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Crissy secretly observed the newcomer. He stood at the edge of the circle of tourists she was regaling with a humorous word picture of life in the Ozark Mountains. After several months in her official capacity as Silver Dollar City's storyteller, she still felt a deep satisfaction when she heard the appreciative chuckles and outright laughter at her downhome tales. In just seven days her job would be over, because the amusement center closed for the season. She'd miss playing her mountain gal character, Tulip Bloom. So now, with added zest, she continued to spar verbally with her audience and make all of them feel "to home" with amusing stories describing her fictional relatives and kinfolk.
She leaned toward a woman about her age and, using a stage whisper, she inquired, "You shore you ain't kin to the Bloom clan, gal? I swar, you shorely remind me of my cousin, twice removed, Bessie Bloom. Yes, siree, her pappy done shot ten men afore she were fifteen, account of their amorrous intentions! Then one day, she jist up and disappeared, with a travelin' man, and we ain't heerd hide nor hair from her since. You plumb shore you was birthed and raised in Kansas City, gal?" All the woman did was giggle and blush furiously at being singled out.
Crissy tilted her head to one side, giving her bouncy black curls a shake that sent tiny shock waves to her precariously perched tattered straw hat with a red tulip growing out of its crown. The gold of her dark brown, heavily fringed eyes danced with merriment as she worked her way around the group, telling one story after another. Her appealing vitality was only enhanced by painted on frecklessprinkled liberally across her pert upturned nose and round pink cheeks. Her mountain gal costume was winsome and fetching; she was glad it was still comfortable under the Indian summer sun. The top was what she called her "Daisy Mae" blouse--white, with large purple polka dots. Its oversized, short puffed sleeves and scoop neckline were attractive, but certainly not daring. The dark green, homespun prairie skirt brushed the tops of her heavy clodhoppers.
"Got to ware good sturdy boots ifen you want to outsmart them copperheads," she would tell people who questioned her footwear.
Within a few minutes she'd circled to stand before the stranger. Quickly she sized him up, a practice at which she had become rather astute, and one she thoroughly enjoyed. This man was definitely not an ordinary tourist. His well-tailored dark suit and blue dress shirt told her he was a businessman; the expensive silk tie around his collar told her he was a successful one. He was ruggedly attractive, too. About six feet tall or a shade more, he looked as though he might be in his late thirties. His provocative, cobalt blue eyes sent shivers down her spine when they locked with hers. Was he laughing at her or with her, she wondered? A light breeze ruffled his medium brown, thick, wavy hair: the September sunlight filtering through the trees glinted off natural streaks of gold.
She was suddenly and vividly aware of his forceful virility.
In her role of Tulip she could be as outspoken as she wanted to be. She continued to grin drunkenly at him. His thick moustache twitched slightly when he tried to suppress the smile playing at the corners of his wide, sensuous mouth. Finally he could not contain it, and when he smiled at her, his eyes lit up and deep dimples appeared as if by magic in his lean, tanned cheeks. How those dimples complemented the cleft in his well defined chin! She allowed her mouth to gape open in theatrical adulation, but her heart told her with its double-time hammering that it wasn't all an act. He was something else!
At once she decided to go into her flirting routine, sure that the rest of the crowd would enjoy her antics. Sidling up close to his tall, straight frame, she purred enticingly, "Howdy, mister. You shore do look like a big city feller. Where does you hail from?"
He seemed to enjoy being part of her little act. "I'm from New York City, Ms. Bloom," he answered, his deep voice even, but his clear eyes sparkling with challenge. Her training in speech and theater made her admire his dulcet tones.
She sighed audibly, and gushed, "You kin call me Tulip, mister. What be yore name?"
"James Robert Prince III," he answered, bowing slightly and simultaneously reaching into his jacket pocket. "My card," he added, handing her an engraved thick piece of cream-colored paper. "At your service...Tulip," he murmured, smiling handsomely.
She sighed again, this time in earnest, but no one knew, except perhaps the man with whom she was parrying. His eyes grew a shade darker when their fingers touched electrically. Oh, this man was sure of himself, she thought. Needed to be brought down a peg or two, though... and she was just the one to do it! She looked with longing at his lean features. Shyly she reached out to stroke his cheek and touch his thick moustache. She almost snatched her hand away when she felt again that chemical reaction. "You shore is purty, mister," she drooled audaciously, turning her head to wink broadly at the chuckling crowd around her. "Yore jist about the purtiest thang ever I seed. I reckon I jist might ask my pappy to git you fer me," she said, licking her lips with only half-feigned hunger.
Before she could continue, he took a step forward and slid his strong forefinger down her ski jump nose, gently grazing her full, parted lips until he settled on her chin. "I doubt your pappy's intervention would be necessary, Tulip," he said, playing his part to the hilt.
Now, Crissy knew that many tourists were thwarted actors, and she could never be sure how her improvisational skits were going to turn out. But this man's thespian skills were more professional than any other visitor's so far, and at the moment she wasn't all that sure he was acting! Take control again, she ordered herself.
"Well, Jimmy Bob," she began, noting with relish how he winced at her blatant nickname for him, "my Granny Bloom would think yore a prince of a feller fer me." She giggled with the rest of the group when he raised an eyebrow at her broad pun of his fine, aristocratic name. "But you don't strike me as a businessman, Jimmy Bob. No, siree, you looks more to me like a hunter ... but I can't rightly decide ifen you hunts the four-legged or two-legged variety of critter." Her jab at his inflated ego was hidden behind an innocent expression. Head cocked flirtatiously, her forefinger pressed against her rosy cheek, she pretended to ponder.
The esteemed Mr. Prince had complete control of his features when he answered in a serious tone, "It all depends on which is in season. Ms. Bloom. If my perceptions are correct, by tonight it will be open season on two-legged mountain gals," he drawled. His comment was heavy with sexual innuendo. "Have dinner with me," he ordered softly, unmindful of the surprised looks on the faces of the strangers encircling them.
"Pappy wouldn't 'low it, Jimmy Bob," she shot back, her eyes narrowing. "Remember my cousin Bessie and her travelin' man," she warned, stepping back into the center of the group and immediately catching everyone's interest with a longwinded story about a citified hunter who used a bird mule. She had the crowd howling with her frozen statue caricature of a pointing mule. Just as the story ended, everyone turned when the crowd heard a man calling to her from the small stage nearby.
"Tulip! Tulip Bloom!" the man called in his mountain twang. "It's time fer our show, gal."
Crissy excused herself and ran gaily over to the stage and climbed the three steps to the large wooden platform where two men waited for her. Both were dressed in tattered bib overalls with faded blue work shirts and the ever popular battered straw hats and clodhopper boots. The man who had called her was clanging a huge triangle with a hammer, sending out an earsplitting announcement of their intentions. "Ya all come over here and set yo'self down. We's fixin' to entertain you'uns," he bellowed.
Soon the heavy, hand hewn log benches were filled, and out of the corner of her eye Crissy saw that the unlikely tourist, Mr. Prince, had taken a seat near the front and to the side. His clear blue gaze still held a challenge for Crissy as she walked about the stage, setting up props and waving to the crowd. When it was time for their opening number, she hoisted her unfashionable boot up on the rim of a washtub bull fiddle and began plunking away. One of her partners took up a time-worn banjo, the other a washboard, and the thimbles on his hand beat out a wild rhythm to match the other two. Soon they were warmed up for a rowdy rendition of "When the Sun Don't Set on Bald Mountain, I'll Be Comin' Back to You."
Crissy was the MC, and stepped up to the microphone. "Howdee, folks. I'm Tulip Bloom. This here's my brother Jesse," she went on, pointing with her thumb over her shoulder at the gangling, shy youth at her side. "And this here's my brother Jake," she added, turning to grin at her fifty-year-old partner, who wore a bushy, grayflecked beard. "They's twins, you know," she informed the audience. Hoots and hollers were the response.
"Jake was born first. We never hurries anything in the mountains," she declared drolly, waiting with precise timing to go on. "Jake, here, jist looks older," she explained. "He runs moonshine, and he's had enuf close calls with the revenooers to age him twenty years. Jesse, here, jist drinks the stuff, so's he gits younger lookin' every day!" She laughed.
The show moved right along and, as usual, Crissy's timing was perfect as she fed lines to the two men. They, in turn, gave her the center stage for her storytelling. But part of Crissy's attention was focused on James Robert Prince III. His eyes didn't leave her throughout the performance. The challenge was still there, and she felt drawn to him.
She split the air with a mountain yell, and her face glowed. "Well, gosh o' mighty, folks, I's jist spotted some kinfolk," she said, leaving the stage to plop herself onto Prince's lap. She didn't count on his arms snaking around her waist to hold her tightly in his steel embrace, threatening to cut off her circulation. When she dared to glance at his face, his eyes told her she was going to have to pay a heavy price for making him the butt of her humor. She tried to get up, but he held her fast.
For a moment she almost panicked. But then one of her partners shouted from the stage. "Hey, Tulip, why ain't you givin' our couzin the regular Ozark Mountain greetin' fer kinfolk?"
She looked the man straight in the eyes and burst out nervously, "Becuz he ain't no kissin' cousin!"
His deep laugh of appreciation rumbled in his chest. "Don't let that stop you, Tulip," he returned smoothly, shocking her to her toes. When he released her and she could breathe again, he hissed out of hearing from the nearby patrons, "Have dinner with me."
She shook her head sternly and scurried away back to the stage like a flushed rabbit. She took a great gulp of air and went into the closing, which was a foot stomping, loud singing, down-home dance number. When it was over, the three performers bowed to the audience and waved, shouting, "Yo'all come back, hear?" When the last member of the audience had left, the team reset the props for the next show and quietly congratulated one another on the good performance.