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"Honey, you need a man," said Mrs. Duckworth. "A what?"
"You know, a man. A large male human being with big shoulders and no neck."
Twyla McCabe picked up a rat-tail comb and expertly squared off a lock of Theda Duckworth's silvery hair. "I once had one of those and he did me no good at all. I have a dog."
Mrs. Duckworth gestured at the other customers in the salon. "The girls and I have been discussing the issue, dear. It's time you found yourself a man." She spoke with exaggerated patience.
Twyla leaned forward over the vinyl swivel chair and checked Mrs. Duckworth's roots. "Sweetie, I think you've been pickling in Number Four lavender dye too long. Why would I want that kind of trouble?"
Mrs. Duckworth caught her glance in the large round salon mirror. Twyla's baffled gaze was no match for the no-nonsense glare of a retired third-grade teacher.
"To take you to your high school ten-year reunion," Mrs. Duckworth said.
Twyla plunked the comb in a stainless-steel tub of Clear-Glo solution. "Diep," she said, turning to her manicurist. "I told you not to say anything about the reunion. I've already made up my mind."
Diep Tran didn't look up from painting Mrs. Spinelli's nails. "I never say a word."
"But you showed everyone the invitation, right?" Twyla asked, feeling her face turn hot and hard with embarrassment.
"I show everyone a picture of you wearing a crown," Diep said unapologetically. She bent her head over her customer's hand, using a minuscule paintbrush to illustrate a little slice of watermelon on each nail. When it came to painting theme nails, Diep Tran had no peer. She was the Georgia O'Keeffe of nail art, fulfilling all requests from anatomically correct Greek gods to the words Divorce Me! in block letters. Her presence in the salon had increased business and kept a steady stream of nail customers coming back on a regular basis. But she had a problem minding her own business.
Twyla was still amazed the Hell Creek High School reunion committee had found her. After everything that had happened, she hadn't told anyone in her hometown where she had gone. But somehow, the reunion invitation had found its way across Wyoming to her.
"How often do we get to see you wearing a crown, hon?" Mrs. Duckworth asked, chuckling. From beneath her smocka pink one with the salon's sequined ruby slippers logo on the pocketshe extracted the Reunions, Inc. newsletter. The front cover featured a picture of Hell Creek High School and a photo montage of students from ten years before.
Lord, had they ever been that young? Twyla wondered, her gaze drawn to the layout. The smiles of the graduates burst with self-confidence. The bodies were young and strong, the attitudes positive. A tangible glow of limitless possibilities seemed to emanate from each youthful face.
Life hadn't happened to those kids yet. Every one of them believed utterly that the world was theirs for the taking.
The largest picture, in the center, showed a much younger Twyla, with sparkling tiara, on the arm of a young man who looked at her with adoring eyes and an expression that gave no hint of what was to come in the years that followed that moment.
Twyla was almost ashamed of how vividly she recalled that night, when she seemed to know exactly how her life would turn out, when her dreams soared higher and farther than the confines of the little western Wyoming town where she was born and raised.
So much for the girl most likely to succeed.
Diep and Sugar Spinelli held an earnest, whispered conference at the nail station. Mrs. Spinelli's earrings flashed, but not so brightly as her eyes.
Sadie Kittredge lifted the hair dryer from her pin curl set and took the invitation from Mrs. Duckworth. "Who knew?" she asked, her bemused gaze flicking from the photo to Twyla. "You were Cinderella."
Twyla snatched the invitation away. "Uh-huh. And look how she ended up."
"She lived happily ever after. Everyone knows that."
Twyla tapped a box of foil squares against the palm of her hand. "So how come we never read about what came after, hmm?"
"Kids, mortgage, in-laws
who wants to know?" Sadie winked and popped her gum. "So you're going, right?"
"No," Twyla said. "Do you know where Hell Creek, Wyoming is?" Agitated, she took a square of foil and busied herself wrapping Mrs. Duckworth's hair, section by section.
"Of course I do," Mrs. Duckworth said, indignant. "I was a teacher for thirty-five years."
"I'm a lowly school psychologist," Sadie admitted. "You'll have to give me a hint."
"It's a gazillion miles from nowhere," Twyla said. She finished with Mrs. Duckworth and peeled off her plastic gloves. "Almost to Jackson. It's certainly not close enough for me to drop in just to say 'hey' and have a beer. Even if I could afford to be away from here for a weekend, I wouldn't waste my time at a high school reunion."
"Oh, sweetie, it wouldn't be a waste." Sadie handed her an issue of Woman's Day. "Says right here that keeping in touch with old friends is good for your mental health."
"It also says the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," Twyla pointed out, putting down the magazine. "I think that's aiming too high."
"Sure thing you don't like men," Diep observed with a soulful shake of her head. "They are not all like your first husband."
Twyla tried not to think about Jake, but each time she did, she saw him in her mind's eye, proudly holding his law degree. In a moment of pure faith and hope in the future, she had married him straight out of high school. He had been in his third year of college, a lavishly handsome man full of heady ambition. How could she have guessed her plans would unravel so swiftly and brutally, that she would flee her hometown in shame and grief?
Since then she had discovered there were worse things than being dumped by a man you thought you knew.
"You mean my only husband," she stated. "I'm not interested in a second one."
"You just haven't found the right man," Sugar Spi-nelli said. Thanks to a husband who pampered her outrageously, she spoke with a feminine knowing that was hard to argue with. Petite, white-haired and smiling, she had the serene look of a woman who had known the love of a good man.
"I'm not looking," Twyla said, seating Sadie in the next chair for her comb-out. "I don't run into many in my line of work." She gestured around the salon with its cotton-candy-pink appointments.
For the past three years, she'd been sole proprietress of Twyla's Tease 'n' Tweeze. She had read in a book somewhere that a place of business should have a corporate identity, a recognizable symbol. Twyla had chosen the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Red-spangled shoes adorned the clock, the sign out on Main Street, the smocks, the framed prints on the walls. Twyla herself wore red clogs to work every day, and Diep had adopted the habit, as well. The ruby slippers always reminded Twyla that all the magic she needed was inside her.
Except that Twyla's magic was pretty darned unreliable, judging by the swiftness with which the bills stacked up in the salon and at home. She didn't mind. She substituted hard work for New Age concepts. "And it's not like I can go to the market and just pick one out," she added.
"As a matter of fact" with a bob of her foil-covered head, Mrs. Duckworth took something else out from beneath her smock "you can."
The older lady exchanged an infuriatingly coy glance with Mrs. Spinelli. "Oh, something mighty special. Sugar and I have been talking about it for days." She hugged a glossy catalog to her ample chest. "I guess you all are familiar with Lost Springs Ranch."
Twyla nodded, mildly intrigued. Everyone knew about the foster-care facility located off the Shoshone Highway. The ranch had a decades-old reputation for taking in boys who were homeless, orphaned, in trouble or labeled incorrigible by their families or society. Sometimes the ranch was the last stop before reform school or prison, and thanks to an intensive program, Lost Springs got a shot at turning a troubled boy's life around. Twyla suspected that the success rate was due, at least in part, to teachers like Mrs. Duckworth.
"Well, I'm sorry to say they're running a little short on money," she continued. "But they've come up with one crackerjack of a fund-raiser."
"Wait till you hear," Mrs. Spinelli said, holding out her hand to inspect her nails. Afternoon sunlight streaming through the plate-glass shop window glittered off a not-so-small fortune in rings and bracelets. She and her husband owned thousands of oil-rich acres, and she had become driven and relentless in her philanthropy. "It's a fabulous idea. Tell them, Ducky."
Mrs. Duckworth held out the catalog. "A bachelor auction."
Twyla rolled her eyes and started unpinning Sadie. "I've heard of those things. Crazed and desperate women bidding on men who think they're God's gift. Sounds silly to me."
"So take a look at this, Miss I-got-no-use-for-a-man.
It's easier than picking out burpless cucumbers from a seed catalog."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, let's see that." Sadie grabbed the brochure. Her freshly tweezed eyebrows shot up. Her mouth formed a perfect O of surprise. "For heaven's sake," she said again, only this time her tone was quite different.
"All right, we look together." Diep snatched the catalog and spread it out on the pink Formica counter. She was so short that Twyla could stand behind her and still see over her headand what she saw extracted a snort of laughter from her.
"What is this, Frederick's of Hollywood?" she asked. "Who are these guys?"
"The men of your dreams," Mrs. Duckworth declared. "Each of them lived at the boys ranch at one time. They're the fund-raiser."
"Bimbos. Boy toys." Twyla turned up her nose.
"They're all alike."
"Uh-uh," Sadie objected. "They all have different faces, see? We have to have some way of telling them apart."
"Honestly," Mrs. Duckworth blustered. "This is reverse sexism at its worst. I simply don't understand you young people."
"What they selling?" Diep demanded, her gaze locked on a studio photo of a dangerous-looking guy on a Har-ley.
"Themselves, hon." Mrs. Duckworth studied Diep's face. "I don't guess you've ever heard of a bachelor auction."
"Livestock auction, yes," Diep said. "My father once bought a Nubian goat at auction. But bachelors? These men?"
"Uh-huh," Twyla said. "You bid on them, like Nubian goats."
A look of wonderment suffused Diep's pretty, dolllike face. "And then what do you do with them?"
"I reckon you do anything you want." Sadie Kittredge flipped the pages, perusing a cop, a park ranger, a businessman, a golfer, a cowboy
and caught her breath. "So long as it's legal."
"She's right," said Mrs. Duckworth. "The gal who outbids all the others gets a date of her choosing. All the money goes to the ranch, and some of the bachelors have voluteered to match the funds." Her foil wrap clanked as she turned to Twyla. "So have a look, and tell us which one it'll be."
She laughed, half amused, half incredulous. "Pardon me?"
"Which guy?" Sadie said with an excess of patience. "You're going to pick one out to escort you to your high school reunion."
"Uh-huh. And then I'll click my heels together and wind up in Kansas."
"Really, Twyla. It's too perfect," Mrs. Spinelli said, warming to the idea. Her grape-size amethyst earrings bobbed in rhythm with her excitement. "We all agree you need a man, you want to make a big impression at your reunionwhat better way than to show up with the perfect fantasy man?"
"Wait a minute. I've been trying to tell youI don't need a man and I'm not going to the reunion."
"Yes, you do, and yes, you are." Mrs. Duckworth injected thirty-five years of stern third-grade teaching experience into the statement.
For the sake of keeping the peace, Twyla changed tack. "Even if I was interested, I don't have the money. I'm a single mom, my business runs on a shoestring, and the last thing I can afford is to plunk down my hard-earned money for some spoiled.. " She made the mistake of glancing down at the rancher in the leather vest and chaps. "Overprivileged
" Her gaze wandered to the next page, where a man in an Armani tux, holding a long-stemmed red rose, smiled up at her. "Narcissistic
" The next photo showed a man in a chef's apron and cap, and apparently nothing else.
Exasperated with her wayward imagination, she forced her attention to Sadie's comb-out, taking great care as she unwound her best friend's honey-colored hair from the pins. "Anyway, I don't have the money or the inclination, so let's just drop the idea, shall we?"
Passing her hand lovingly over the glossy pages, Mrs. Duckworth emitted a long-suffering sigh that immediately squeezed Twyla's conscience. It was for a good cause, after all. And despite her protests, the idea of a bachelor auction was shamefully tantalizing. Suppose a man materialized out of thin air, like a genie from a bottle, to be her date for just one night? Then she'd have something to show off at her class reunion, something besides a life that hadn't turned out anything like the life she'd envisioned ten years ago.
"Look," Twyla said, "these guys are out of my league. They're looking to raise thousands of dollars from each bidder."
"Out of your league, maybe," Mrs. Spinelli said, drumming her freshly painted nails on the counter.
Twyla raised a hand in protest. "Oh, no, you don't. I'm not letting you spend your money on a date for me."
Mrs. Spinelli laughed. "Last year I paid two and a half grand for the prize pig at the state livestock show. And that poor creature wound up at the slaughterhouse."
"A bachelor would be a lot more fun," Sadie pointed out. "And you wouldn't feel sorry for him when it was all over."
"Absolutely not," Twyla insisted.
Four long faces fixed her with stony, accusatory stares.