"Daddy, I want to be in a beauty pageant."
Russ Tandy stared at his twelve-year-old daughter, thinking that he couldn't possibly have heard correctly. But Amanda's clear brown-eyed gaze was calm and disturbingly serious. When her late mother had gotten that look in her eyes, he'd always known he was about to lose the coming battle.
Two customers were browsing the shelves of Tandy's Music and Gifts, the small Waycross Springs shop that had been in Russ's family for three generations, but neither seemed to need his services at the moment. He was free to focus on the golden-haired child gazing hopefully at him from the other side of the counter.
When had she gone and grown up on him?
Amanda had inherited Melody's baby-fine blonde hair rather than his thick, reddish-brown curls. But Russ's daughter had gotten her height from him. She was going to be tall and willowy. Like a model, he realized with a sense of shock.
"What brought this on?" he asked, trying to conceal that his first reaction was wholly negative. He knew very well what would happen if he flat out said no. Amanda would dig in her heels, stick out her lower lip, and pout. He'd have to find some tactful way to discourage this appalling new whim.
"The Miss Special Smile competition is going to be held at the Sinclair House," she said, naming the grand old nineteenth-century hotel that was the linchpin of economic prosperity in their small, rural Maine community. "It's a great opportunity."
Not what he'd asked, Russ thought, but he realized Amanda's response was probably the closest thing to an answer he was going to get. He hoped his daughter wasn't developing Melody's knack for evasion.
A bell above the door tinkled musically as a young couple, plainly tourists, entered the shop. "Stay put," he said to Amanda. "We'll talk in a minute."
Waycross Springs was a resort for most of the year, offering cool mountain air as an escape in the summer and skiing in winter. The third boom time was in progress at the moment as nature presented its annual display of brilliant fall foliage. Leaf-peepers filled every hotel, motel, and bed-and-breakfast in the area. Enough of them wanted to buy souvenirs to take home with them to ensure that the Tandys stayed in business year after year.
After he waited on the customers, selling them postcards and, as a nice bonus, one of the tiny pewter figurines he stocked, he turned his attention back to his daughter. She'd come behind the counter and was shifting impatiently from foot to foot. He doubted she'd changed her mind about this beauty-pageant business during the interim. He wasn't that lucky.
Trying a new tack, he asked, "How did you hear about the competition?"
At once she brightened, smiling up at him as pride filled her expression and her voice. "I got a personal invitation from the pageant organizers."
Russ frowned. Someone had dared solicit a child? The very idea made him see red, but he swallowed the urge to explode and forced himself to keep his voice level. "May I see it?"
Amanda promptly opened one flap of the backpack in which she carried her books. She'd stopped by the store after school, as she did every weekday. Along with a small packet of Oreo cookies, she produced a legal-size envelope addressed to Miss Amanda Tandy at their street address in Waycross Springs.
That made Russ stop and ponder, for it indicated that the origin of this "opportunity" might have been Amanda herself and some form or contest entry she had filled out. There was no door-to-door delivery in their tiny town. Everyone had a post office box or a rural route number. The local postmaster had those memorized, and although he was supposed to return misaddressed mail to the sender, he rarely did so, simply popping it into the correct box instead. Just this once, Russ wished he'd been less obliging.
Inside the envelope was a form letter on good-quality business stationery, together with an application and a permission slip for him to sign. The pageant was scheduled right before Thanksgiving. The deadline for entering was a little more than a week away.
"I have to send this in," Amanda told him, taking all but the letter from his hand. "And I have to go to a personal interview before I can be accepted." Her voice trembled with barely contained excitement and she scarcely seemed able to keep from bouncing up and down as she waited for him to finish skimming the letter directed to "Dear Candidate." He took in only about half of what it said. "Can I enter, Daddy? Pleeeease!"
"I need to think about this, honey." Though most of his attention was on Amanda and her earnest request, he was distracted by the movements of the others in the shop. Mrs. Benning, the piano teacher, had been browsing for an hour. Tim Latterly, the game warden, was trying to decide between a Madonna CD and one featuring Celine Dion.
"You know how hard it is to discuss serious matters when I'm working."
"Oh, Daddy. Just say yes. It's no big deal." Amanda wasn't ordinarily a manipulative child, but there was now a distinct whine in her voice. Once again she reminded him of Melody. Uneasy with the comparison, he looked up with relief as one of his customers approached the counter.
"We'll talk about it tonight. At home. Want to wait on Mrs. Benning, Amanda?" She'd always enjoyed working the cash register. She'd "helped" at the store from the moment she'd been old enough to know which keys to press.
"I want to be in the beauty pageant," she muttered, but she climbed up on the high stool in front of the register, took the sheet music, rang up the sale, and bagged the purchase and receipt.
Her smile for Mrs. Benning looked forced. No surprise there. Following in Russ's footsteps, Amanda had attempted to learn to play the piano. Like him, she'd hated it. The musical talents of the Tandy family were directed toward mastering a somewhat less common instrument.
"I already have a picture to put on the brochures," Amanda announced.
Brochures? What brochures? Russ scanned the letter once more and found the reference. Contestants were encouraged to print brochures in order to solicit sponsors.
Ask for money, in other words, to pay an entry fee. His blood pressure rose when he saw they expected Amanda to cough up four hundred dollars just to get into this foolish competition.
"Such a pretty girl," Mrs. Benning said as Amanda handed over her package. "Pretty as a picture." She beamed at both Russ and Amanda before walking away.
Something clicked at this second reference to pictures. That had to be it, the source of the letter. Just before school started, Amanda had gone to a photography studio with her best friend, Jolene, for what Jolene's mother had called a "girls' day out." Russ had been livid when he'd seen the resulting portrait of his little girl. Going for glamour, the photographer had made Amanda look at least sixteen. Entirely too grown up. She'd had an almost ... knowing expression in her eyes. And she'd been dressed in a tuxedo.
He'd hated that photograph at first sight, but of course he hadn't let Amanda know. She'd been so tickled with her new look she'd come home still sporting the makeup and the elaborately styled and sprayed hair. He'd swallowed his first reaction, to demand the name of the person who'd made his baby look like a cheap hooker, and mumbled something about how she certainly did look different. He'd been tremendously relieved when she'd washed all that gunk off her face and out of her hair.
Russ struggled to keep his voice casual and tried to remember what else Amanda had told him about their outing. "Did Jolene get an invitation too?" he asked.
For a moment Amanda looked almost guilty. "Jolene thinks beauty pageants are stupid."
Bless Jolene, Russ thought. He didn't voice that heresy aloud, however. If he was reading the signs right, the two girls had already had a falling out over Amanda's desire to become a beauty queen.
"Are you still going to her house this afternoon?" he asked cautiously. Jolene and Amanda normally did their homework together there after school, until he closed the store and picked up his daughter on his way home.
"I guess," Amanda said.
"Jolene has a right to her opinion," he reminded her.
Seeing the forlorn expression on his daughter's face, Russ decided he'd better do a bit of investigating before he refused her request. He'd need a carefully reasoned explanation when he said no. He told himself he'd raised a sensible child. Surely she'd see the light if he was patient enough to marshal compelling arguments, especially if he had Jolene on his side.
There were times, Russ thought, when it would be much easier if he were the kind of parent who simply laid down dictates and expected to be obeyed. He'd never dealt that way with Amanda, though, and he wasn't about to start now. He didn't spoil her, even if she was the apple of his eye.
He didn't deny her much, either.
A Madonna CD landed on the counter, along with a twenty-dollar bill. Once again, Amanda rang up the sale, but as soon as Tim Latterly was out of the store, just when Russ might have initiated further discussion of the pitfalls of entering contests, she slid down off the stool and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"I really, really want to do this, Daddy," she declared, and rested her cheek against his chest.
Russ sighed, staring down at the top of her golden head where it nestled close to his heart. "Can you tell me why entering a beauty pageant is suddenly so important to you?"
Obviously quoting from the letter he'd tossed onto the counter, she said, "It's a character-building experience."
"And one of the prizes is a thousand-dollar scholarship."
At least that made some kind of sense. When she turned ten, Amanda had announced she wanted to be a marine biologist. She'd been looking at college catalogs ever since. The colleges she liked all had one thing in common. They were expensive.
He ruffled her silky hair, then set her away from him. "We'll talk about it tonight," he promised. Her smile was so radiant that he didn't stop to think before he added, "Mrs. Benning is right. You're pretty enough to win any beauty contest."
"Daaaaddy! It's not enough to be pretty. I have to be talented too. And I have to answer questions in front of hundreds of people."
In Waycross Springs? Maybe in summer or during ski season, but this competition was being held at a time of year when only the contestants' families were likely to show up. With any luck, Russ thought, he wouldn't be among them.
"Better get going," he said. "Jolene will wonder where you are."
Amanda threw herself back into his arms, hugging him tightly. "I'll make you so proud of me. I'm going to win. I'm sure of it."
"Whoa! Wait a second. I haven't agreed to anything."
But Amanda wasn't listening. She released him and dashed toward the door, calling back over her shoulder that she'd see him later. Shaking his head, Russ watched through the plate-glass display window as she raced off down the sidewalk, darting between two tourists and nearly upending a recycling bin.
Typical Amanda-the-whirlwind, he thought. All of this was. As soon as she was out of sight, he returned to the counter and reached for the phone. Beva Scott, Jolene's mother, answered on the second ring. Russ knew her to be a forthright, honest person and a loving wife and mother, always ready to share a laugh or a cup of coffee?and she made the finest coffee in Waycross Springs. More than once, Russ had thought he should have been smart enough to marry such a woman.
"What do you know about this Miss Special Smile pageant?" he asked after he'd identified himself.
After a short exchange of information, Beva acknowledged that his guess was likely correct. If Amanda hadn't had that photograph taken, the pageant organizers would probably never have gotten her name.
"I hold you responsible, Beva," Russ said. He wasn't entirely kidding. "Looks to me like you're the one who got me into this mess."
"Oh, no. I'm not buying into any guilt trips." Good-natured laughter traveled to him over the phone line, making him smile in spite of himself. "For one thing, that photographer actually managed to make me look good. And for another, having our pictures taken wasn't even my idea."
He heard her make a small sound, almost a gasp.
"Just taken with a thought. Listen, Russ, there may be a better person than me to help you out. I'll tell you more when you come for Amanda. Got to go." She hung up before he could respond.
In between customers, Russ made two more phone calls. The first was to the Sinclair House, where the director of public relations confirmed what Beva had told him about the Special Smile competition. Even though he'd never heard of the contest, it seemed it was a reputable one that did indeed offer college scholarship money among the prizes. Just to be sure, he next phoned the Waycross Springs Police Department to talk to his brother, Gordon.
By the time Russ closed the store at six, he knew a fair amount about the pageant. That was the good news. The bad news was that, so far, he hadn't come up with a single logical reason to deny his daughter's request to participate.
* * * *
Tory Grenville wiped grimy hands on her thighs, leaving dark streaks on already dirty blue jeans, and regarded the tiny vegetable garden with satisfaction. Here it was, only mid-afternoon on Saturday, and already the last of the potatoes, carrots, and onions filled the wicker basket her mother had always used for the harvest. True, Tory had let some of the produce go by, and an astonishing number of weeds were flourishing in the little plot, but she had grown enough veggies to make a nice pot of homemade stew. Even though it was going to mean eating late, she'd make it that day, enjoy some for supper, and freeze the rest. Just contemplating the whole process made her feel remarkably domestic.
"Yuck," she muttered to herself. "Next thing you know, I'll be turning into a damned homebody."
She carried the heavy basket into the house, which still smelled of lemon furniture polish from that morning's weekly cleaning binge. She liked sensing tangible proof of her accomplishments, at home and in her job. She also tended to hoard every word of praise, each pat on the back, as if they were gold stars on school papers. It was a failing, she supposed, but one she could live with. One, in fact, that helped her maintain a positive outlook, something not always so easy to do, especially this past year.
A five-by-eight-inch lined tablet on the kitchen counter contained Tory's list of "things to do" before she left on her next business trip. Most were already checked off, but one that remained was: Call Beva about feeding cats. Since she would be away for four days, she didn't want to leave her pets completely on their own.
She was reaching for the phone when it rang. "What are you, psychic?" she asked when she recognized Beva's voice.
Beva laughed, listened to Tory's request that she look in on Dichotomy and Paradox, otherwise known as Dick and Pat, and readily agreed to take on the responsibility.
Tory had first run into Beva in the grocery store. Literally. Their carts had collided at the end of the pet-food aisle. Beva's sack of dog food, balanced precariously on top of her fully loaded cart, had gone flying, burst open, and covered the floor with kibble. By the time they'd stopped laughing and helped the stock boy clean up the mess, they'd become fast friends.
"So why were you calling me?" Tory asked.
"Remember my daughter Jolene's friend Amanda? The one who went to our session at the photographer's with us?"
A pretty girl, with brown eyes and blonde hair. Tory remembered both the child and the day very well. They'd had a lot of fun primping and posing and