Life has dealt Beulah Land a tough hand to play, least of all being named after a hymn. A teenage pregnancy estranged her from her family, and a tragedy caused her to lose what little faith remained. The wayward daughter of a Baptist deacon, she spends her nights playing the piano at The Fountain, a honky-tonk located just across the road from County Line Methodist. But when she learns that a dear friend's dying wish is for her to take over as the church's piano player, she realizes it may be time to face the music. . .
Beulah butts heads with Luke Daniels, the new pastor at County Line, who is determined to cling to tradition even though he needs to attract more congregants to the aging church. But the choir also isn't enthusiastic about Beulah's contemporary take on the old songs and refuse to perform. Undaunted, Beulah assembles a ragtag group of patrons from The Fountain to form the Happy Hour Choir. And as the unexpected gig helps her let go of her painful past--and accept the love she didn't think she deserved--she just may be able to prove to Luke that she can toe the line between sinner and saint. . .
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The Happy Hour Choir
By Sally Kilpatrick
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Sally Kilpatrick
All rights reserved.
"Time to raise some hell and make some bank," I muttered to myself that night as I slammed the door to my ancient Toyota hatchback. The gravel parking lot of The Fountain was still empty, but soon it would fill up with old trucks and loud rednecks.
Unease skittered down my spine. I looked around, but everything seemed normal. The sun sank over the Graingers' pasture in front of me. County Line Methodist still sat across the road behind me. To my right, the cinder-block exterior of The Fountain hadn't changed since the fifties, but the parsonage across the parking lot had a light on.
Ah, someone was moving in. Probably another loudmouthed, double-chinned, potbellied, red-faced hypocrite like my father. To that I said, Let the games begin. No preacher had managed to stay longer than two years since one minister declared war on The Fountain back in the eighties. He hadn't counted on people's affection for Bill. Or for beer, for that matter.
"Ho there, Beulah," Bill said as I walked in. He scrubbed furiously at a wooden counter several generations older than I was. The counter was a holdover from when The Fountain had been the County Line Store, a respectable establishment where old men sat on five-gallon buckets to play checkers while drinking Cokes from glass bottles with peanuts in the bottom.
When the old men went the way of the dinosaurs, Bill made a startling discovery: His store actually sat in the neighboring county, a not-quite-as-dry county. The County Line Store was reborn as a place to buy your beer and even relax and knock one back with the boys. Entertainment in the boondocks was scarce, and that's why I eventually entered the picture.
"I got you something new to try." Bill stopped his scrubbing to reach into the huge ice-filled stainless-steel trough behind him. He was always buying a six-pack of something different because he knew better than most how I didn't like to follow the crowd. Never more than a six-pack, though, because he also knew the majority of The Fountain's patrons preferred the same old same old.
He popped off the top and placed a longneck in front of me. "This here's a Stella something or other. I tried one when me and Marsha went up to the Budweiser plant in St. Louis. It's another one of them foreign beers you like."
I kept my smile in check. Bill believed in buying American beer, specifically Budweiser, and American cars, specifically Chevrolet. I didn't have the heart to tell him the Germans had bought the former and every country but America was producing parts for the latter. Instead, I took a long pull of the beer and appreciated how it went down smooth. "This is a good beer, Bill. Thank you."
"I'm glad you like it." He grinned widely and hitched each thumb behind his suspenders. Bill was old enough to be my grandfather, but I liked him a lot better than Grandpa Floyd. He handed me beers instead of stale chocolate-covered cherries accompanied by backhanded compliments.
I looked over at my piano, an old upright that had seen two world wars come and go. I wasn't ready to weave my way through the cluster of café tables and chairs then hop up on the risers. No, I'd stay put with my Stella for a little while longer.
"Hey, y'all." Tiffany Davis walked in, letting the screen door slap behind her. She leaned on the counter beside me, and Bill reached underneath for her apron. As usual, she had poured herself into a tight, low-cut tank top and a pair of shorty shorts. She also wore a UT baseball cap with a ponytail down her back—that was not usual.
"Hey, Tiff, I guess you've decided where you're going?" Bill asked. He drew out a cola of some sort and slid it toward her.
"I'm going to Knoxville." Tiffany beamed as she pointed to her obnoxiously orange hat. "In a few months I will officially be a freshman at the University of Tennessee."
"Well, I hate to lose you," Bill said, "but it's good to see someone go off and show those college girls how we play ball around here."
Jealousy squeezed my chest. I'd had my chance to get out of town and blown it. That was no reason to be mad at Tiffany. I forced goodwill into the smile I gave her. "You're going to knock 'em dead, I know it."
Blushing, she looked down at the wooden floor. "Thanks, Beulah. Maybe I ought to sweep up before folks start getting here."
She went off to find a broom before we could remind her sweeping wouldn't do a lick of good since everyone and his brother would track in dust and grime from the parking lot.
"That girl reminds me a lot of you," Bill mused.
My eyes snapped to where Tiffany stood in the midst of the café chairs, broom in hand. She reminded him of me? She, who had decided to emulate Daisy Duke after watching one too many Dukes of Hazzard marathons on CMT? I looked down at what I was wearing: a low-slung black blouse that showed off my cleavage, the one Ginger claimed had to be on backward because it was cut down to my navel.
The last light of day seeped through the tiny windows at the top of the wall and caught Tiffany's ponytail. I gulped. She'd dyed her beautiful blond hair my shade of red, a color that clashed something awful with her orange cap. That girl and I needed to have a serious heart-to-heart about a few things. She had a future. I didn't.
I'd taken two steps in her direction when Bill hollered, "Hey, Beulah, it's time."
Talking with Tiffany would have to wait.
I took my seat at the piano and played a series of scales. Bill shook his head. He could never understand why I didn't just sit down and start playing. Of course, after taking piano lessons with Ginger for over half my life, I had to start with scales. It was as though my fingers couldn't find the keys if I didn't follow the ritual.
The Gates brothers rolled in as I launched into Hank Junior's "Family Tradition." As always, they were happy to sing along, and Bill nodded in approval as he sold them a couple of beers. Next, Old Man MacGregor shuffled in. He settled at one of the café tables closest to me. I refused to look at his beady eyes or unkempt gray beard. He didn't scare me, but I knew only too well he wasn't quite right in the head.
Other patrons trickled in—most I knew, a few I didn't know but still recognized—and I went from jazz to country and back to jazz again. I was playing one of my favorites from Ginger's old New Orleans records when he walked in.
I had eyes. I could appreciate a superb male specimen just as well as the next person, but this guy was not your garden variety Fountain patron. In his polo and khakis, he stood out like Dom Pérignon and caviar at a Yessum County High School football game. He also stood about a foot taller than everyone else in the place.
Despite my superior powers of observation—and that while playing piano—the guys and gals never noticed but went on playing poker and pool, laughing and clapping. Old Man MacGregor took another drag of his cigarette, and Pete Gates picked up his brother Greg by the collar, indicating they were ready for their first fight of the evening. Bill, of course, would serve a bull moose without batting an eyelash as long as said moose had cash. He passed the new guy a beer.
Then Mr. Dom Pérignon looked my way, and he did one of those subtle double takes that never gets old. His eyes didn't leave mine as he reached for the beer Bill offered him. I missed a note as I took in his broad shoulders and how his bicep flexed when he reached for the bottle. A new guy in town could be just what I needed to liven up the summer.
I was halfway through one of my favorite ragtime songs when I gathered the courage to look at him again. He seemed to know what I was playing. Bill, meanwhile, gave me the "wrap it up" twirl of the finger, a sign that he felt the patrons were getting bored and restless. I didn't care.
I didn't realize I'd been staring at Mr. Dom Perignon until he gave me a lopsided smile. I grinned back in spite of myself, but then the cuckoo clock sang out the nine o'clock hour. I beat out a premature ending to the song.
Bill gave a shrill whistle and everyone looked over to where he stood behind his beloved counter. "Ladies and gents, I want to thank you for coming out tonight and I hope you're having a good time."
The Gates brothers quit elbowing each other long enough to catcall and clap. The stranger lifted his beer.
"As you well know, something special happened when the old jukebox in the corner died. We found someone even better, the lovely and talented Beulah Land."
I ran the heel of my hand down the keys to enhance the drama. Let's see how the new guy in town likes the old song that gave me my name. Slowly, I began to sing. "Far away the noise and strife upon my ear is falling."
I winked at the stranger, but he frowned. He looked at patrons around him, stunned they'd all started singing along. A bad feeling settled in the pit of my stomach.
"Then I know the sins of man beset on every hand."
"Damn straight," cackled Old Man MacGregor.
"Doubt and fear and things of earth in vain to me are calling. None of these shall move me from Beulah Land."
I paused again for dramatic effect and chanced another glance at the new guy. He sat perfectly still, his beer stuck midway up. He was not amused.
"I'm living on the mountain underneath a cloudless sky."
"Praise God!" shouted the Gates brothers over everyone else.
"I'm drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry."
Tiffany ducked under two beer bottles clinking. Guffaws, cheers, and clinks always drowned out the next few words: "Oh, yes, I'm feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply, for I am ..."
The whole bar, minus one, joined me with a raucous "... dwelling in Beulah Land."
"You wish, boys," I drawled as I segued into a jazzed-up instrumental instead. The stranger finally lifted the beer to his lips, but he put it down without taking a drink. He put the half-empty bottle down on the ledge where he'd been sitting and headed for the door. My heart sank with an irrational disappointment. When I started singing the chorus again, though, he pivoted and walked toward me instead.
While I added a little something extra to the last verse, he took a seat at the table closest to me, patiently waiting. Man, I'd always been a sucker for baby blues, especially when paired with such dark hair. And for smoothly shaven cheeks that showed no signs of a wad of tobacco. Despite my disdain for the reddest of necks, I had a rule about not getting mixed up with rich men or preppies. Of course, rules were meant to be broken.
I sat there for a moment, my fingers still hovering over the keys, and the bar came to life around me. They knew the drill. My intermission was the time to yell across the room to one another. In fifteen minutes we'd start all over again, only everyone would be a little bit drunker and a whole lot rowdier.
"May I have a word?"
I didn't expect the calm, low tone of his voice—nor the even gravel. He stepped closer, and a crisp scent floated over me: sandalwood.
"Sure. It's my break," I heard myself say.
"Maybe we could step outside where it's a little quieter," he suggested.
I looked him over, searching for signs he might be a serial killer. I didn't think so, but one couldn't be too sure. "Bill, I'm stepping outside," I shouted, my eyes never leaving the stranger's.
On the other side of the security light were several good spots to steal a kiss or three, but we stopped short in the triangular beam of light that splashed across the parking lot. Even with the door closed, I could hear the ruckus inside. The parsonage was only a few yards away, and I tried to imagine how any preacher there had to feel living so close to a party to which he hadn't been invited.
"So, what word did you want to tell me?" I asked. "Or was that an excuse to get me outside and kiss me?"
His blue eyes widened ever so slightly, but he quickly composed himself. "I couldn't leave without telling you how I felt about the song you played."
My mouth went dry. How could I have been so stupid? Of course he wasn't interested in me. He'd rolled into town from the college, and he'd been offended. "I've been playing that song for five years now, and I've never had one single complaint before tonight."
"Five years?" He looked me over thoroughly as though he'd misjudged me. Based on the slight laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, I'd misjudged him, too. He wasn't a college student, but he couldn't be too much older than me.
"I was twenty at the time. Not that it's any of your business."
"Five years or not, it's rude to sing a song like that and then stick sexual innuendo on the end."
Great. New Guy was tall, dark, and handsome. Now, if only he had a mute button. "What are you? Some kind of preacher?"
Of course you are. "I'm sorry. I couldn't tell since you were drinking a beer."
He studied me carefully. "I vowed self-control, not abstinence. Besides, it'd be more impolite for me to sit around and not buy something."
Damned, if that didn't make sense. Still, he had to want something. "Are you here to 'save' me?"
I snorted. Quick-witted sonuvabitch. "I don't need to be saved, so you can stuff it."
I could tell it was on the tip of his tongue to say something trite about how everyone needs to be saved. Instead, he exercised his vaunted self-control to stare me down. I had to admit some grudging admiration. No one stared me down except Ginger, and they all knew better than to try in The Fountain. New Guy didn't know he was supposed to get mad, lose his temper, and call me names. Instead, he faced my anger with reason. "All right. I'm familiar with these vendettas. You play whatever you want to play, but stop and think about the other people in that bar. Do you really want to drag them down into sacrilege with you?"
"Sacrilege?" Something snapped behind my eyes. "You want to waltz into my workplace and talk to me about sacrilege. It's a free damned country. If you don't like the songs I sing, then you can leave."
"Free country or fascist state, I wasn't going to leave without telling you that singing hymns like a sexpot isn't appropriate." He still hadn't looked away. "No matter who you are."
"Appropriate? Who gives two shits about being appropriate?" I stood up straighter and crossed my arms, which had the unintended but fortunate effect of pushing my breasts up and out. Good. Let him take a look at what he isn't going to touch. Ever. "I'll do what I need to do to put food on the table. If I'm going to be saddled with this ridiculous name, then I might as well make the most of it."
He arched an eyebrow. "Are you making the most of what you've been given?"
More preacher-speak. As if I hadn't heard all of this mess about gifts and talents from my father a long time before. It was my business if I wanted to stay put in tiny Yessum County instead of driving up to Nashville to see if I could get a better job.
I turned to go. "You know what? Screw you. You don't know the first thing about me."
He grabbed my arm. "You have real talent. You shouldn't be wasting it here."
We both looked down to where his warm hand lightly circled my arm. He quickly released me, almost as though he couldn't believe he'd reached out to touch me.
"I'll do as I damned well please." And I could've done you, but that ain't happening now that I know you're a sanctimonious asshole. "These people took care of me when I needed help, so my talents aren't 'wasted' here. You can mind your own business, Preacher Man."
He winced at my nickname for him, but he didn't stop me when I made for the door. Instead, he shoved his hands in his pockets as though making sure he wouldn't reach for me a second time. "Maybe you don't know that much about me, either."
"I know you're a holier-than-thou jerk." The screen door slammed between us for emphasis.
I bellied up to the bar and motioned for a beer. Bill handed me one as Tiffany stopped to load her tray. "Who was that guy?"
"Don't know. Don't care."
"I care," she said with an appreciative growl before carrying her wares across the room.
Excerpted from The Happy Hour Choir by Sally Kilpatrick. Copyright © 2015 Sally Kilpatrick. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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