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Just because Lacie Jo Baxter was a beauty queen didn't mean she was a pushover.
At least that's what she told herself.
It was pretty good advice when it came to the upbeat, look-for-the-silver-lining-in-every-gray-cloud department. Almost as good as the cheery little speech about self-esteem, personal responsibility, and the use of God-given talent she'd made only a short time earlier at the grand opening of the new Mercer's Drug Store in downtown Klaber Falls.
Too bad all that talk about the sunny side of life was a little hard to swallow at the moment. Just like the possibility of the kind of warm and fuzzy, joy-to-the-world happy ending she'd always believed in was looking more and more remote by the second.
It wasn't like her to be so negative, but then, she figured that for once she had a good excuse.
Being locked in the trunk of a speeding car had that sort of effect on a girl.
"Not a pushover. Not a pushover." Lacie did her best with the I-am-woman-hear-me-roar chant. Better to listen to that than to the nagging, terrified warnings inside her head that threatened to overwhelm her. Her breathless voice bumped over the words while the car--as badly in need of shock absorbers as it was of a muffler and a serious tune-up--smacked into a pothole and flew back up again. Lacie's rhinestone-studded tiara banged against the inside of the hood, and when she smacked back down on the thin, scratchy fabric that passed for carpeting on the floor of the trunk, it felt as if every single one of the beads and sequins and pearls on her perfectly fitted, perfectly styled, perfectly breathtaking evening gown were being drilled into her skin.
She didn't have a whole lot of time to think about it. The car made a sharp turn, and if Lacie's five-foot-seven body hadn't been folded into a four-foot-eleven space, she would have rolled with it. As it was, there was barely room to move and her legs were cramped. She could feel the telltale tug of what was surely the beginning of a run in a brand-new pair of pantyhose.
Lacie was tempted to grumble one of the curses she'd heard her sister, Dinah, use. She actually might have done it if her face hadn't been shoved up against the spare tire, so close that she could taste the rubber on her lips. Then again, if she were anything like Dinah, even a mouth full of steel-belted radial wouldn't have stopped her from letting loose with every expletive in the book. But if she were anything at all like Dinah, she wouldn't be Miss Kansas Summer Squash in the first place.
And she wouldn't have been making that personal appearance at Mercer's Drug Store this evening.
And she wouldn't have stayed around long after the store closed to talk to the nice folks who'd shown up to meet her live and in person.
And she wouldn't have left after the crowd was already gone.
And she never would have been in the parking lot alone.
Which meant she never would have been grabbed and tossed into the trunk of this car before she ever had a chance to let out a scream for help.
None of which was the least bit of consolation.
Not when the baton she'd used to give the crowd a demonstration of her mean twirling technique poked her ribs, a tire jack jabbed her thighs, and the tall, thin heel of her left shoe was hooked at a funny angle on the wires of the car's rear lights.
Those same lights flicked on and off when the driver stepped on the brakes, then let up on them again. The car slowed, turned, and Lacie heard the crunch of gravel beneath the wheels. The next second, the car skidded to a stop.
So did Lacie's heartbeat.
The engine cut off. The driver's side door scraped open. Lacie held her breath.
Not a pushover, huh?
Now all she had to do was convince the six-foot-whatever, two-forty-something gorilla in the ski mask who had snatched her.
The trunk lid popped open and Lacie craned her neck to see what she could see. What she could see wasn't much of anything except a faint sprinkling of stars in a pitch-black sky. The view didn't last. Her kidnapper stepped around to the back of the car and even that little bit of starlight was blocked. Without a word the man grabbed her, and running on instinct--not to mention fear--Lacie reached for her baton like it was a security blanket and held on tight.
She was not so lucky with her left shoe. It was still caught on the taillight wire, and when the man hauled her out of the trunk and set her on the ground, her shoe--and her foot--refused to budge.
"Excuse me!" It wasn't ladylike to interrupt, and a beauty queen was nothing if not a lady. Still, Lacie figured there was an exception or two to every rule. Kidnapping certainly was one. Shoes she'd gone all the way to Kansas City to buy were another. Especially when those shoes fit like a dream and looked divine.
"Excuse me, but these are my best shoes. I'd really rather not leave one of them in the trunk of your car." Just to be sure he was listening, she glanced over her shoulder at the guy. He didn't say a word and because of the ski mask, she couldn't read his expression. Big points for him, though, he kept a firm hold on her. Kind of a bad thing, considering she didn't appreciate being manhandled by a stranger with the manners of a troglodyte. Kind of a good thing, since she was trying to balance on one thin heel at the same time she did her best to unhook the other.
"I can't exactly afford to twist an ankle, either. The national Miss Summer Squash pageant is just a few weeks away and . . ." Lacie stretched to reach her left shoe. Not an easy thing, considering her evening gown was form-fitting enough to show off her perfect-in-every-way size-six figure. Luckily, the gown was slit far enough up one side to show a hint of legs that were as well proportioned as the rest of her. She had just enough room to maneuver. It wasn't easy, but after a couple of seconds, she managed to snag the taillight wire with one finger. After that, it was a cinch to loop the wire away from her heel.
"Thank you." Breathing a sigh of relief, she settled herself on both feet. "I mean it, really. Thanks. Not that I have a great deal of experience when it comes to this sort of thing, but I can't imagine there are many kidnappers who would be considerate enough to--"
The rest of the compliment was lost in an oomph of surprise when the man pinned her arms to her sides and propped one hand firmly on her sequin-encrusted behind. None too gently, he march-stepped her toward the hulking shape of a house on the other side of the driveway.
Lacie recognized the dilapidated front porch, the rotted stairs, the roof caved in over what used to be the living room. But though she made a mental note of the location, she didn't dare speak the words out loud. Something told her kidnappers didn't appreciate their kidnappees knowing where they were.
And where they were, Lacie knew, was in the middle of nowhere.
Whipple Farm. Seven miles outside of town and nothing between here and there except seven miles of blacktop fringed by seven miles of cornfields. No neighbors within hailing distance, and if the Whipples were as deep in debt as everyone said they were, something told her they'd disconnected the phone long before they skipped town and the foreclosure notice that was waiting for them at the bank.
If she was going to get out of this predicament, she was going to have to do it alone.
At the same time Lacie gulped down a breath of apprehension, she reminded herself that it wasn't the first time she'd found herself out of options and on her own.
There was the time she was headed down the runway at the Miss Future Farmers of America pageant and her bathing suit strap popped.
And the never-to-be-forgotten occasion when she was all set to go on stage for the talent competition at the Miss Midwest Football Conference finals and couldn't find her baton.
There was the episode when a desperate Miss Wichita paid Dinah to put blue color in Lacie's hair gel on the morning of the important Holiday Spirit pageant.
And then, of course, there was the whole ugly incident with Jake McCallum.
As quickly as the thought formed, Lacie put it out of her head. This was not the time for self-recrimination or for soul-searching. This time, like all those times before, she needed to pull out the big guns: the smile that never failed to captivate. The charm that was as legendary in Midwest pageant circles as big hair and speeches about world peace. The personality plus that meant that in spite of blue hair gel and ripped bathing suit straps and the one guy who had broken her heart and nearly ruined her pageant career forever, Lacie Jo Baxter always came out the winner.
"It's a beautiful night, isn't it?"
So far, so good. Lacie's kidnapper was surprised enough by her comment to stop at the bottom of the rotting steps.
"I mean, look at all those stars!" She glanced around and her kidnapper automatically looked up at the night sky, too. "Every one of them is a little messenger, you know. Twinkling to us about courage and hope and love and--"
The man grunted, lifted her off her feet, and struggled up the steps with her.
When he propped her against one hip and grabbed for the handle on the back screen door, Lacie tried again.
"Old farmhouses." It wasn't easy to sigh when a bruiser with arms like steel bands was squeezing all the air out of her lungs. Somehow, Lacie managed. "Farmers are the backbone of America. They're true heroes. Why, if it wasn't for the farmers of this great land--"
Without loosening his hold, the man stumbled inside the house, kicked the door closed behind him, and dropped Lacie down on her feet.
"Thank you." She smoothed her gown and straightened the Miss Kansas Summer Squash banner that used to be draped elegantly over one shoulder and was now crushed and twisted. When she was done, she brushed a shiny and sweet-smelling curl of hair as bright and as yellow as the Kansas sun behind her ear. Right before she adjusted her tiara.
"It was kind of you to help me inside." She turned up the wattage on a smile that was known to sway pageant judges from Illinois to the Colorado border and from South Dakota to Oklahoma and beyond.
Maybe the man couldn't see her smile through the gloom. Or maybe he could and he didn't care. Maybe he--unlike so many thousands of others over the years--was just immune.
Whatever the reason, he took a step toward her and Lacie swore she heard him growl with annoyance.
She took a step back. "If you're looking for an autograph," she said, "I could--"
The man took another step in her direction.
And Lacie would have retreated again if the corner of the kitchen countertop hadn't poked her in the back.
Though she was tempted, she refused to let her smile wilt around the edges. It was the only thing keeping her from complete panic right now.
"I've got some eight-by-ten glossies back at the house," she told him. "You know, the usual sort of stuff. Various poses in evening gowns. Even a couple of bathing suit shots, though I'm not especially fond of those. Not to say you shouldn't be. If you are." She looked his way, hoping to see some hint of something in his eyes that would tell her if she was on the right track.
Instead, all she saw was a flash of raw emotion that made her stomach swoop and her heart beat so hard, she was sure they could hear it back in Klaber Falls.
Who could blame a girl for losing control?
When the man took another step nearer and grabbed her left arm, Lacie reacted on nothing but adrenaline, blind impulse, and pure panic.
"Sorry," she said, not because she was particularly, but because she knew it was the proper thing to do.
And a beauty queen was nothing if not proper.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry." And holding tight to her baton, she swung at the man for all she was worth.
It was hard to ignore Miss Kansas Summer Squash.
Especially when she was eighteen feet tall.
With a low whistle, Ben Camaglia slowed his standard-issue sedan to a crawl, pushed his Chicago Cubs baseball cap a little further back on his head, and glanced up at the billboard that dominated this stretch of road between Sutton Springs and Klaber Falls.
"Summer squash ^ la Lacie . . . beautiful!"
He read the words written in flowing script above the head of a blonde in a pink evening gown who was holding a bubbling casserole of summer squash in what looked like cream sauce.
"Beautiful is right," Ben mumbled.
He wasn't talking about the summer squash.
Traffic in these parts was pretty much nonexistent, but always careful when it came to the safety of others even though he was notorious for not caring a whole heck of a lot about his own, Ben checked the rearview mirror and pulled the car onto the berm. He stopped, put on the flashers, and punched the gearshift into park, then hit the button for the automatic window. It slid down and at the same time the summer heat poured in and the AC-cooled air gushed out, he propped one elbow on the window frame. He settled back and took a long look across the two-lane blacktop at the woman whose smile was as bright as the sparkling tiara that crowned her head.
Eyes of the same blue as the sapphire earrings he'd once chipped in with his brothers to buy for their mother's September birthday. Lips the exact red of the cherries that grew on the tree outside the front door of his rent-by-the month rooms back in Sutton Springs. Cheeks touched with a splash of color that reminded him of the strawberry milkshake on the menu at the fast food place down the road where he'd stopped for a breakfast sausage sandwich. A body--at least what he could see of it behind the steaming casserole she offered to every single driver who passed by--that was nothing short of perfection.
"Lacie Jo Baxter, Miss Kansas Summer Squash." These words were in smaller letters right there at the place where the casserole ended and the smooth line of one of Lacie's hips showed. Ben read them out loud, automatically comparing what little he knew about Lacie's disappearance with the beautiful young lady who invited drivers to enjoy the bounty of a Kansas summer squash harvest.
And the first small glimmer of hope he'd felt in the last few months started a buzz through his bloodstream.