But now, this little college girl from Gumtree had connected the dots, and the at-last recognition didn’t suit Scarlett a bit. She started to deny her creation of Artimus and his Mississippi vampire world, but her peeved expression had already betrayed her.
“Well, I’d just as soon not have it known,” Scarlett muttered.
“I won’t tell a soul,” Cindy stage-whispered.
Holding out her worn paperback for the author to sign, she decided that her statement was technically true: It wouldn’t be “a” soul if she told all her friends.
“I love all 15 of your books,” Cindy gushed. “Bet I’ve read ‘Veins among the Vines: A Vampire in Vardaman’ a million times.”
Scarlett smiled sweetly and autographed the volume with the same flourish with which she’d signed the check. While she had their attention, she broached the question that had floated across her mind several times.
“I’m curious about this rivalry y’all’s parents have going,” she said.
The two freshmen glanced at each other.
“My mom and Cindy’s dad each think getting to be the grand marshal and riding with their kids in the parade would be the ultimate Christmas gift,” Sam said. “That’s great if you’re 9 – not so cool at 19.”
“What we’d really like,” Cindy said, “is for them to quit competing long enough to notice how perfect they are for each other.”
Sam told Scarlett how they’d thought about making sure the donation jars at Nuts & Bolts and Sweet Lips came out with exactly the same United Way contributions.
“Even a stray cent could spoil the plan,” he added. “And the deadline is 5 o’clock today.”
Scarlett nodded sympathetically, but her mind was already racing forward. She bade Cindy and Sam good luck, then cranked the pond-scum-green ’94 F-150 and headed back to her cabin to wrestle with plumbing and plots.
Late that afternoon, Scarlett pulled up at the Chamber of Commerce.
Inside, Chamber members lined the walls to see who would be grand marshal. Several reporters stood at the ready to relay the news.
Chamber Chairlady Mona Claesen wrote the final tallies on a blackboard. Stan Burnet’s $6,283.26 collection had taken the lead early on and never relinquished it until, after all other contributions had been counted, Penelope Lane said coyly, “Oh, I almost forgot,” and added her day’s collections to the tally. She nosed out Stan by less than three dollars, drawing a round of applause and whistles.
“Any others?” Claesen asked, expecting no more entries.
Scarlett, knowing she was kissing any further chance at privacy goodbye, handed the chairlady a check. Claesen peered at it and laughed, assuming the six-figure sum was a joke, but Scartlett glanced at her banker, who nodded as to its authenticity.
“Thank you sooooo much,” Mona said. “This will send kids to camp, keep elderly folks’ homes warm, help adults learn to read, teach young parents how to prepare their kids for kindergarten and pay the cost of training for some volunteer firefighters. It will also support … “
Scarlett cut her off.
“It’s a conditional gift,” she said. “It’s effective only if Mr. Burnet and Mrs. Lane agree to ride with Santa and me in the parade.”
• • •
Two days after the parade, Cindy and Sam had just closed their parents’ respective stores for the evening while Stan and Penny met for supper at Good Bread, Good Meat.
“If your dad and my mom give each other a chance, I see a merger in the offing,” Sam said.
“Let’s give them some time,” Cindy protested. “They had a really good time at the parade, but they’ve just started seeing each other as human, much less spouse material.”
Scarlett Jones drove up to the front of Sweet Lips, saw the “CLOSED” sign and was about to back out of her parking space when Cindy trotted to the door to unlock it.
Scarlett sauntered in, and Sam continued his narrative.
“If Cindy’s dad and my mom get married, they need a business they can operate together, something completely different from either Nuts & Bolts or Sweet Lips,” he told Scarlett as he poured her a cider.
“What did you have in mind?” Scarlett asked.
“They could run a gift-and-clothing shop with an Ole Miss, State and Elvis theme,” Sam said. “Call it ‘Colonel Barker’s Place.’”
Cindy wasn’t about to be outdone.
“If they get married, my dad will be your stepfather,” Cindy reminded him. “You’ll have to call him ‘Dad Burnet.’”
Scarlett picked up Cindy’s autographed book from the Artimus series.
“Maybe it could be something that denotes how a vampire brought them together – and how I finally found a satisfying use for money,” Scarlett said. “At the same time it could denote how easily opportunities can escape our attention.”
Both college kids were bewildered.
“A gallery, maybe,” Scarlett said. “They could call it ‘Art Amiss.’”