Cranky Otter, Arkansas, October, 1991
IS THIS HISTORY repeating itself, or d�j� vu?
Autumn Renfro's hands trembled as she struggled with the padlock to Danica's Antiques, Some of the Most Unique in the Ozarks according to the weathered sign over the shop door.
Five years ago Danica McCaul, widowed and alone in a town as foreign to her as the African bush, had set her life on a new course. And now Autumn, widowed and alone, was retracing her mother's steps.
Am I making a huge mistake?
Or am I just afraid to fail?
She spun the combination dial again, and this time the lock popped open. Alarming a robin scouring the curb next to her cinnamon Aerostar, she picked up her tote, and paused to savor the October morning air. A glance down the deserted four-block Main Street of Cranky Otter, Arkansas, told her everything looked the same as it had a year ago.
The difference was that everything had changed.
She turned her attention back to Danica's. What had her mother felt the first day she'd opened her shop? Excitement? Queasiness? Or, like her daughter, panic?
Enough! This is a trial. If it doesn't work out, so be it.
Shoulders squared, Autumn lifted the chin her father had once described as stubborn as a Missouri mule. So what if she was the new kid on the block? So was everyone else around here--three or four generations ago.
Still she hesitated. Last night she'd almost phoned her grandmother and asked her to fly in for Danica's Second Opening. Pride had stopped her. She sprang from a line of willful people who made their choices and lived with the consequences without whining. Life moved on, and so must she.
Muttering "Change is good, change is good," like a mantra, she opened the door and stepped past the dusty etched glass panels.
A jittery brass bell signaled her arrival to the ghosts of Danica's, and the musty odors of age, dust and enclosure hit her like a tangible force. Holding her breath and fighting the urge to run, she snatched the first handy item--a cuckoo clock--and used it to prop open the door.
The morning freshness improved the shop air a bit, but at seven-thirty the sun hadn't risen high enough to erase the shadows. Uneasy, Autumn flipped on the lights and announced, "I might as well be on the moon."
Relieved by the answering silence, she swiveled on one Reebok heel and made a slow survey of the shop. The stolid merchandise surveyed her back, adding her to its collective memory bank.
The odor of old, unaired furnishings, so unlike anything she associated with her fastidious mother, brought stinging tears to her eyes. Six weeks ago Danica--or Dannie as the world had known her--had died, leaving Autumn, her only child, an orphan.
"Mother--" Her whisper seemed to fill the shop. "--if you're listening, I could use some help."
Instantly the tight muscles in her neck and shoulders loosened. She smiled up at the flaking painted tin ceiling. Dannie, irrepressible as ever, must be pleased.
Heartened by the idea of being watched over by her mother, Autumn set to work. It might be hours--Please God, not days--before a customer drifted into the shop, but there was enough dust here to keep her busy for a week. First though, she needed to get the account books from the van.
She was piling the ledgers on her arm when a flame-red pickup swung around the corner onto Main. As it swept by, Autumn's gaze locked with that of the tan, dark haired driver. In the flash of the connection his expression changed, as if startled, and a sensation like a bright wind rushed through her. The books slid off her arm. She stared after the pickup, its trail of street dust curling about her feet like a prairie whirlwind, until it swerved out of sight.
Using her toe to trap a loose, fluttering record page, she picked up her books. She and the pickup driver must have reminded each other of someone ... but whom, to cause such a reaction?
She smiled at herself for forgetting Cranky Otter was a small town. The red pickup might belong to a local more accustomed to country roads than Main Street, where any stranger piqued interest.
Back inside the 1892 single story brick building housing Danica's--along with an insurance agency on one side and a beauty salon on the other--Autumn made her way past the jumbled furniture, glass cases and racks to the rear of the shop. Deep and narrow, the arrangement was typical of old buildings in small mid-America downtowns. Dannie had used one of the two tiny back rooms as a lounge, the other for packing and odds and ends. Between them a back door opened from a short hall to a brick courtyard thirty-five foot deep. A six foot brick wall, unbroken except for a pair of wagon-size wooden gates at the far end, framed the courtyard.
In contrast to the dingy, overcrowded shop, the courtyard was empty except for a windswept pile of leaves in one corner. Autumn mentally thanked whoever was responsible for the tidy condition of the courtyard. It wouldn't have been this neat two months ago when her mother went to the hospital.
The shop bell jingled and she jumped. Why had she left the front door wide open? She didn't know a soul in Cranky Otter, and the man in the pickup was the only person she'd seen downtown. City-bred nerves on edge, she peered back through the shop and spotted a man standing just inside the door.
"Hello," she called, gauging the distance between them. If he moved fast, could she make it to and over the back wall in time?
Then he smiled and held up a Thermos bottle and two mugs. "Welcome to Cranky Otter," he said in a deep, carrying voice. "I'm your Chamber of Commerce. From across the street." Autumn approached, and his smile widened, suggesting instant friendship. "Thought you might be ready for coffee."
"Heaven must've sent you," she said, returning his smile. "I rushed through breakfast with only one cup." If this kind of welcome was typical of Cranky Otter, she'd fall in love with the town just as her mother had.
The C of C man set the mugs inscribed Cranky Otter Chamber of Commerce on a counter. Autumn guessed he was around thirty. Good looking without flash. Compact build, wavy blond hair, sunny face with tiny laugh lines, a generous, expressive mouth. All things considered--including the high-polish loafers, taupe slacks, white polo and a cardigan matching his sky blue eyes--he displayed and invited confidence.
"White or black?" He produced packets of additives.
"Black, no sweetener."
"Me too. I never add calories. My waistline needs watching." His curved brown lashes lowered, and he poured their coffee with skilled, economical movements.
As she accepted a steaming mug, Autumn noticed the sapphire cabochon ring on his right hand. Simple design, good workmanship. A classy touch.
"Glad to meet you, Autumn," he said, lifting his mug in a two-inch salute. "I'd recognize Dannie's daughter anywhere."
"How? I don't look anything like Mother." She'd inherited her father's auburn hair and jet dark eyes instead of her mother's red-gold and turquoise.
He tilted his head at the east wall and grinned. "I tried to buy you the first time I came in the shop, but Dannie said she couldn't sell her only child."
Autumn followed his gaze and wondered how she'd missed it. Surrounded by a half dozen stern visages in high, prim collars, her high school portrait, now sepia toned and enlarged to fill a gilded oval frame, all but leaped from the wall. She laughed. The arrangement was so typical of her mother's whimsical humor. "I'm glad to be recognized from that. It was taken ten years ago."
"Making you about twenty-seven." Putting his coffee on hold, her host cocked his head and swiveled his gaze between her face and the portrait. "Hmmm ... Same direct eyes, same mouth ... hair's longer now, though." He gave a slow, approving nod. "The name fits, too. You blend right into our fall foliage."
Autumn's thick hair, now worn in a tumble to her shoulders, was often connected to her name by strangers.
"Let's sit down, if we can find something relatively clean," she said, ignoring the comment.
They located a small rocker and a dining chair and posted them on either side of the open door. Autumn settled into the rocker. "What do people call you besides Chamber of Commerce Person?"
"Whoops--" Her visitor's grin crinkled the laugh lines around his eyes. "--a small town conceit, assuming everybody knows me." He pulled a card from his shirt pocket. "Kevin Channing, at your service. 'Kevin' will bring me running. 'Channing' will send me running."
"What's wrong with Channing?" Autumn rocked forward to take the card. Printed under his full name she read Sports and General Photography by Kevin.
Kevin's eyes were as calm as a virgin sky. "We're mostly on a first name basis around here. If somebody calls you by your last name, you've usually got trouble."
She sipped her coffee, a gourmet mocha blend. "I like that. It makes life simpler. Are there other local customs I should know about? To save me from making some blunders?"
Kevin lifted his gaze to the stamped tin ceiling some unappreciative person had painted ivory. "Well now, let's see ... there's the round table in the back of the One Star Cafe, down by the hardware store. Most of the local businessmen--me included--meet there at ten, weekdays. Coffee, news, bad jokes. That sort of thing."
"How about the local businesswomen?"
He shook his head and refilled their mugs. "Uh-uh. Totally taboo. The guys would probably get up and leave." Then he grinned. "It's not that we don't like women. It's just a time for man-talk."
"Naturally. All those chocolate chip cookie recipes must be a real bore."
"Now don't you go worryin' your pretty little head about such matters," he said in an exaggerated drawl. "Just remember--if you need any muscle, we'll come a-runnin'."
Autumn grimaced at the surrounding disorder. She'd remember that bit about muscle; it would serve the macho-types right. "How do the local people react to newcomers?"
"We're friendly folks." Kevin stretched his arms over his head, cording the thick muscles in his neck. "As long as you don't put on airs. That cuts as much ice as carp in white gravy."
Her heart warmed to the twinkle in his eyes and his wry insights. Meeting someone so likeable on the first day of her new life must be a good omen.
The twinkle in Kevin's eyes disappeared, however, when a long, two-legged shadow crossed the floorboards between them. Startled for the third time that morning, Autumn rocked back and gazed up into eyes the color and intensity of an approaching thunderstorm. They belonged to the driver of the red pickup.
The lithe, tanned intruder focused on her without trying to hide his impatience. "May I use your phone for a local call?" He made an irritable gesture at the street. "I'd use the Chamber of Commerce if it was open for business." Only then did he appear to notice Kevin, giving him a curt nod. "Morning, Channing."
Kevin responded with a short, bland nod of his own. His glance at Autumn said, "See what I mean?"
"Yes, if it's operating," Autumn replied. "I haven't had time to check it." She rose leisurely in gentle rebuke for the stranger's near-rudeness. He didn't remind her of anyone. She'd have remembered such dark intensity.
He stalked behind her to the Postmistress's cage in the center of the shop, which served as an office as well as providing nostalgic ambience. Ignoring his closeness, she picked up the phone, checked it, and passed the receiver over her shoulder. Then she returned to her rocking chair and Kevin.
Automatically comparing him to her late husband's wiry frame and cautious reserve, she decided Kevin's sturdy frame blended well with his easygoing manner.
Her attention, though, centered on the dark stranger. Fifteen feet away and speaking too low for her to hear, she sensed him like a vortex of energy, impossible to ignore.
Stifling a yawn, Kevin got to his feet and picked up his Thermos. "As I've been reminded, it's time I opened up. See you later, Autumn. Keep the mugs to remember your Chamber by."
She trailed him outside, wary of being alone with the pickup driver. "Thank you for the coffee and welcome. It was a little difficult coming in here for the first time since Mother's death."
His gaze was keen and assessing. "Then you were here before. How come none of us saw you?"
"David--my husband--and I came through twice and took Mother on vacation with us. She liked to visit us in Westmont, the Chicago suburb. After David died in a car accident last winter, I was so involved in putting my own life together, I didn't catch the warning signals in Mother." Autumn dropped her gaze to the floor. "I should have."
Surprised that she'd revealed so much to a new acquaintance, she stepped back a pace and added formally, "It was nice to meet you."
Kevin's smile displayed white, even teeth. "Holler for me anytime you want. Always glad to see another pretty face in town. In fact, I may show up tomorrow with the old Thermos." He jerked a thumb at the man in the Postmistress' cage. "Don't worry about Mr. Sunshine there. He's always nice to us business people. It's his job."
Smiling, she watched him amble across the street for another hectic day of promoting his town.
She stopped smiling when the grouchy phone user strode past her without a word of thanks. Then abruptly he turned back, his eyes narrowing in a stroking survey she hadn't felt in years.
"Thanks," he said, and left.
In retaliation for his bold appraisal, she stared at his rump as he crossed the street. There wasn't much of it, just a tight transition from his shoulder wedge to his long, booted legs. What caused the guy to be so uptight anyway?
Maybe he lived in a state of frustration, which was ridiculous for someone in his mid-thirties with health, looks, charisma--
Charisma? No way! Having been around charismatic people all her life, starting with Dannie and Zane McCaul and Dannie's mother, Melany, she knew magnetism when she felt it. Mr. Macho didn't come close, except in a repelling sort of way.
Watching him throw himself into the seat of his pickup it occurred to her that he'd look more at home on a horse.
With a shrug she turned away from the window. It took all kinds. She'd been too reclusive since David died. It would be good for her to meet strangers and local residents through the shop.
Danica's was Autumn's shop now, albeit an odd fit for someone who'd always lived in a city. Of course it had been a far odder placement for dazzling Danica Britt-nee Barre-McCaul. Dannie should have lived on for decades, among people who loved her. Instead she'd neglected her failing heart and spent her final months among indifferent relics. The shop inventory was comprised mostly of old furnishings and knick-knacks.
People's motives for collecting such undistinguished items--loosely called antiques--puzzled Autumn. Her mother once described her customers as a diverse lot searching for something only they would recognize. Roots, she suspected.
Maybe that was the conundrum. Autumn's own roots reached around the world. Born into a tightly knit family, with a strong sense of continuity on her mother's side, she'd grown up on tales of her forebears, branded by the passions of three generations.
She didn't recall anyone ever pointing out her own ordinariness, but by age four she'd realized she hadn't inherited the sparkling talents of her celebrated parents. Instead she remembered kindly-meant comments that only a rare individual could light up a TV screen like comedienne Dannie Britt, or breathe fire into a historical novel like author Zane McCaul.
For all their life together Zane's creative inner fire matched his fiercely protective love for his wife and daughter. Reserved and subtle, the professor-novelist nevertheless had possessed a strong temper. Twice he'd erupted in killing rage. When a junkie robbed and tried to rape Dannie in her TV studio, Zane beat him into unconsciousness before Dannie managed to bring him back to his senses. Years later he'd battled a pair of would-be Autumn kidnappers to the degree that one of them never walked again. Zane, who'd walked with a polio limp from age sixteen, had set up a trust fund for the man.
During the time Dannie owned the shop she'd given her daughter gifts of antique jewelry. Autumn treasured those pieces; the workmanship was superior, and wearing something unique made her feel special. Now she fingered the strand of pearls under her shirt collar that Dannie had given her three Christmases ago, the day Gran remarried.
A sudden longing to see Gran, the only living person who'd loved her from the moment she was born, brought tears to her eyes.
"Hi, there!" came a friendly female voice from the doorway. "You must be Dannie's daughter."
Autumn swung around, a smile replacing her tears. Her granddad, Logan Barre, would've described the plump little woman peering into the shop as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. "Yes, I'm Autumn Renfro."
The visitor in a seersucker dress and sturdy shoes stepped inside, her grin scattering wrinkles in every direction. "Don't worry, honey," she said, one hand rummaging through her improbably red Shirley Temple curls, "I don't have time to do a proper interrogation now. I just wanted to introduce myself--Teri Littler ... you know, The Town Beauty, next door? Your mom may have mentioned me. On the other hand--Oh, come on over, have some of my awful coffee when you get the chance. That is if you can wade through all those good-looking guys I saw camping on your doorstep a little while ago. Tell you though, if it was my doorstep, I'd bring the tent," Cackling at her own brassy wit, Teri glanced to her left. "Darn! My eight o'clock's here on time ... see you later, honey." With a waggle of her fingers at Autumn, Teri bustled away, crying out to some unseen "Enid."
Chuckling, Autumn recalled her mother's amusement regarding her saucy neighbor. But then Gemini Dannie was amused or intrigued by almost anything that moved. Whereas her Scorpio daughter--
Autumn snapped her wandering mind to attention.
This is the first day of the rest of my life. Time to get busy.
Busy meant cleaning; neglected for months, the shop was filthy. After checking the supplies and the vacuum cleaner, she closed the shop and walked two blocks to Harold's General Store. She planned to visit a different business each day, and thereby meet every shopkeeper on Main Street. Besides being friendly, her visits might generate some customer referrals. Heaven knew she needed all the help she could get. Her last sales job had been raising money to buy a computer for her high school class.
"Well, hel-lo there, Autumn," cried the bespectacled blue-eyed woman behind Harold's old-fashioned counter. Dimples bracketed her smile. "Kevin said you'd arrived. I'm Sue Bainbridge." She waved a plump, chambray-covered arm at the merchandise--groceries to fishing tackle--crowding the walls and racks. "My husband, Joe, and I own this grand emporium."
Autumn laughed. "I like being pre-introduced. It saves time."
Sue's cheerful expression underwent a maternal softening. "We were all so pleased to hear you were coming to take over Dannie's shop. We miss her, poor thing. She was such fun, at least--" She halted, looking uncomfortable, and pushed some tight grey curls off her forehead. "I hope you know what I mean."
Following her mother's death, Autumn had dealt with thousands of mourners by mail and in person. Now she touched the shopkeeper's dainty, unlined hand and said smoothly, "I understand. I always envied Mother's talent for having fun." She handed her shopping list to Sue. "But now it's work time. You'd better outfit me before I lose my enthusiasm."
By late morning Autumn had pushed, pulled and rearranged furniture, vacuuming the rugs under it, until her arms ached and her back cricked. Her swayback motel bed would feel like a cloud tonight, assuming she could still crawl into it.
As she paused to stretch, arching her back and wiping her brow with a smudged hand, a sudden awareness pivoted her toward the door. How long had the man with the geometric backside been standing there, arms folded and his back to the light, watching her?
"Yes?" she said coolly. Approaching him, she wished she'd inherited some of great-grandmother Aurie's or grandmother Melany's psychic ability. Kevin had vouched for the guy, but there was an air of street-toughness about him ... and something more. "Can I help you?"
Wearing an easy, practiced smile, he moved closer, stopping just short of Autumn's space.
"I hope so, Ms. Renfro. I lost an important notebook and a not so-important pen this morning. Okay if I take a look around your phone?"
"Go ahead." She stepped sideways to sit down in her rocking chair. "I haven't been near it."
For the second time she studied the pickup driver from the rear. He was taller than David, a shade over six feet she figured, using her own five-four as a base line. More interestingly, he walked with a lithe, panther-like grace, and his straight, longish black hair moved like weighted silk.
She averted her eyes as he emerged from the Postmistress' cage, a notebook in hand; he was the type to interpret a woman's curiosity as a come-on. "Thank God I found this. Maybe the pen will show up later." His smile gleamed in his deeply tanned face and he held out his hand. "Sorry I was so short this morning. I'm Brann Havelock, sometimes known as Clod."
The flat angular planes of his cheeks, long tapering jaw and clipped chin reminded Autumn of a quick, rough sketch. Their knees almost touched as she rocked forward to meet his hand, and she noticed he'd cut his chin shaving. Did he use a blade on his heavy beard because his skin was sensitive ... or to please his wife or Significant Other? The warmth, fine texture and slenderness of his hand surprised her, too, although his firm, calloused grip proved he was no dilettante.
She rocked back and Havelock gave up her hand slowly in almost a caress, leaving her with the feeling that he'd taken something of her with him. He didn't move, and her dipping gaze fell to his pewter Ozarks belt buckle, and the white creases in the jeans below it.
Embarrassed, she lifted her eyes to his and said the first thing that came to mind. "Bran?"
"Yes--" His long lips tilted at the corners. "--go ahead and say it. Everybody does."
Her neck bent at a stressful angle as she stared up at him in puzzlement. Another smile flashed and she stirred, knowing he'd deliberately stepped up the voltage. Then the light came on. "Oh. As in raisin?"
"Yes, but with two n's. I think my folks did it for revenge. They wanted a girl." He tilted back on low boot heels. "Now you--Autumn sure fits."
"I know," she retorted, "I'll look right at home in these colorful Ozark hills!" They both laughed, and the slight bonding altered her opinion of Brann's thunder-grey eyes: they might not intimidate, but they'd sure take prisoners.
Hoisting herself from the rocker, she forced him to step back a pace. "Excuse me. Cinderella has work to do. Some people like to blow dust off an antique before they buy it, but I don't."
"Then I'm out of here," he said, heading for the door. "I had to help dust till I got big enough to outrun my mom."
Brann lingered, though, watching Autumn bend to pick up a bottle of polish from the floor. Either her shirt had shrunken or she'd gained a couple of pounds, seeing how the weight of her breasts strained the plaid fabric. Her jeans hugged her rounded bottom, too. Added to those black eyes he'd bet could barbecue a man, and a sexy mouth in need of taming, Ms. Renfro was a tempting package. One he wouldn't mind handling at all.
Then in a blink she whipped around and shafted him with eyes too dark to read. "I thought you were leaving," she said, every word a chunk of ice.
Caught off guard, he backed to the door. "Uh, sure, don't let me keep you from your fun."
Shoulders hunched and hands rammed in his pockets, he headed for the truck. What ailed the little witch anyway? Things were going fine, and then ... it was as if she'd tuned into his thoughts. He yanked open the pickup door and thrust himself inside. Well, what if she had? Wearing jeans that tight said she wanted a man to look at her and want to get his hands on her. It was the way 'nice' women played the game--look, want, but don't touch.
He Repressed the urge to stomp the accelerator, and rolled decorously down Main Street. He'd had enough of the kind of complication offered by Ms. Autumn. Still, he needed her cooperation, so he'd watch his thoughts next time.
And there'd be a next time, he promised her that!