ms. miller and the midas man

Ms. Miller and the Midas Man
Mary Kay McComas

This one is for Sue Noyes.

Thanks for the cool Web page.

Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

A Biography of Mary Kay McComas

ONE

T
HE WHOLE TOWN WAS
atwitter with the news.

Scott Hammond was back and nothing would be dull or boring again—according to the gossip. This very same, totally reliable source of information also claimed he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, snatch small children from the paths of speeding locomotives, and resurrect truth, justice, and the American Way within the local school system with one hand tied behind his back.

Augusta Miller was no skeptic. She wanted to believe in magic and fairy tales as much as the next person. Truly. But experience had taught her that fairy tales just weren’t true, and unfortunately,
the next person
didn’t have Scott Hammond for a next-door neighbor.

“Lydia, he’s back,” she whispered loudly over the phone.

“Who?”

“You
know
who. From next door. He’s back. It’s the third time this week. Can I call the police now?”

“No,” her sister said, her voice tight with strained patience. “That’s not the way things are handled in small towns. What’s he doing?”

“Same as before,” she said, leaning over the kitchen sink to stare back at the intruder. “Sitting in the middle of my backyard with his garbage strewn all over. Staring. Drooling.”

“Can’t you just ignore him? He’ll get bored and go home eventually.”

“And leave his trash behind,” she added, spotting a stray bread crumb on the counter, brushing it into the palm of her hand, and tossing it into the trash. “If he steps in my new flower beds, I’ll shoot him. I swear. I’m not at all happy with this new neighbor of mine.”

“Well, try talking to him.”

“Who?”

“You
know
who. In your backyard. Talk to him nicely and maybe he’ll move back to his own yard.”

“Maybe I should use a little broomstick logic, huh?” she said, peering out at her uninvited guest once more. He was very big. He could probably snap a broomstick in half with his teeth.

“That’s allowed. I don’t think it would upset anyone if you shooed him away with a broom.”

“What if he comes at me? Attacks me?”

“Well, then it would be okay to call the police, I’m sure.”

Her sister’s voice had taken on a great deal of humor that she didn’t appreciate. “You’ve been a big help, Liddy. Thanks.”

“Gus, honey, you’re my favorite sister...”

“I’m your only sister.”

“But you have to learn to lighten up a little. You’re so like Mother sometimes, it scares me.”

“Oh, now...”

“This isn’t the big city. We’re more tolerant of our neighbors here.”

“Yes, well, there’s tolerance and then there’s being a gutless schmo who lets other people move in next door and take over.”

“Attagirl, Gus. You march on out there and tell him what’s what.”

“I’m going to,” she said, stretching the telephone cord to the broom closet. “And I’m taking my broom. Just in case.”

She had a mental picture of Robin Hood fighting the sheriff off with a toothpick, but it was the best weapon she had.

“Good girl. Call me when the dust settles.”

She hung up the phone and carried the broom to the back door, holding the calico curtains aside to check on the interloper. There he sat, staring and slobbering, the most enormous, gigantic dog she’d ever seen in her life. She swallowed around the lump of fear in her throat and turned the doorknob, making no sound at all, then jumped when he turned his large head in her direction.

“Look,” she said, pushing the screen door open and taking one step out of the house. “I don’t want to make you mad, but you and I are going to have to come to an understanding if we’re going to be neighbors.”

He continued to stare at her.

“Okay. First off, this is my yard. You live next door. I don’t know how you keep getting the gate open, but you’re not to do it anymore. Understand? You stay in your own yard and...and take your trash with you. Please.”

Bertram T. Goodfellow, Bert to his friends, was a reasonable animal. He didn’t understand the woman’s fear, but through the open gate he saw a barbecue-flavored Dog-Gone Dog Yummy land in the tall grass of
his habitat...
And he did understand that.

Her heart raced with fear as she stood statue-still and watched in utter astonishment as the beast stood, shook himself from head to tail, ambled across her lawn, and moseyed through the garden gate as if he’d understood her completely and found her request to be reasonable.

Stunned by the simplicity of it, it was several more seconds before she hurried over to the tall gate to shut it and wedge a rock against the bottom, the latch being on the other side.

“All right,” she said, most satisfied with herself. It had been some time, a long time, since she’d felt as if she had any control of her life. She wasn’t exactly sure how she’d managed this small feat, but she wasn’t above taking credit for it. She was pleased.

And angry when she turned around and saw the trash scattered across her tiny backyard.

“Okay. This is it. I’ve had it,” she said to her neighbor’s fence, tossing a beer can over the top. “I don’t care who you are. I’m sick and tired of cleaning up your trash. And I’m sick and tired of finding it in my yard.”

The fence had a dull despondent expression to it, its white paint peeling and chipped. It was an unsatisfactory target for the empty potato chip bag and the next two beer cans.

“The next time this happens, I’m calling—” she stopped, long-necked beer bottle poised mid-throw.

Would the police arrest a local hero for allowing his dog to trash her backyard? No, they’d just give him a stern talking to—if that. She sniffed indignantly. Maybe a hit man? She liked nipping problems in the bud.

“I’m calling...somebody. Somebody who’ll tell you what’s what and where to put your trash.”

Technically, she should have a little talk with this new neighbor herself, she supposed. But sustaining a good head of anger for the time it would take to walk all the way to the front of the house, across the two driveways, onto his porch, and through an entire harangue simply wasn’t in her lately. It was easier to throw the trash back over the fence.

Besides, she’d seen her new neighbor—tall, handsome, walked with long, sure strides. She wasn’t what her sister, Lydia, called a worldly woman. Nor, in her opinion, was she particularly shy. Inexperienced described her better, and while scolding a tall, handsome man about his trash didn’t seem beyond her, she imagined it would be rather...difficult, and preferred to avoid it.

Still, she was past being nice about it.

“I haven’t said a word about the loud music. Very tolerant, I think. And I didn’t mind that your friend parked his car in my driveway the other night. I wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.” She picked up a rotting banana peel with two fingers and flipped it over the fence. “But this is where I draw the line. Trash your own yard if you must. Don’t mow it. Don’t trim the bushes. Don’t paint this pathetic fence.” Another bottle and one more soda can went sailing. “I don’t care if I have to live next door to the messiest house on the street. I don’t. That’s your business. But this yard is mine.”

She turned with her hands on her hips and surveyed the small, neatly trimmed patch of grass outlined with rows of primrose, red coral bells, and lupines and the big elm tree that shaded it all with deep satisfaction. It wasn’t big, but it was beautiful. And it was all hers.

On the other side of the rather forlorn looking fence, Scotty smiled and patiently counted the cans, bottles, and wrappers. Sixteen. Same as yesterday. Same as the day before. The banana peel, of course, had been Bert’s idea—but he’d come home willingly for a single yummy, so he wouldn’t reprimand the animal this time. Now, if the pattern held, his pretty neighbor was about to disappear inside her house again.

Her soliloquy was unexpected and amusing, and he wasn’t at all disappointed by the clear, even tone of her voice. It was a good sign that she was feeling chatty. Perhaps it was time to make his move...

Slowly, so as not to make any noise, he unfolded his tall body from the lawn chair he’d parked himself in after tossing those few choice pieces of trash over the fence earlier. He left his copy of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
on the seat, tiptoed over a low bush and a hardy crop of garden weeds to the fence, and peered over.

She was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. Not knock-’em-out beautiful like some, but pretty in a way that was hard to describe. Healthy. Wholesome. Sweet. All appropriate words, but not nearly enough to depict that quality about her that was also feminine and sexual in an earthy, lusty sort of way. She was a special, unique combination of woman, he thought, watching her stoop down to pinch dead-heads out of her flower garden.

It looked like her, the garden. Bright, neat, picture-book perfect. Maybe a little too perfect. A tiny bit of male...dishevelment wouldn’t hurt—her or her garden. He’d been trying to catch her eye and start a conversation for some time now, but she either wouldn’t look his way or would merely smile a little, avert her eyes, and walk quickly into her house.

She was wearing a long-sleeved springy looking dress, her dark hair was tied back at the nape of her neck, and she was barefoot, he noticed, making her seem as vulnerable and natural as he’d imagined her to be.

“There, you see, that nasty beast and his trash almost made me forget why I wanted to come out here in the first place,” Gus told the foliage. “You need water, don’t you?”

Scotty cleared his throat, loudly, and when she spun around to face him, he calmly looked about the yard before asking, “Were you...speaking to me?”

“What? No...Well, yes. Before. I was. But no,” she stammered, getting to her feet.

“Did you throw all this trash into my backyard?”

“No. Well, yes. I did. But...it’s not mine.”

“It’s not yours? What, it’s borrowed? Stolen?”

“No. Of course not. It’s...it’s your trash,” she said finally, too stunned at being caught talking to herself to think straight. Too mortified at being caught tossing trash, even if it
was
his, to speak coherently. And too overwhelmed by her disorderly neighbor’s dazzling smile and friendly dark eyes to do much more than keep her knees from buckling under her.

“Are you sure?” he asked, enjoying himself, enjoying the stir of desire he’d come to expect whenever he saw her.

“What?”

“Are you sure it’s my trash? It doesn’t look familiar.” He turned his head and winked at Bert.

The hundred-pound rottweiler yawned and appeared bored. Go next door. Come back. Human mating rituals were slow and tedious. He preferred a more obvious approach.

She frowned. She glanced at the back of Mrs. Falconetti’s house, on the other side of hers. It was newly whitewashed, the shutters painted turquoise last fall, window boxes bulging with impatiens...Her eyes slid back to the man.

“ ’Course, it all looks pretty much the same, doesn’t it?” he went on, grinning as he turned back to her. Killer dimples winked at her from both cheeks. “I guess I don’t mind if you throw it over the fence, a little more isn’t going to make much difference at this point. Just be careful when I’m sitting out here, okay?”

“I didn’t know you were sitting there,” she said, feeling foolish despite the fact that she had no reason to. “And I threw it in your yard because it belongs to you. Your animal brought it over here.”

He gave her a dubious look to keep the fun going. “Well, if you say so, but...” Again he turned to Bert, who had sprawled out on his belly in the shade, completely aware that his job had been well done. “Bert,” he said, reaching in his pocket for another barbecue-flavored Dog-Gone Dog Yummy. “Have you been in the garbage again?”

The dog wagged his tail and barked once for his reward.

“He’s such a dog,” he said, shaking his head as he turned back to her.

“Yes, he is,” she said, mustering her resolve. “And I’d appreciate it if you’d keep him and your trash in your own yard.”

“Okay,” he said simply, leaning on the fence. All he had to do was keep the gate latched. “Nice day, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Very nice.” Very like the last two weeks of fine summer weather. But warmer. Much, much warmer, now that she thought of it.

“When was the last time you saw a sky that blue?” he asked.

The day before, but for politeness’ sake she looked at it again, then back at her neighbor. She could hardly take her eyes off him, as a matter of fact. He was tall—extremely tall, as the fence was high—with dark brown hair, his shoulders wide and thick under a cotton shirt, his bearing confident and easy. It was his eyes, however, that kept drawing her back to his face. Deep and dark like an all-consuming abyss. They were eyes a person could get lost in, disappear into...

“Reminds me of when I was a kid,” he said, flashing that smile again. “Bright blue sky. Long summer days with nothing to do.”

She’d grown up in Seattle, where the sky was generally overcast. And if he had nothing to do, there was always his lawn and the fence and the trash and...She merely nodded and started toward the back door. She could water the flowers later.

“You didn’t grow up here in Tylerville, did you?” he asked. He would have remembered her for sure. You didn’t see eyes like hers every day. Clear and perceptive. Hazel green, was his guess from a distance. Wide open, they were, but they revealed little of what she was thinking.

“No.”

“Where are you from?”

“Seattle originally. Then New York.” She wasn’t accustomed to telling strangers her life’s story. But if they were going to be neighbors, and if she wished to keep
his
animal and
his
trash out of
her
yard, diplomatic relations were in order.

“And now Tylerville?” He chuckled. “You hiding from someone?”

“What?” She looked startled.

“No one moves to Tylerville, Indiana, without a good reason. Rural living is fashionable now, but...Tylerville? It’s not exactly on the list of the ten best small towns to live in.”

“Well, I like it.” She didn’t want to get into this with him. She had her reasons for moving to Tylerville, none of which concerned him. Besides, hadn’t he just moved
back
to Tylerville? On purpose?

He made her nervous in a strange sort of way, as if he were interrogating her. He was watching her as if he’d like to crawl into her skin and make it his own, to know her that well.

“I grew up here,” he said. And when she didn’t seem particularly impressed by this, he added, “In this very house. My parents passed away a few years ago. I thought I’d come back and fix the place up.”

This was when she might have asked where he’d been, what he’d been doing, why he hadn’t come back sooner, if he planned to paint the house and the fence, if he’d had a happy childhood, or just about any other question she might come up with. But she didn’t.

“I’m sorry about your parents.”

Had she known them? Had she heard of the Hammond family? Was she from a large family? Was there going to be any additional information about
her
forthcoming? She was pretty tight-lipped for a woman, he thought. And in his mind, that was not a derogatory remark against her sex. It was simply one of the things he knew about women.

You see, if Scotty knew
anything,
he knew women. Nearly as many sisters as it would take to make a female basketball team, an ex-wife, a daughter, and several dozen female friends along the way made him an expert.

“They were pretty old,” he said of his parents, as if that somehow made their passing easier. Truth to tell, he was already heading down another avenue of interest. “You’ve done a nice job on this old place. I like the flowers. Old Mr. Payne had allergies, so my mom planted hers on the other side of the house, as a courtesy, I guess. The Paynes were always complaining about something, as I recall. Me, mostly. I bet I broke a window in that house at least twice every baseball season growing up.”

“It’s a nice little house,” she said, taking a few more steps toward the back door, glancing at the considerably bigger house next door. It wouldn’t have surprised her to find out that the fence had been erected as a courtesy to the Paynes as well—though why the second gate opened into her yard, she had no idea. Easier baseball retrieval?

“You haven’t lived here long. Someone else owned it the last time I was here, for my dad’s funeral.”

“No. Not long,” she said, taking several more steps away.

“You’ve done a lot of work,” he said again, running out of things to say. Pointing here and there, he added, “Painted it. Put the garden in.”

She was redecorating the interior too. He’d seen her hauling in buckets of paint and small pieces of furniture. One night, he’d watched her go up and down a ladder a hundred times to paint the ceiling in her dining room, the window of which faced his across the double driveway. But of course, it was still too early in their relationship for him to admit that he’d been spying on her.

“If you ever need any help with anything, I’m usually around.”

“Thank you.”

He laughed. “I’ll bet you’re thinking that I should probably work on my own place before I offer to help with yours, huh?”

She had no
nice
comment to make on the subject, he could see. But instead of letting her off easy, he waited for her to say something. Anything.

“That’s up to you, Mr....um...But it was nice of you to offer.”

“Hammond. Scott Hammond. And I meant it. I’d be glad to help out.”

“I know,” she said, having heard his name a hundred times over the past few weeks, she couldn’t believe she’d forgotten it. Though, there didn’t seem to be much in her mind at the moment anyway, aside from his smile. “I mean, thank you. It’s been nice meeting you, Mr. Ha—”

“Scotty.”

Her smile was small as she opened the screen door. She nodded. “Scotty. I’m glad we met.”

He wasn’t what you’d call a firm believer in love at first sight—lust maybe, not love. But he had a certain instinct about women that rarely disenchanted him. This same intuition was at present on its toes, caroling a Gregorian chant and dancing a jig.

“Are you really?” he asked, unexpectedly. She stared at him, her bright eyes curious and surprised. “Glad we met? Throwing trash in your yard, and sending Bert over to meet you was only a ploy to get your attention. I won’t go to all that trouble anymore...if there’s another way to get you to talk to me.”

What a strange man, she thought, and yet rather than run inside and lock the doors, she let the screen door swing closed.

“To get my attention?”

“Sure. It’s not like a man moves in next door to a beautiful woman every day. And I couldn’t exactly stroll up the walk and knock on your door to deliver one of my usual lines, so I thought I’d do something...neighborly. But not like borrow a cup of sugar, because that would make it seem like I’d be pestering you for groceries all the time. And not like bake you a cake, because I’m not very good at that stuff. I’d have shoveled your walk if it were snowing, but it’s summer and, well, the trash was handy. In fact, it’s been the same cans and wrappers for a week now.”

“I see,” she said thoughtfully. “And now that you have my attention, is there a point you’d like to make?”

He loved a direct, plain-speaking woman. He really did.

“Yes. I think we should be friends.”

“Friends,” she repeated.

The way he was looking at her was a lot more than friendly. She didn’t know many men, but she knew his type. Big, hunky flirt. High on ego, low on gray matter. Putting aside his dog and his trash and the general state of his house, she’d been willing to give her new neighbor a chance. But now...?

“Definitely friends. Can’t have too many friends, right?”

This time the smile reached her eyes...and took his breath away. Those first stirrings of desire whipped themselves to a frenzy.

“Actually, Scott, you
can
have too many friends. As a matter of fact, I find myself in that exact predicament at this very moment. You may have to wait until someone I know disowns me or dies.”

He smiled back at her undaunted. He also loved a challenge.

“I’ve waited a whole week just to talk with you. I guess it’s a good thing that I’m a patient man.”

“Maybe. But I should warn you, most of my friends are young, forgiving, and very healthy.”

“I’ve noticed.”

She gave him a sharp look.

“The little kids going in and out,” he said quickly. “Your students. When the window’s open I can hear them during their violin lessons. You’re a very tolerant teacher. Me, I’d be tempted to put a couple of them out of their misery. Friday’s two-o’clock lesson is the worst. What a noise.”

She didn’t mean to, but she chuckled, thinking of poor Levy’s little tin ear. “The lessons were his mother’s idea. He’d much rather be playing soccer.”

“He’s probably better at it too.”

An awkward moment passed as they realized they were sharing an amusement. He was pleased, she was mildly annoyed.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like her new neighbor. She found him acceptable, she supposed, having known a few that were worse in New York and Seattle. Likable even, in some vague, loose fashion. But he’d already admitted to having his “usual lines” for meeting women, that the dog and the trash were simply attention-getters. She’d have to be as dumb as a tick on a dead dog not to see his intentions—the smile, the look, the flattery, the manner.

And they might have worked on someone else, she conceded, pegging him literally as a handsome devil.

“I’m sure Levy would appreciate your understanding,” she said, opening the screen door again. “However, it isn’t yours he needs.” She hesitated. “I hope murder isn’t your answer for all untalented students.”

Ah-ha! So she did know who he was and why he’d come back to Tylerville. If she was plugged into the local gossip circuit,
that
would explain her extraordinary lack of curiosity. In fact, if she was plugged into the local gossip circuit, she already knew more than he wanted her to.

He turned up the intensity of his smile, the dimples were guaranteed to charm. “No. Actually, I only murder the students who remind me too much of me at their age. Then it’s self-preservation.”

She nodded, believing him entirely, and tried not to smile as she turned to go inside.

“Hey. Wait a second. What about older friends?” He made an upward hand gesture and looked hopeful. “Taller friends?”

“Sorry. No vacancies,” she said, walking inside. She giggled, but didn’t realize it.

“Wait. Come back. Your name. What’s your name? All your mailbox says is Miller. What’s your first name? What should I call you?”

It would have been so simple just to close the door, or to poke her head out and give him her name. But something crazy and impulsive rose up inside her.

She pushed the screen door open, her heart fluttering wildly, and smiled back at his elated expression. “Call me...” she said slowly, “Ms. Miller.”

The expression on Scotty’s face when he turned from the fence would have alarmed a wiser woman. Getting to know
Ms. Miller
had escalated from a clear challenge to a personal quest in a split second. It wouldn’t be enough now merely to meet her and see what happened between them. Oh no. Too late for that. He liked her. She was aloof, spunky, quickwitted. It was his new and overpowering belief that in the middle of a heartbeat, he may have fallen hopelessly and totally in love with her.

It was almost like all the poets said it would be—that when you finally fell in love angels would sing and the earth would move. They didn’t, of course, but
something
had changed. Something had broken loose, snapped, rotated, altered itself inside him, and he
knew.
He knew she was different, knew she’d make a difference in his life.

He whistled all afternoon, fairly certain that he’d be dancing on the fringes of her mind for the rest of the day—he knew his women. He also suspected she was looking out her windows more often than before and that she was smiling every time she shook her head at his cheeky behavior.

Nope. None of that would have surprised him. However, he’d have been blown clean out of his sneakers to know that he was inadvertently compounding her disapproval and tampering with fate that afternoon when his cleanup crew arrived.

TWO

“A
W! WILL YOU LOOK
at that,” Gus said to her four walls, appalled, standing well hidden in the shadows of the room. “Flirting with me this morning and now
this
in the afternoon. Not one beautiful woman, but two. Cutoffs and halter tops...probably a leg man,” she muttered, craning her neck to watch the women climb the steps to the front door, standing bug-eyed and openmouthed when each received a hug and a quick kiss from him—on the mouth. He obviously had a great affection for both women, and it tied her stomach in knots.

“Kinky as a corkscrew.” She should have guessed it. Though why he should be any different from the other men she attracted, couldn’t be reasoned. Liars, cheaters, playboys every one. Take Nelson Forge, for example. His approach to love and romance was soft music, soft lights, and soft-soaping.

“Well, not this time, Mr. Scott Hammond.
Baby,
” using Nelson’s most sickening endearment. “I’ve been around this block before,” she said, walking head high, spine stiff into the kitchen for a glass of lemonade.

As a rule she limited lessons to two a day, finding more than that to be a strain on her overtrained nerves. But that particular Saturday she had three violin lessons to give, as Molly Bennett had to make up a lesson due to a conflict with a birthday party the day before. Each was a trial to her patience and a test of her dedication. Not because one child was a beginner and the other two hadn’t practiced, but because of Scott Hammond.

First, it was irritating that the odd mix of oldies, rap, and contemporary rock music went suddenly silent in the open doors and windows when ten-year-old Andrew Betz arrived for his lesson. Granted, it was considerate, but she would have much preferred that he
not
pay so much attention to the comings and goings at her house.

Later, she had to deal with, “Jeez, Ms. Miller. It sounds like they’re having a party next door, doesn’t it?”

She refused to turn to the window Andrew was leaning sideways to look through. The female shrieks and laughter coming from the next house were not only highly provocative and indicative of an orgy taking place, they were...well, embarrassing. He had no shame. And the women, clearly, had no pride. Such a ruckus.

“Will you two knock it off,” she heard Scott Hammond’s distinctively low male voice saying. “If you two think you’re getting away from me this quickly, think again. We haven’t finished in the bedroom yet.”

She cringed, her eyes darting to Andrew to check on his level of awareness as her skin flushed hot and pink with chagrin.

“You know, Andrew,” she said, striving to keep her voice calm and detached. “When I played with the Philharmonic in New York there were all sorts of people around me playing lots of different instruments, making lots of different sounds, doing different things. Sometimes it could be very distracting so I had to learn to concentrate. I had to learn to block out other noises and other people and focus on my instrument, the sounds I was making, what I was doing. Let’s you and I practice that this afternoon, shall we?”

Then there was Molly Bennett’s giggling...

“What’s so funny, Molly? Do the vibrations in the strings tickle your fingers? That’s common in the beginning, later those vibrations will tell you—”

She stopped when Molly giggled again, this time without playing the violin. She also noticed that Molly was looking over her shoulder, through the window. She turned her head quickly to find Scott Hammond in a window directly across from hers, playing an invisible violin, his movements large and elaborate like a mime in a park. When he finally caught her watching him, he stopped, put a hand in the air as if he were going to swear an oath, and waved at her with a huge smile, dimples flashing mischievously.

She turned back to Molly.

“You know, Molly, when I played with the Philharmonic in New York there were all sorts of people around me playing lots of different instruments, making lots of different sounds...”

The worst of it came with Mrs. Mutrux, the minister’s wife, when she arrived to pick up their son Stephen.

“That’s it for today, Stevie,” she said, closing his music books and handing them to him. “Try to remember to keep your head up, use good posture, and get plenty of extension on your bow. That way the music will be smooth and not choppy, and each note will sing out long and pretty for you.”

“I think a trumpet would be easier to play than this old thing,” Stevie told her unabashedly.

“Maybe. But every instrument takes practice. Even the trumpet.” She looked at his mother, who was half in and half out the front door, her attention directed at the house next door. Naturally, there was more shrieking and screaming and laughing going on, but she had long since closed up all her windows, and it was muffled until now. “Six months was our deal, remember? If you still don’t like the violin by then, I’ll speak with your mother about a trumpet, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

“Stevie’s doing very well,” she said, getting to her feet with a sinking feeling that she might have to apologize for whatever Mrs. Mutrux was watching.

“He needs to set aside a special time each day for practice and work on his form...a little...and...”

Her voice trailed off when she joined the preacher’s wife in the doorway and saw what she was seeing—Scott Hammond and the two beautiful women in a water fight on the front lawn.

“Oh dear,” she muttered.

“You, too, huh?” Carrie Mutrux asked, glancing at her briefly. “I’ve known him nearly all my life and he never changes.” She smiled wistfully. “I had a crush on him in kindergarten, and as much as I love my husband, I can’t really say my feelings for him have changed much since then.”

Gus frowned and took a closer look at the minister’s wife. A pretty lady with average features, better known for her practical thinking and dedication and hard work toward her husband’s church than for her own piety. She looked sensible and sane.

“When he got married and moved away...” She shook her head. “I’m so glad he’s back,” she went on. “It just feels right, you know?”

“Not exactly,” she said, taking another look at the melee next door, then pulling back out of sight. She refused to give him any more attention than he deserved—which was none at all.

Mrs. Mutrux smiled at her. “Small towns,” she said. “They’re chock-full of traditions, and usually for a good reason. When something works, it works. And the Hammonds work here in Tylerville. Always have. Before Mr. Kingsley was principal at the high school, Joe Hammond was. When he retired...well, Mr. Kingsley wasn’t Joe Hammond. He wasn’t as involved. Didn’t have the energy or drive or enthusiasm Joe had, and some of the life went out of it...Not just the high school. The whole community. Tylerville isn’t much good for anything but raising families and retiring. Joe had everyone involved in the school system—with the kids, you know? They were number one in his book, and unless Scotty has changed a great deal, he’ll make them number one again.”

“You think so?”

“Oh, yes. When Scotty agreed to be principal at the high school, you could just,” she wiggled head to toe,
“feel
everyone’s excitement.”

Gus took another quick peek out the door, then looked at the woman as if she’d lost her mind completely.

“That
Scott Hammond?”

“Yes. Isn’t he wonderful? I assume the two of you have met?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Stephen, honey? Are you ready?” she asked her son, not taking her gaze off her childhood crush. “Really, Augusta, you won’t believe the difference he’ll make around here. There’s just something about the Hammonds that makes you want to follow their lead. They’re all that way. Born leaders. Very civic-minded.”

This time, when she passed her skeptical expression beyond the doorway to make sure they were talking about the same person, he was waiting for her.

Hose running in an arch to the ground, he lifted his free hand in the air and started waving.

“Carrie Mutrux, that you?” he shouted, loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear. “Get yourself over here and let me take a look at you. You sick of being married to that dull old preacher yet?”

“Not yet,” she said, heading down the steps with Stevie in tow. “But when I am, you’ll be the first to know. You heathen.”

She held the screen door open and watched as Scott Hammond and the minister’s wife hugged and kissed and hugged again. When they were
finally
finished, he stooped and said something to Stevie, then he and the boy both turned to look at Gus.

“Afternoon, Ms. Miller,” he said, smiling that smile. “Hope we weren’t making too much noise.”

Go to hell
sprang to her lips, but there was the minister’s wife and child to consider.

“Not at all.” She hesitated. “Looks like a fine day for a water fight.”

“Care to join us?”

“Not today, thanks. See you next week, Stevie,” she said, stepping back inside and closing the door.

“What is the matter with this town?
That
man? Principal of the high school?”

“Gus, you’re overreacting,” her sister told her over the phone a few minutes later. “Alan says Scotty Hammond is as good as they come. And I’ve read his résumé. He’s a little overqualified if you ask me, for such a small town.”

“Lydia, the man is perverted,” she said, flat out. “He’s been cavorting with two half-naked women all afternoon.”

“Two?” A brief pause. “Well, who could blame them. Isn’t he cute?”

“Lydia!” Was she the only person getting a clear image of this terrible picture?

“Well, he is. And if you’d come to dinner with Howard two weeks ago when I begged you to, you could have met him properly. In an official capacity, instead of over the back fence.”

“You invited me to have dinner with Howard Munce and the school board, to meet the new high school principal. You made it sound almost as exciting as constipation. Why didn’t you tell me he was going to be my next-door neighbor?”

“I didn’t know he was planning to be. He was staying with one of his sisters at the time and didn’t mention where he planned to live, or I would have told you.”

“One of his sisters? How many are there?” She stretched to look out a window, noting a sudden silence in the neighborhood. Nothing.

“Um,” her sister hummed distractedly, always busy doing two things at once, even on the telephone. “He has seven or eight of them here in town. All with different last names because they’re all married, but I understand the family was quite large and very close. The father was the high school principal years ago, even before Alan and I moved here.”

“You know,” Gus said thoughtfully. “Of the two of us, you’re definitely the more talkative. In fact, I don’t know anyone who talks
more
than you, except Mother. And yet, you’ve been remarkably secretive about this man.”

Lydia giggled. “Have I? Maybe that’s because I was thinking that if things didn’t work out between you and Howard, I might hook you up with Scotty Hammond.”

She groaned. “Oh, God.” Now she was getting a headache. “Lydia, if you don’t stop trying to attach me to every unattached man in this town, I’m going back to New York. I’ll get a counter job at Macy’s and play backup in the first coffeehouse that’ll take me.
And
I’ll tell Mother it was your idea.”

“That’s rich. She still thinks your move to Tylerville was my fault.”

“You’re the one with the husband on the school board, and you’re the one who recommended me for the job of music director at the elementary school, and you’re the one who said you’d smooth things over with her if I came.”

“And wasn’t I right? Tell me you didn’t have fun last year, teaching all those little kids to sing and play recorders and shake tambourines.”

“All right. I did. It was fun.”

Truth to tell, the best thing to date about coming to Tylerville was the discovery of children. She’d had little to no exposure to them before that time. Now she couldn’t seem to get enough of them. She found them open, creative, contagiously happy, and, in general, extremely easy to please.

“And hasn’t Mother come around?”

“She’s accepted the fact that I’m not good enough to play professionally anymore, yes. But I think she wants me to teach at Yale or Juilliard...or even MacPhail. Elementary school chorus and private violin lessons aren’t really what she’d define as preserving the arts.”

“Of course it is. Who better to preserve it in than children? And how better to serve the community than by instilling an appreciation for music in its young? Answer me that? Your problem—and Mother’s problem—is that you take things too literally. You think too big. Little towns, little people, little things are just as important as big towns, big people, and big things. Maybe more.”

“And your problem,” Gus said, after a few seconds of silent agreement and self-affirmation, “is the same as it’s always been. You’re too down-to-earth, and you’re too often right.”

“That’s two problems.”

“You see, you’re right again.”

If you pinned her to the mat, Gus would eventually admit that she viewed her attendance at church services more as a tolerable social obligation than anything involving her religious attitudes.

Fact of the matter was she enjoyed being...well, recognized was probably the proper word for it. It was a throwback to her days of being first violinist with the New York Philharmonic and soloist with the Chambers, a rather well-known and elite group of musicians who hired out for private gatherings and exhibitions.

Granted, she was now
Ms. Miller
to the loud church whispers of children, and Augusta to the smiles and friendly greetings of their parents, who knew her as nothing more than a music teacher. But she could remember a time when people she considered to be colleagues and friends couldn’t bring themselves to look her in the eye, much less offer her a cheery good-morning.

When she first arrived in Tylerville, she’d sat with Lydia and Alan and their three children as a family in church. It wasn’t long after that that Lydia had invited Howard Munce to a family picnic to meet her unmarried sister, or long after
that
that he started feeling obliged to take up the empty space in the pew beside her.

She hadn’t lied to Scott Hammond when she’d told him she had an overabundance of friends. There was Howard, of course, a balding forty-something pharmacist who sat on the school board with her brother-in-law and had a tendency to monologue on the pros and cons of allergy therapy versus the frequent use of modern antihistamines, or some equally enthralling controversy. And there was Bill Wexell, the third-grade teacher who lived with his mother and enjoyed the fact that Tylerville was actually a state-designated bird sanctuary. And Louis Green, manager of the local Safeway, who frequently boasted of having the
greenest
produce in town.

All fine men. All eager to please her. All as boring as watching grass grow.

And so it was that she’d taken to eating her lunches in the music room at school and avoiding the third-grade classroom whenever possible, grocery shopping at the A & P, and coming in late to church on Sundays to take the last available seat among strangers—or the second to last available seat as it happened that particular Sunday. The
very
last space was taken by Scott Hammond, who wedged himself in beside her seconds before the service began.

“This couldn’t have worked out better,” he said, breathless and grinning. Her insides were flipping and spinning. His Sunday best was more than enough to send her pulse racing—but under it was the bare wet chest from the day before, a thin and incredibly sexy line of dark hair straight down the middle of it, disappearing into the waistband of his pants...I’m usually too lazy to get all dressed up for church, but I saw you out the window, looking as pretty as spring’s first rose, and thought I’d give it a try. What do you think?” he asked, since he already had her ogle-eyed attention. “Is this tie okay? All my others are still packed in boxes.”