermind the calories. The only thing she had in her favor was the fact that no matter how much she ate she was still so skinny she could stand sideways and you'd never know she was there.
"I came to see if you'd be Lee County's Dairy Princess," Ellie said, and C.J. nearly choked on her cookie.
"This is a joke, right?"
"No. I won't beat around the bush, C.J."
"Have you ever?" Sam said, deadpan.
"Nobody entered the local pageant and I need a contestant to represent Lee County in the state's pageant. There's scholarship money, not much on the local level, but it will be yours automatically when you assume the title. The state's scholarship is big enough to put you through vet school."
"I think you should do it, C.J.," Sam said. C.J. figured her chance of winning the state's scholarship money was as remote as her chance of turning into a raving beauty overnight, but that didn't mean she wasn't willing to help an old friend. As the county's Extension Agent, Ellie was responsible for the local Dairy Princess pageant as well as overseeing the 4-H Clubs and homemaking activities for the entire county. In view of all Ellie had done for them over the last six years, being princess by default was the least C.J. could do.
"Would I have to parade onstage in a swimsuit?"
"No. Evening gown only. That, plus give a speech about the dairy industry."
The only time C.J. ever gave a speech, she broke out in hives. This Dairy Princess business was sounding worse by the minute. Still, she owed Ellie and certainly didn't want to hurt her feelings. Maybe she could find a graceful way out.
"I don't know anything about the dairy industry. I probably don't even qualify. What about Sandi Wentworth? She's a natural," C.J. added.
Sandi had grown up next door with only her grandmother to guide her. She was more than a friend to C.J. She was like a sister.
"She doesn't qualify. Too old and no dairy herd."
"That leaves me out. I don't have a dairy herd."
"Yes, you do."
"A herd of one. Fatten her up and she'll pass for two."
"That takes care of the cow, but what about me? There's only so much a push-up bra and a new hairstyle can do."
"I'll help," Ellie said, and that's when C.J. knew she was in trouble. Ellie's only brush with beauty was the roses she grew, and as far as glamour went, nobody had seen her legs since l979. Ellie Jones wore khakis everywhere. She added a black jacket for somber occasions and red for festive.
Still ... C.J.'s mother had been considered the most beautiful woman in Lee County, if not the whole state of Mississippi, and had collected beauty queen trophies the way other girls collected charms for their bracelets. C.J. had always had a secret yen to be like her mother.
"I'll do it," she said.
Excerpted from The Accidental Princess by Peggy Webb Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.