KEEFE SCHUYLER stepped out of his burgundy Range Rover, glanced up at the bloated orange moon drooping like a kindergarten cutout in the black Ozarks sky, and smiled. Anything could happen under a moon like that.
He hustled around the Rover to open the door for his date, Tara Wolcott, but he was too late. She stood on the gravel parking lot without a hint of smugness. Either his forty-six-year-old legs were slowing up, or Ms Wolcott was a self-starter who waited for no man. The latter, he decided, appraising her curvy, denim-clad form and sculptured black hair in the powerful moonlight.
Which was fine. Passive women bored Keefe, along with the ones who tried to get by on cosmetics and what they'd heard on TV chatter shows. Fortunately Alan and Jo, the mutual friends responsible for this blind date, knew that.
"What a night!" Tara's ink-dark eyes reflected pleasure as she buttoned her jean jacket against the October chill. "A hayride was a wonderful idea, Keefe. If it includes toasted marshmallows, I may die of happiness."
He laughed and took her arm, steering her around the haphazardly parked cars. "It's my first hayride, so I didn't think to ask about marshmallows. But that's the fun of 'firsts.' They're adventures."
Tara's smile flashed, her eyes reflecting pinpoints of light from the single pole lamp. "I like firsts, too... but I love seconds."
Keefe grinned down at her, the top of her head level with his beard. Nice, he thought. A little unexpected.
Not, he hoped, like Janet. His former lover was always up to something, but he'd never expected their intimate and business relationship to cost him two hundred-forty thousand dollars. Recalling his gullibility over the past couple of years soured his mood. What a jackass a clever woman could make of a man.
He'd gotten his revenge though. Janet now understood the Schuyler philosophy: Win some, lose some, and be damned sure to cut your losses at the winner's expense.
His mood lightened as he returned his attention to Tara. After all, making a blind date at his age proved he was a born optimist!
She said, "When Alan suggested we meet, he muttered something about you being 'between entrepreneurial shots.' Does that translate into English?"
Keefe passed a hand over his bald head. "Sort of. It means I'm aggressively seeking a business investment worthy of my assorted talents."
The irony had no more left his lips than something too swift to analyze passed between him and Tara. Something stirring and unsettling. Keefe reacted by pointing at the rising pumpkin moon and remarking, "I'll bet a moon like that could turn even a solid citizen like me into a werewolf!"
Inwardly he groaned. Jeeze, prime stupid. What the hell had hit him anyway, a Civil War cannonball?
Tara shot back, light but with an undertone, "Better not. You turn into any kind of wolf and I'll have your hide in the sheriff's office before sunup."
Keefe picked up her square, firm hand and squeezed it. "You wouldn't have to. Alan and Jo would tack it to the patio fence!"
She gave him a sidelong glance, but her hand stayed in his, warm and secure as if it belonged there.
Keefe's enthusiasm for the evening took off. He hadn't expected to be in Batesville, Arkansas, for more than a week, but he could be tempted to hang around a while. He'd found Tara attractive when he picked her up at her apartment, but they hadn't had time to get acquainted during the short drive to Harry's Ozarks Stables. Jo had told him that Tara was a travel agent, thirty-eight, divorced, pretty and smart. Wary, Keefe pressed for more details. Jo just shrugged and said that he'd better be 'interesting' if he wanted a second date with her friend.
Hand in hand Keefe and Tara passed an arrow pointing to Harry's stables over the hill. Visibility was perfect, the moon glossing Tara's hair like patent leather. Keefe grinned, visualizing her with an orchid over one ear, dressed in a sarong on a tropical beach. It was a good thing she couldn't read his mind. "You know," he said, "the words 'looney' and 'lunatic' come from luna, the moon."
"That's why my grandmother thought a woman was foolish to expose herself to a harvest moon," Tara replied. "She said it has three times the power of a full moon."
Keefe angled them to the worn uphill gravel path indicated by the arrow. "What kind of power?"
"She said it could mean life or death, if the conditions are right."
Keefe laughed. "That would fit any size moon."
Tara's hand tightened almost imperceptibly in his. "Oh, but there's proof! When I was about eight I heard Grandma warn a friend to keep her shades drawn during the harvest moon. She said it could set a person's blood to boil. Grandpa winked at me and said if it hadn't been for one harvest moon in particular, I wouldn't have my daddy."
Tara slanted a look at him and Keefe felt a light jolt at the base of his spine, like he'd scuffed his feet on carpet in charged air.
Tara continued. "I didn't know what Grandpa meant until years later when I discovered some old almanacs in their attic. I checked the date nine months before my father was born, and bingo! Grandma must've forgotten to draw the shades on that harvest moon."
Poker-faced, Keefe said, "That's proof, all right."
Tara laughed then, an honest, feel-good laugh, not the brittle or sarcastic kind he often heard in big cities. People in the Ozarks seemed as natural as their landscape.
"I'm glad you respect Grandma's folk wisdom. Since moving to Batesville last year, I've heard some fascinating stories from the owner of the travel agency. She's over seventy, and some of her tales are hair raising." Then, perhaps because her date didn't have any hair to raise, Tara changed the subject. "Other than having your blood boiled, you haven't told me what kind of risks you take. Entrepreneurial-wise, I mean."
"I like starting things. Once they're up and running--" Keefe broke off, the first twangy strums of a guitar and fiddle reaching their ears, and checked his multi-dial watch. At that moment a hay wagon pulled by a team of big-footed horses topped the rise on their left. "That must be our ride," he said, stretching his steps and urging Tara into a jog. "Come on."
Tara, in low boots, took the rocky pasture ground in stride, another point in her favor. Keefe liked a woman who knew where she was going and set about getting there. Oh, he'd fallen once for a clingy, delicate doll; once too often, considering the doll was his ex-wife, Betty Fay.
"We'll check out Harry's barbecue when we get back," he said. A vegetarian, he loved barbecued beans. "Alan said he has dark beer on tap too. If you like."
"I like." Tara grinned. "Beer burps are more efficient than champagne hiccups."
Keefe decided they might try a little country dancing at Harry's too. If Tara felt as good in his arms as she looked and talked, dancing, even to fiddle music, was a quick way of getting acquainted. Of course if the evening fell apart between now and then, there was always Denny's.
They intersected the hay wagon near the crest of the hill. Seeing them, the driver, wearing bib overalls, plaid shirt and neck bandana, reined in his team. The wide brim of his straw hat shaded his face as he leaned over from his high perch. "Want a lift, folks? Still a ways to go."
"You bet," Keefe replied. "Thanks." He boosted Tara onto the ladder attached to the side rails and followed her to the top of the high, loosely piled hay. They'd no sooner stepped -- and fallen -- into its unstable center when the wagon lurched forward.
Tara bounced up to a sitting position with her back to the driver and began pawing hay from her hair. "So much for my nectarine-scented conditioner."
Righting himself beside her, Keefe stroked his hairless dome. "That's one thing I don't have to worry about," he said, amusement in his deep, rich baritone.
That baritone had made Tara's knees quiver the first time she'd heard it, on the phone three days ago. Like Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, Keefe had one of those rare, bewitching voices that jellied her steely defense mechanism. Heaven help her if he found out what it did to her. She blurted, "You look better without hair than most men do with it."
The gauche remark sent instant warmth rushing to her cheeks. Her sophisticated date probably thought a sixteen-year-old brain inhabited her thirty-eight-year-old body. "I mean, you look distinguished."
Sensing that he was trying not to laugh, she wriggled deeper in the hay. Hell, this is what she got for refusing practice dates. She'd heard plenty about the tough first date following a divorce, so she'd put it off for almost a year. Now she wondered if she'd been waiting for Keefe Schuyler.
He leaned back, protecting his pate from the spiky hay with interlaced hands. "Don't be shy," he said, his hazel eyes owlish behind silver-rimmed glasses. "I'm told I tolerate even outrageous flattery quite well."
Tara inhaled the pungent green scent of fresh-cut hay and thought hard. Game playing between adults demeaned both parties. If Keefe wanted a frill for a date, she might as well find out now. Then maybe she could concentrate on her job again. It hadn't been easy the past three days; she kept hearing Keefe's mellow voice in her head and wondering what kind of man went with it.
Hoping she wasn't making the mistake of her life, she said, "Okay. I think you have a classy look. No designer labels, no earrings, and a short, pointed beard with grey streaks complements a well-modeled head." She held back the rest: the plain glasses suggesting a thoughtful mind to one who worshiped intelligence, the masculine power of a loose-limbed body, the sensual voice that made her tingle. "Satisfied?"
Keefe sprawled beside her, moonlight revealing every nuance of his interested expression. "I wish I'd brought along a tape recorder. You could give me a jump start every morning."
Hoping for substance as well as spark in the man, Tara struck an arch pose, her face and elbow tilted at the sky, her arm with the Zuni watch bracelet behind her head. "Okay," she challenged. "Your turn. And no cop-outs about it being too dark to give an opinion."
As Keefe sat up and leaned closer, a fluttering light in the black velvet sky just behind his head caught her attention. Surprised -- it was clear a moment ago -- she stared up at the rays of light groping toward them.
"I'd say a no-nonsense style, a dash of--" Keefe broke off as a thudding, crushing sound, followed by a cry, "AARRGGH--" snapped their heads around in time to see their driver plummet head first to the ground.
A sound like that of a ripe cantaloupe striking a wall hit Tara with nauseating force. She screamed.
Copyright © 1999 by C. J. Winters