The town's still buzzing over Ida and Amos's kiss. Hannah's heart flutters every time a certain handsome Scottish photographer walks into her library. Peggy's debating her first real date since her husband died. Harry's keeping a romantic secret from Josie. Sandy's got a romantic surprise for Jess. Sagan has to decide whether he and Emily really are a couple, and Win Allen's preparing his restaurant for the biggest night of the year. So what could make the weekend more Chaotic? The Circus! Cirque d'Europa is stranded in Mossy Creek, and Creekites find themselves hosting some very strange characters with romantic problems of their own.
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The Mossy Creek Gazette
215 Main Street * Mossy Creek, Georgia
From the Desk of Katie Bell, Business Manager
Lady Victoria Salter Stanhope
The Cliffs, Seaward Road
St. Ives, Cornwall TR37PJ
Remember how I told you I sensed trouble in the air last month, on that whacky winter Saturday when common sense left town on a cold January breeze and all heck broke loose? Miss Irene led the elderly Creekites in a handicapped scooter protest, and Honey and Bert Lymon escaped from their gas-filled house thanks to a miracle, and Amos hauled Ida home from another of her escapades only to have Ida's boyfriend, Del Jackson, catch the two of them kissing in Ida's yard at Hamilton Farm like a pair of lovestruck teenagers? Ida backed away from the romance faster than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and she hoped no one in town would find out. But you and I both know how gossip travels in Mossy Creek, so now everyone knows our police chief and our mayor are an item. Only they aren't. Or are they?
Well, my dear English girl, you ain't heard nothing yet.
We have just survived the weirdest Valentine's Day weekend in the history of Mossy Creek. Let me just tell you this much up front: People aren't kidding when they say romance is like a circus.
Your clown-faced gossip columnist,
All right, here's the short and sweet of it: Last month, Amos Royden and I had a Las Vegas moment. That's all. End of gossip. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Whathappened in January stays in January.
Why? Because I won't risk having Amos look at me one day as I'm scrubbing my dentures or adjusting my support hose and wish he'd fallen in love with someone closer to his own age. I have my pride. Even when I no longer have teeth or vivacious leg veins, I'll still have my pride.
He won't be honest with me about the brutal facts of life. Maybe he wants children. Maybe he doesn't. He refuses to say. Men have the luxury of postponing fatherhood until they're old enough to shop for their own diapers as well as their baby's. Women don't have that choice. Oh, sure, aging celebrities and the occasional Romanian grandmother make headlines with miracle births, but not without medical assistance. Besides, any woman over forty-five who tries to get pregnant needs to have her menopausal head examined. Just my opinion. I'm not sending a team of doctors on an Easter egg hunt through my ovaries.
I don't deserve this romantic dilemma. My life is just fine the way it is, thank you very much. I'm fifty years old, have been respectably widowed for twenty of those years, and have served five sterling terms as mayor of Mossy Creek; I have a wonderful son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. I'm wealthy, an accomplished businesswoman, and last but not least, I'm a good-looking redhead who can still wear skinny jeans and pass for thirty-five in the right indoor light.
Listen, I have my choice of lusty, fine-looking men my own age, and no one accuses me of being prim about enjoying their, ahem, attention. I'm a passionate woman. I wear heirloom pearls with my Lynard Skynnard t-shirts, I listen to Fleetwood Mac, drink bourbon, drive my late husband's red Corvette well over the speed limit, and recently sang a fabulous, jazzy rendition of The Lighthouse at a gospel music competition up in Nashville, Tennessee. I lost in the finals to a young Aretha Franklin clone who said I was the loudest white woman she'd ever heard.
I took it as a compliment. I'm proud of who and what I am. I like being unpredictable. People know that about me. "That Ida Hamilton Walker, you can't pin the same notion on her twice," Eula Mae Whit likes to say. At 101 Miz Eula Mae is the oldest and wisest person in town, and I like how she puts things.
So, given all of the above credentials, I should have been able to kiss Amos, our police chief, last month without everyone in Mossy Creek rushing down to Bigelow Mall to buy us "His and Her" monogrammed towels at Bed, Bath & Beyond. My fellow Creekites ought to know I have no intention of making an honest man out of Amos. For one thing, there was nothing dishonest about his part in the dastardly kiss. I'm the one with a significant other to consider. I'm the one who betrayed retired Lt. Colonel Del Jackson, a man I adore.
Okay, I admit it. I've dreamed of kissing Amos at times. A lot of times. Twenty years of times. Again. The first time I kissed my future police chief he was a tall, awkward, consoling teenager struggling to elude the shadow of his legendary lawman father, Battle Royden. I was a grieving young widow whose beloved husband had died up on Colchik Mountain while trying to rescue two stranded deputy sheriffs.
It was one of those cinematic, Summer of '42 incidents, completely spontaneous and unplanned and relatively innocent. In my misery I wanted to slash my breasts, saw off my hair, wail to the moon. I had my son, Rob, to raise and an important Hamilton family legacy to manage, but during those dark weeks after Jeb was killed I could barely think of moving forward. I couldn't even breathe. The slightest brush of a butterfly's wings would have stopped the air in my lungs for good.
With that one kiss, Amos saved my life. He forced me to gasp in shock, to inhale the sweet, startling sensation of need, of want, of life. Amos will never know how close I came to pulling him down on the soft mountain grass that day at The Sitting Tree. Only an immediate tidal wave of shame--How can I betray Jeb's memory this way? How can I take advantage of Amos, he's only sixteen!--made me push myself away. And has made me keep my distance ever since.
The kiss has remained our secret. We never mention it, even to each other. But neither of us has ever forgotten it, either, and now, yes, twenty years later, we've gone and done it again. Maybe just to see if it was as good as the first time.
This time the kiss happened in my own wintry front yard at Hamilton Farm. Right in front of the naked branches of the butterfly bushes and the pink Rose of Sharon. Absurdly, I kept thinking of a Lewis Grizzard book title: Don't Bend Over In The Garden, Granny, 'Cause Them Taters Got Eyes.
Del never expected to see Amos drive up the farm lane with me locked in the back of a Mossy Creek patrol car. And he certainly never expected to watch us argue outside the patrol car then throw ourselves at each other in a kiss hot enough to make my red nandina hedges blush scarlet. Actually, it wasn't just one kiss. It was a series of them, delivered with swaying, back-bending, on-our-tiptoes urgency.
I turned and there was Del, on my veranda. I'll never forget the pain in his eyes, the disappointment, the anger. My heart hurt for him. He's gorgeous, funny, sexy, smart, and a decorated hero of the first Gulf War. He's become my best friend, not just my bed partner.
Del took the betrayal as well as he could. He pretended to blame Amos for provoking me and he said he forgave me. He can't deny our relationship has been under some strain lately, since his adorably needy ex-wife arrived in Bigelow to buy a condo near their grown son and grandson.
By "adorably needy" I mean a cute blonde with Botox, implants and an eyelift, who's three years younger than me and looks thirty-five even in strong sunlight. Every time I'm forced into her presence I try not to stand beside her near a window.
People think I'm a bastion of middle-aged confidence. Yes, I am an upbeat person at heart. But anyone who's honest at mid-life will tell you that they now see a horizon in the distance. Like a haunting panorama of our farthest Appalachians, misty and lavender-blue, that border between earth and Heaven is faint but discernible now, something I take a step closer to everyday. You have to be a lot younger than fifty to believe you'll live forever. I won't call the distant horizon Death because I believe it's a crossing point, not a final destination. But it's there.
Some day that smoky-blue mountain horizon will loom up before me, and I'll smile and climb the rounded, ancient peaks as easily as a child, and when I get to the top Jeb will be waiting with open arms, along with my parents and Big Ida, my favorite grandmother, and every other person and every pet animal I've loved, and maybe even my favorite camellia shrubs and rose bushes. And in the background, Stevie Nicks will be singing Crystal.
How the faces of love have changed turning the pages, and I have changed oh, but you ... you remain ageless...
I don't know if Heaven's a golden kingdom or an astral plane, a stopover between reincarnated lives or, as my cousin Ingrid Beechum envisions, a celestial bakery where no one gets fat eating cheesecake. All I know for certain is that anywhere Jeb is will be Heaven to me.
That's my dream. I'm not anxious to reach its horizon for a long, long time--Big Ida lived to over ninety, and I think I have a good chance of pulling off the same feat--but I know my life's at least half over.
And I know that Amos's life, at the tender young age of thirty-six, is not.
There will be no more kisses between us. No more swaying, hugging, deep, soulful kisses. No dating. No engagement. No marriage. No dentures. No support hose. No regrets. No more of the town twittering over us.
Bubba Rice's place had earned a spot on my restaurant rotation. Good food served with a minimum of fanfare. Until today. Bubba was certainly serving it up with gusto today, piling it on thick. Everyone in town had taken a whack at me since the infamous kiss.
"Listen, you're gonna love this meatloaf." He sat down one of those oval platters. Bubba's didn't serve skimpy portions. "I've added cayenne pepper for an extra kick. You know, just to shake things up. Some people--not everyone--experience hot lips. So I brought you some iced tea to cool you down."
I did my best not to snatch the napkin off the table but I did snap it to shake it out. "Thank you."
"Ah, think nothing of it. We'll just ... pretend it didn't happen." And there it was. A little side dish of subtext to go along with the meatloaf. Half of Mossy Creek, the male half, were incredulous that I hadn't sealed the deal. The other half giggled and sighed and expected an engagement ring to be produced any moment.
"Win, I don't forget a friend who's looking out for me." I tried for a reassuring smile as I attempted to calculate how many line drives I could send right at Win Allen's head during spring ball practice. I was willing to bet that if I put in some hours at the batting cages over in Chinaberry that I'd hit my target as often as not. For now I raised an eyebrow and tried to look pleasant. "Anything else?"
"No. That about wraps it up."
I tapped the platter with my folk. "Good. This is about all I can stomach right now."
"I wasn't certain. You seem to be able to stomach a lot before pushing back from the table and saying, 'Enough.'"
Someone two tables away made one of those honking ha's that you make when you nervously cut off a laugh.
My silverware clattered a little louder than I actually intended. "What is it with you people? I have my love life under control, thankyouverymuch for the concern." I scanned the restaurant. Most had the decency to pretend they hadn't noticed anything. Katie Bell was scribbling furiously, one hand held up as a stop sign so we wouldn't continue until she was ready. Unbelievable.
"Excuse me." I reached over to the bread basket on Dan McNeil's table and helped myself to two slices of some thick, whole-grain bread. I slapped a wedge of meatloaf between them and told Bubba to bill me.
"Right, then!" he shouted after me. "I'll put you down for a table for two Saturday night."
Patrolling is good for the soul. And the temper. I eased off the gas pedal before I had to give myself a ticket for speeding. Shake it off, I told myself. I'd asked for this the moment I decided to cross that line with Ida. I knew this wasn't the easy road.
Every angler in America will tell you that the best fish don't jump into the boat. Nope. You have to wait it out, use every trick in your book of tricks and hope to God that when you get them close to the boat--close enough to accepting they can't break free--that they don't freak out, find superhuman strength (more ridiculous objections) and slip away again.
If you weren't committed to your plan, then you'd spend the next who-knows-how-many years talking about the one that got away. I had no intention of letting Ida get away, but some of the guys in town were beginning to make me second-guess myself, my plan. I thought I had her hooked. Maybe running out the line for all she was worth, but hooked all the same. Not that she'd appreciate the fishing analogy. And I sure didn't appreciate the speculation and ribbing coming my way. I didn't like seeing her on Del's arm.
Maybe Win had a point. Maybe it was time to change strategy.
On the northbound lane of Bigelow a long tour bus that looked as if Walt Disney World's magic had exploded all over it was pouring smoke and slowing down. I slowed and hit the light to warn any traffic behind me. The bus lurched to the side of the road and settled with a nasty clanking sound punctuated with a backfire. They weren't quite on the shoulder so I angled the Jeep and left the light going.
As I got out I had to wonder. If you could get seven clowns in a tiny circus car, how many could you get in this monster of a bus? Cirque d'Europa. Oh, boy, this was gonna be good. Or really, really bad.
The door whooshed open but I waved them back in and followed. "We'll get this sorted out but stay in here where it's warm as long as you can. Who's in charge?"
I lost count of the languages as people on both sides translated for their neighbors. One woman had a white knuckled grip on the panel separating the driver from the rest of the bus. "Me. Quinn James. I think we've broken down. The bus has been making noises for miles." She cut her eyes toward where her hands were clenched. "Sorry. I have a touch of vertigo."
Several questions and several grinding attempts to restart the engine later, it was clear that this bus wasn't going anywhere without the help of a very large tow truck.
"Don't worry about a thing. Let me get some help. You just stay where you are." I radioed Mutt and told him to rally the troops. By the time he arrived, I was all but certain Mossy Creek would have to pull together. The performers were getting restless and beginning to leave the bus as Mutt arrived. There were a lot of them.
"Listen, Ms. Quinn. Our mayor will be here soon to help you with the logistics of your people, and I know we're going to need to put some of your folks up in town. See, I have a friend and it would just thrill him to host one of your clowns."
"We don't have clowns, not like American circus clowns. We've got a couple of mimes."
"Perfect. If he could host one of the mimes, it'd just make his year. Win Allen--you might want to write that down--Win used to work with a clown down at the radio station. There was a fire and well, the clown had to move on. Win was really sad about that." I glanced up, checking for lightning, ready to push Ms. Quinn out of harm's way. Apparently the Powers-That-Be thought Win deserved a little mime punishment as well.
"Of course, Chief. I'll make a note about Mr. Allen liking mimes. But call me Quinn."
I'd been watching what appeared to be a family of jugglers. The patriarch looked like the kind of worldly charming guy that could give Del a run for his money. If I were Del, I certainly wouldn't want this guy hanging around screwing up my Valentine's plan with Ida. "One more thing, Quinn. Our mayor would be the perfect home for them." I pointed. "If anybody knows how to juggle life, it's our mayor. She's got a nice-sized home place and could host a family easily. You wouldn't have to split them up."
Suddenly a teenage girl in the patriarch's clan turned and saw me. She was jail bait, and I wasn't interested. But she was. And not shy, either. "Rhett Butler!" she squealed in a French accent. "Monsieur Butler! Be still my heart!"
The patriarch glanced my way with a dismissive smile, then said something quiet to the teenager. She scowled and turned away after batting her eyes at me one more time.
I wasn't having a good time, here. "Mutt!" I yelled. I turned to see if he'd heard.
"Tell Peavey's to haul the bus to Mount Gilead Methodist first. They have the biggest parking lot and it's on the way to their garage. It's too dangerous to unload luggage here. And it's time to call the mayor."
"There's a what broken down on the side of Bigelow Road?" I said into the portable headpiece of my phone. Bigelow Road is a fast two-lane--a beautiful but isolated mountain route framed by vistas, fields and deep woods--and it serves as our main artery south to the county seat, Bigelow. In Mossy Creek we tend to name roads according to where they go. Which is why we have several obscure little lanes named Ruin, The Dogs, and No Good.
"Bus fulla circ..." Mutt's voice disappeared. Cell phone reception in the mountains can be iffy.
"Bus full of what?" I asked loudly as I paced my office at town hall. I glanced at a clock that said most of Friday afternoon was gone and I still had a dozen phone calls to make. Sheaves of computer print-outs from the water department filled my mud-crusted left hand and a pad of mud-stained notes for the next council meeting filled the other. Being mayor of a small town isn't glamorous. I'd just spent the cold February afternoon with a crew crawling around a giant, leaky pipe at the town water plant, aka the Upper Mossy Creek Reservoir, Water Treatment Facility, and Bass Pond.
That last part is unofficial.
My jeans and sweatshirt were splattered with mud, my feet were freezing inside wet socks and hiking boots, and I smelled like fish. Cats and sushi chefs would have craned their heads when I walked by.
"A bus of circus people, Mayor," officer Mutt Bottoms yelled clearly, this time. I heard the strangled rumble of a large diesel engine in the background. Then an ominous clanking sound. Then silence. Mutt sighed loudly. "Well, that settles that. Broke down for good. Yes, ma'am. The Chief's here but he said you'd want to be involved. Peavey's Garage is already here peering under the hood, but in the meantime, we got us a busload of ... of, well, people with funny accents who can hook their legs behind their heads. They're all out here on the side of the road, stretchin' and shivering and ... oh, man. There goes another one. That looks painful, y'all. Y'all are all gonna need new hips one day."
"What kind of circus people?"
"I'm readin' the name painted on the bus. 'Circ-Q D Europe A.'"
He did. I bit back a smile. "Cirque d'Europa." I'd heard of it. One of the small, elegantly surreal European troops, a baby cousin to the famous Cirque du Soleil.
Mutt slowly repeated the name. "Mayor, I just sprang a muscle in my tongue."
"Peavey's thinks their bus is a lost cause?"
"Yep. Figures it'll take 'til Sunday to get it running. They got no other bus. Just a tractor-trailer hauling their tents and some equipment trucks. No elephants or nothing. Not even a trained monkey or two. As far as I can tell."
"They don't use animal acts. It's not like American circuses. More theatrical."
"Oh, I can sure see that." Mutt's voice dropped to a stunned whisper. "Mayor, there are foreigners out here doing handsprings. In the road. I don't know what languages they speak, so I can't even yell at 'em to get off the pavement."
"Try this. Arrete! That's French for 'Stop!' I expect most of them will understand."
Mutt bellowed, "Air rat tay! Air rat tay, y'all!" Long pause. Then, "Okay, Mayor, they're kinda snickerin' at me, but they're off the road. Thanks."
"How many people are we talking about? Total."
"About three dozen."
I groaned. It was the start of Valentine's Day weekend, with Sunday being the holiday. Hamilton Inn, our only hotel, was booked solid. So were all the romantic rental cabins in the mountains around Mossy Creek, including the cabins at my late husband's namesake, Jeb Walker State Park, up on Colchik Mountain.
"Mutt, I'll put my staff on phone duty, and we'll rustle up some rooms at local homes. Just tell the circus people to hang in there."
"Yeah, the Chief's already pickin' out homes for some of 'em. He's got you set up for a bunch of jugglers."
I arched a brow. "Oh, is that right?"
"Yeah, he told 'em you'd be perfect 'cause you like to keep a lot of stuff hangin' in mid-air."
"I'll have to thank him for that ... compliment." I sighed. "Just tell the visitors that here in Mossy Creek we never let strangers go cold and hungry."
"How do I say all that in French?" Mutt moaned.
"L'aide vient. 'Help is coming.' L'aide vient."
"Got it, Mayor. LAID VENT!" he yelled. "LAID VENT!"
It was going to be a long and decidedly unromantic Valentine's Day weekend.