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Last Chance Beauty Queen
By Hope Ramsay
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 1, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Gracious me, my beautiful daughter Rocky sure could use my help. I always knew she wasn’t much interested in the local boys – but who’d have thought she’d come home with English royalty?
Trouble is, Hugh wants to buy some of our folks’ land. We don’t want to sell, but Rocky’s job depends on her closing the deal. And though Hugh’s obviously smitten, I’m not sure he’s right for my Rocky. Oh, he’s classy and handsome – and you should’ve seen the way he judged pies and fixed stock cars at our Watermelon Festival! – but what do we know about him, really? I know I sound like a nervous mother hen, but after forty happy years with my Elbert, all I want is to see my little girl find the same.
Well, time for me to quit chattering and get back to Miss Bray’s wet set. Always nice talking to you, and remember: the Cut ‘n Curl’s got hot rollers, free coffee, and the best gossip in town.
See you real soon,
Table of Contents
A Preview of Last Chance Christmas
Mirrors never lie.
Caroline Rhodes caught the fleeting spark of surprise in her own eyes as she studied her reflection in her Camry's rearview. Despite her professional wardrobe and flawless makeup, the mirror still reflected an image of the small-town Watermelon Queen she had once been. She touched up her lipstick and gave herself one last implacable stare. As usual, the humidity had gotten to her hair. She sleeked it back into its ponytail, but a few stray curls refused to be tamed. It was hopeless.
She snatched her black Coach briefcase from the passenger seat and covered the distance over the blazing blacktop to the front doors of the Columbia Hilton in less than a minute. Icy air greeted her as she passed through the glass doors and headed toward the steakhouse restaurant in the lobby. The heels of her pumps clicked over the marble floor like hammer blows. With each heel strike, the tension coiled inside her.
She was here to meet Hugh deBracy, the umpteenth baron of somewhere in England, who probably looked down his nose at people who came from small rural towns in the middle of nowhere.
DeBracy had come to these shores to buy up a little bit of that rural land so he could put up a textile machinery factory. Caroline's boss, Senator Rupert Warren, wanted to make that happen. There was the matter of two hundred new jobs at stake.
But there was a teeny-tiny problem. The land Lord deBracy wanted wasn't for sale. Caroline's job was to make this problem disappear—a feat that would take a miracle.
She stepped into the dark, cold environment of the steakhouse and scanned the sparse luncheon crowd. She had never seen a photo of Hugh deBracy, but she found him without any trouble.
He was in his mid-thirties and wore a Savile Row suit and a slightly loosened regimental tie. Except for his curly Byronic hair, the man looked like the dictionary definition of an uptight English aristocrat. He sat at a booth halfway down a long row, and he looked up from the menu he'd been perusing as if he could sense her studying him.
The man's gaze widened as if in recognition. He stood, dropping the menu and nervously tightening his tie.
His glance dropped to her ankles and then rose in a slow circuit that moved up her bare, suntanned legs and the professional silhouette of her business suit. The gaze stopped when it reached the hint of lace at the V of her jacket where, predictably, it stuck.
As an ex–beauty queen with a bustline to match, Caroline was used to this, even if she hated it. It was tough to be taken seriously when people discovered that you once wore a ridiculous pink and green dress accessorized by a rhinestone tiara and a sash across your breasts.
Caroline squared her worsted-clad shoulders and walked forward. His gaze rose to meet hers. The corner of his mouth twitched, and his eyes—the color of scotch whiskey—softened.
"Miss Rhodes?" he asked.
The sound of her name spoken with those clipped British vowels did something totally inappropriate to her insides. Boy, she really needed to find a meaningful love life, one of these days—after the election. In the meantime, she'd continue to find escape in those romance books featuring suave English heroes.
No doubt this secret addiction to historical romances was the reason her girl parts got hot and bothered by Lord deBracy's accent. She had to remember that this guy had the ability to royally screw up her life and her career.
She reached for a cool nonchalance that she didn't for one instant really feel. "Lord deBracy?"
"Um, that would be Lord Woolham. The title applies to the peerage, not the surname. I am delighted to meet you." He nodded his head but didn't extend his hand in greeting, which kind of belied his words.
Crap. She had screwed up, and she really hated doing that. She should have researched English titles before she set one foot in this restaurant or opened her mouth. Despite her gaff, she gritted her teeth, gave him a professional smile that was not too big and not too small, and took her seat in the booth facing him.
"I want to thank you for meeting me here," he said as he took his seat. He turned and nodded at the waiter in true aristocratic fashion.
"It's not a problem. Senator Warren wants me to help you in any way I can," Caroline said. Her words were misleading. Being here with him was a problem. She had everything at stake: her career and her family. His Lordship had nothing at risk, except a potential factory.
The waiter came along, and they ordered: roast beef for him and a small house salad for her. When the waiter left, his Lordship opened the business conversation.
"So," he said, leaning forward slightly. "According to the senator, you're the woman who can help me solve my real estate problem."
She looked him straight in the eye. And his eyes were so warm and brown they didn't seem to match his stiff formality. She wasn't going to let him see how badly she felt outclassed here. So she forced herself not to look away. "I'm good at what I do. But Senator Warren has given you assurances that might be unjustified. There are serious complications."
"I see. Would you care to elaborate?"
No. She wouldn't. If given her druthers, Caroline would get up and run like a greyhound to the nearest exit. But she was stuck. The senator really, really wanted this factory built.
"I'm afraid this is a very difficult case," she said, trying to quell the butterflies in her midsection. The waiter came back with deBracy's house salad before she could say anything more.
His Lordship put his napkin in his lap and began cutting the lettuce with a single-minded purpose that verged on obsession. "How so?" he asked. "According to my partner, who was assembling the land for the factory until his untimely death, the parcel of land in question is not being used productively."
Wow. How totally smug of him. No doubt Lord Woolham thought that the only productive use of land was in supporting the lifestyles of the rich and aristocratic. "How much do you know about the parcel in question?" she asked.
"Not very much, except that the fellow who owns it won't sell. It's a very small piece of land, too, which makes it even more irritating. I have offered quite a bit of money for that small piece of land."
Like he couldn't actually pay more if he wanted to—not that more money would solve this particular problem. "Do you need this particular piece of land for the factory project? Couldn't you—"
"Without it, I won't have access to the rail line or the main highway. I need to acquire it or there will be no factory."
The waiter returned and placed a huge portion of roast beef in front of his Lordship and an itty-bitty salad in front of Caroline.
"Is that all you're going to eat?" deBracy asked, frowning down at her tiny plate.
She ignored his question. She was not about to discuss her struggle with her weight with a member of the English aristocracy.
She picked up her fork and speared a piece of romaine. "Lord Woolham," she said, "I'm just so sorry, but there is nothing I can do to help you get that land."
He looked up as he cut his beef. A little half smile played at the corner of his lips. Was he satisfied that she'd gotten his title right? The cad.
"The senator told me that you could fix anything."
The senator had asked too much of her this time. "I'm not a miracle worker."
"So tell me why you think it will take a miracle, then." DeBracy conveyed the meat to his mouth and chewed. The muscles worked in his cheeks, and he managed to look debonair, even with his mouth full.
She leaned forward. "The man who owns the land isn't going to change his mind. Trust me on this."
"Is that because he's an eccentric? I've heard he's a bit 'round the bend."
Caroline laid her silverware across her plate and dropped her hands to her lap. She intertwined her fingers and squeezed. She wanted to be anywhere but there, having this conversation. Senator Warren shouldn't have asked her to do this. But if Caroline could find a solution to Lord Woolham's problem, she might just get the promotion she'd been working for—and that job in Washington, DC. So she sucked in a deep breath and said, "The man who owns the land speaks with angels."
"Really? How remarkable. What do they say?"
For the first time, Hugh deBracy had surprised her. "You did hear me, didn't you?" she asked.
"I'm not deaf. What do the angels say?"
"They're opposed to selling the land."
"Well, that's predictable. We'll just have to convince the angels otherwise, won't we?"
"Um, I don't think we can do that. You see, there are additional complications."
"Aren't there always?" His voice was laced with impatient arrogance.
"Yes, but these are really big complications."
"There's an eighteen-hole miniature golf course on the land."
"Mini-golf?" DeBracy had stopped chewing. It was hard to tell if he was shocked, amused, or surprised.
"Yes, miniature golf. You know, small holes, putting only, lots of fiberglass hazards and obstacles."
His Lordship nodded, one cheek still filled with unchewed beef.
"Only in this case," Caroline continued rapidly, determined to get the truth out quickly, "there are eighteen holes each depicting either an Old Testament Bible story or a chapter in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The place is a bit notorious, actually. It was featured last year in the online guide Bizarre America: The Ultimate Guide to Tasteless Tourist Traps."
His Lordship choked on the steak he had neglected to chew. His face turned red, and for a moment, Caroline thought she might have to perform the Heimlich maneuver. She couldn't live with herself if Golfing for God were the cause of his untimely demise. That might solve one problem for her, but it would certainly annoy the senator.
Luckily, first aid was not required. His Lordship cleared the obstruction and reached for his water glass. His Adam's apple danced as he swallowed. The motion was almost hypnotic.
Caroline pulled her gaze away. "I guess your late partner didn't tell you about Golfing for God, huh?" she said once deBracy had finished his water.
He laid down his silverware and then wiped his lips with his napkin. "No, George didn't provide those details. I did hear from the real estate chap that the owner of the land in question is a complete nutter. But I was given to understand that the business on the property is no longer in operation. Is that not correct?"
Nutter. UK vernacular for crazy as a loon. Great, just great. "Golfing for God was hit by a hurricane and a lightning storm last fall. It's not currently in operation, but there is a movement to—"
"Good, then I should be able to negotiate with the man who owns it. I'm planning to pop 'round to have a look tomorrow."
It was her moment to choke. Luckily she didn't have any food in her mouth. "You can't do that."
"I don't know who you've been dealing with in South Carolina, but anyone in Last Chance will tell you that trying to get Elbert Rhodes to sell his property would take a miracle. Literally."
"Elbert Rhodes?" His eyebrow curled upward. The man ought to have a quizzing glass.
Her face burned with embarrassment. She had managed to tell the truth, and now she would have to endure his snotty, snide, superior laughter. He was not going to take her seriously.
"That's right, Lord Woolham, Elbert Rhodes, the owner of Golfing for God, is my father."
Hugh looked down at Caroline with some surprise. The wanker who owned the land was her father? That wasn't good. What had the senator been thinking?
He studied Caroline for a long moment. She didn't look like the daughter of a wanker. At first glance, she looked the very model of a professional woman, but there was something not quite right about that. Her face was fey and otherworldly, and she looked rather like an Arthur Rackham illustration of the Queen of Faerie, with slashing eyebrows, pale skin, and unruly hair as dark as the ravens in the Tower of London.
She tilted her head, exposing a long, swan-like neck set off by a little gold necklace with a small crucifix. Their eyes met and connected. His cheeks heated.
He had not counted on Miss Rhodes being so dishy. He had expected an older and rather ordinary woman, given what Senator Warren had said about her. He forcibly relaxed his shoulders. He needed to keep his mind on business.
"Well then," he said, his voice sounding thin. "Does Senator Warren know this?"
"And he sent you here anyway?"
"And you're here, aren't you? You haven't come to sabotage me."
"No, Lord Woolham, I've come to try to talk reason to you. My father is eccentric, and he's never going to sell out, so the best thing all the way around is to avoid a confrontation and look for another site for your factory." She pulled a folder from her briefcase and handed it to him. "I took the liberty of asking the South Carolina Department of Commerce to give me some suggested alternate sites."
Hugh took the folder but didn't bother reading it. "I already have this report."
"Yes. And it's no use, really. You see, my late partner, George Penn, already purchased the land adjacent to Golfing for God, and the man who sold it is not interested in having it back and returning the money I spent on it. So I intend to build my factory right there, in Last Chance. I will have your father's land, one way or another."
Or he would lose his shirt and Woolham House in the bargain. He was mortgaged up to his neck, and he had only one chance to tap into the lucrative U.S. market for textile machinery. But he wasn't about to tell her that. She was, for the moment, as much an adversary as a friend.
He watched her for a moment, halfway expecting her to get her back up. After all, he did sound like a melodramatic villain in a set piece.
Instead she smiled. "Good luck with that. Believe me, you would solve any number of family problems if you could convince Daddy to part with Golfing for God."
"Not very loyal, are you?"
She let go of a nervous laugh. "Don't assume that I'm opposed to your project because it's my father's land that's in question. I'm not against building new factories in South Carolina. Factories create jobs and economic growth that our state badly needs. I don't think I'd shed any tears if Golfing for God was bulldozed. You have no idea what it's like to grow up having a father who speaks with angels and runs a putt-putt place dedicated to the Almighty. But it's Daddy's land and his decision, and his decision is unshakable."
"Are you refusing to help me?" He wouldn't blame her.
Her smile faded. "No. The senator wants me to help you, and I want to please him. But to solve this problem, we're going to have to find an alternate site for your factory. Building it on Daddy's land isn't going to happen."
"Look, Miss Rhodes, I think I've made it clear that I'm not interested in starting over somewhere else. I need to go down to Last Chance and speak with the leaders of the town council and with your father, and maybe even his angels, if I can get them to play along with me. I'd like you to help me arrange some meetings tomorrow, if you'd be so kind."
Miss Rhodes closed her eyes and leaned back against the banquette. She looked miserable and lovely. He sympathized with her plight, but he was in his own tight spot, too.
And failure wasn't an option.
"I'm not good at scheduling meetings with angels," she said.
He had to stifle a little laugh. "The town council will be good enough."
She opened her eyes and gave him a frank and direct stare. She had lovely green eyes. "This would be a terrible time to visit Last Chance," she said.
"Because it's Watermelon Festival time."
"Yes, it's a big deal in Last Chance. Allenberg County devotes a full week to extolling the virtues of the melon. It's also an excuse for a bunch of activities that would bore you."
"What kind of activities?"
"Oh, you know, the usual Watermelon Festival kinds of things—demolition derbies, seed-spitting contests, country music sing-alongs, pie-baking contests, carnival rides, and the official kickoff parade this Saturday, followed by a barbecue where they smoke two pigs."
The smile he'd been fighting suddenly won. "That's brilliant."
"Brilliant? What's brilliant?" She seemed genuinely surprised by his reaction.
"A country fair such as the one you've described would be perfect. It's just the sort of occasion that brings out all the local politicians. I could save a great deal of time. Everyone will be in one place."
"Well that's true, but—"
"Senator Warren put you at my disposal until this issue is resolved. I perfectly understand your conflict, Miss Rhodes, but your local knowledge will be invaluable. So I would like you to make arrangements for us to go to Last Chance for this festival. I'd like to be invited to the reviewing stand for the parade on Saturday. Perhaps we can drive down tomorrow afternoon, and have a few meetings on Friday, and then I can do my politicking during the festival over the weekend. I'd like you to arrange a few personal meetings between myself and the various officials, not to mention introducing me to your father."
"I don't think you understand," Miss Rhodes said in a strident tone. "Last Chance is in the middle of nowhere. It's near a swamp. And it's hot. Much hotter than England. And we have snakes and alligators living in the Edisto River, which runs right nearby. And most important of all, there aren't any fancy hotels there, where a person such as yourself might stay overnight."
Hugh had already read several South Carolina tourist guides on the flight over from the UK. He was well aware of the swampland. And now that he knew, Hugh fervently hoped that George hadn't purchased any of it, although from the looks of it, George was so incompetent he just might have.
Hugh had only himself to blame for trusting George with his money. He could almost hear Granddad's voice in his head pointing out every single one of Hugh's shortcomings. Telling him, in no uncertain terms, that he would never be a success at anything important.
But he would make a success of this. And this beautiful woman in the dark gray business suit might be the only person who could help him achieve that success.
He had to be strong, assertive, and arrogant if he was going to get the job done. He gave her an imperious stare and said, "Miss Rhodes, I intend to build my factory in Last Chance, South Carolina. If I have to go on safari to get there, I will. So, I would appreciate it if you would arrange accommodations for me, and schedule some appointments."
She stared up at him for a long moment as emotions from indignation through acquiescence played across her features. And then something changed in her mien. A mischievous spark ignited in the depths of her green eyes that was neither anger nor submission. She was up to something the way the pixies always got up to trouble in the childhood stories Aunt Petal had told him.
Caroline gave him a big American smile. "Well, I guess I could ask Miriam Randall to put you up. She lives in a large Victorian house that used to be a hotel a hundred years ago. She sometimes takes in boarders."
He had no idea who Miriam Randall might be, but by the twinkle in Caroline's eyes, he had a feeling he might have just made a terrible mistake.
Caroline slammed her briefcase down on the threadbare carpet in her office cubicle. The senator's Columbia office was in a tired old building not far from the state capitol. The traditional-style mahogany furniture had scars marring every surface, and the standard-issue blue leather chairs looked like they had been in use during the Wilson Administration.
She loved her office just the same. Having this semiprivate cubby was a sign of her rank, as well as all of her hours of dedicated service since her graduation summa cum laude from the University of South Carolina.
She'd landed the job with Senator Warren right out of college and had started her career as a caseworker, helping people with their Social Security Disability issues. In just a few years, she'd made herself indispensable. Two years ago, she'd become the administrator of the senator's main state office. When the election was over this November, she hoped to land a job in the senator's office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
But the election was going to be tight. The senator faced two challengers—a Democrat and a populist Independent. So landing a new factory for South Carolina would be of significant political benefit. If she could clear the obstacles for Lord Woolham's factory, the promotion she coveted would be hers.
Caroline fell into her squeaky office chair and rested her head on her desk for a long moment.
Clearing the obstacles for this factory to be built in Last Chance would be impossible. Even worse, this assignment had the potential to blow up in her face and undermine the senator's trust in her.
Senator Warren knew she came from a small town. And he knew Daddy's land was at stake. But she had worked hard to keep the most embarrassing details of her background quiet.
She'd gotten rid of her small town wardrobe. She had learned, through painful experience, to keep her mouth shut and think before she said anything stupid. She was circumspect and professional in everything she did. She didn't want to embarrass Senator Warren. And she certainly didn't want to embarrass herself or her family.
But Lord Woolham was going to blow her cover. And her attempt to talk him out of building in Last Chance had fallen on deaf ears.
DeBracy was going to visit Last Chance, and Caroline couldn't stop it from happening. Given the situation, it was probably better for her to accompany him. At least that way, she might be able to control the damage to her career.
But before she arrived in Last Chance with his Lordship in tow, she needed to issue a general warning to the folks back home.
She picked up the telephone and dialed.
"Rocky, darlin', what a surprise," Ruby Rhodes, Caroline's mother, said on the other end of the line.
Momma and everyone in Last Chance had always called Caroline Rocky because her first name was Sirocco and she had three brothers named Stone, Clay, and Tulane. Losing her quirky name was part of Caroline's makeover. A senator's aide didn't need a name like Rocky Rhodes. A senator's aide wanted a plain name that was easy to spell. Of course, no one in Last Chance ever called her Caroline.
She clutched the phone and squeezed her eyes shut. "Momma, I have some news."
The silence on the other end of the line seemed to last for hours. "Bad news? Are you all right, sweetie?" Momma asked.
"I'm okay. But I have a huge problem. I've been asked to help the man who wants to buy Golfing for God." Caroline said it really fast on the theory that news like this was better delivered rapidly, in the same way that it was better to rip off a Band-Aid quick.
"The senator, who else?"
"And you said yes to this?" Momma apparently had heard every word despite Caroline's delivery. The headache Caroline had been fighting finally blossomed into a throbbing cluster of pain over her right eye.
"Uh, no, I didn't say yes," Caroline countered. "I told Senator Warren that it was impossible. But you know how he doesn't listen." Caroline massaged her eye socket, smearing her eyeliner.
"His inability to listen is one of the reasons I've never voted for him," Momma said.
Caroline didn't respond. Momma was a Democrat. Senator Warren was a Republican. Enough said about that.
Caroline snagged her purse off the floor and tipped it over on her desk searching for the little green bottle of aspirin she always carried. "Look, Momma, I don't want to help this man get Daddy's land." She found the green bottle, and cradled the phone against her shoulder.
"Then why did you call?"
The adult-proof cap finally gave way, and Caroline popped two of those babies into her mouth without any water. She fell into her chair, closed her eyes, and let her head drop back against the high back. "Because," she said, "the stuck-up English lord who wants to buy Daddy's land just told me that he wants to pop 'round for a visit during the Watermelon Festival."
"Pop 'round? Really?"
"Those were his exact words. He's like one of the dukes in those romance books you like so much. He's arrogant and uppity and wants to get his way. He's asked me to make accommodations for him and to schedule meetings with members of the town council."
"You ought to put him up at the Peach Blossom Motor Court just for spite," Momma said.
"I can't believe you just said that."
"I can't believe I said it either. Maybe we could send him into the swamp in a canoe without a paddle or mosquito spray."
Caroline would have laughed if her head didn't feel like it was exploding. "If I do that, Senator Warren will find out, and that would make the boss cranky."
"Honey, you should quit."
Caroline ignored that familiar refrain. "It gets worse. The senator wants to come and hang out with his Lordship in the reviewing stand for the Watermelon Festival parade. He's going to bring his daughter, and you know what a snob Cissy is. Although to tell you the truth, Lord Woolham might give her a run for the money."
"You're not helping." Caroline's voice sounded whiny.
"Did you want my help?"
Caroline gritted her teeth. "Momma, I don't really have a choice. The man's going to come to Last Chance whether I bring him or not. So I figure the best thing is to bring him there, let him see the situation, and then convince him to relocate his factory someplace else. I was calling to let you know the situation."
"And to ask for your advice. I really do need to find a decent place to stash the baron for the duration. It can't be the Peach Blossom Motor Court. I was just thinking that maybe Miriam Randall could—"
"Oh, that's perfect," Momma interrupted before Caroline could finish her sentence. "You know," Momma continued, "if anyone can beat that English devil, it would be Miriam Randall. You sit tight and let me make a few phone calls. I'll get back to you. And I'll put fresh sheets on your bed. Are you planning to stay through the Watermelon Festival? Or is this another one of your quick trips?"
Just thinking about coming home during the Allenberg County Watermelon Festival made the pain in Caroline's head redouble. Coming home meant running into Bubba Lockheart.
"I'll be there over the weekend, at least, maybe a few days more. It depends on Lord Woolham and whether I can get him to see reason."
"Really? Well, that's something, isn't it? It's been a long time since you attended a Watermelon Festival."
Caroline consciously unclenched her teeth and tried to relax. It was almost impossible. Coming home for the festival was the last thing she wanted to do. She had bad memories of her last Watermelon Festival, twelve years ago, when Bubba had proposed to her in front of everyone in the town.
She'd been all dressed up in her Watermelon Queen dress, with her hair all poufy and a tiara on her head. She'd been having a great time, until Bubba destroyed it.
She hadn't handled the situation well. She'd opened her mouth and spoken in anger. She didn't want to marry Bubba, but she sure wished she could take back the ugly things she'd said.
That moment with Bubba had changed her. And she'd learned her lesson. Now she held her tongue and tried very hard to always keep her cool.
- "4 1/2 stars! Get ready for a story to remember...with characters that define eccentric, off the wall and bonkers, but most of all they're enchantingly funny and heartwarmingly charming."—RT Book Reviews
- "Hope Ramsay has penned an irresistible tale in LAST CHANCE BEAUTY QUEEN with its unforgettable characters and laugh out loud scenes. Watch how an opposites-attract couple find their way to each other...and a possible future. Grab this today and get ready for a rollicking read."—RomRevToday.com
- "[A] little Bridget Jones meets Sweet Home Alabama."—GrafWV.com
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 368 pages