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Chapter One

Calla had just finished her shift at the Brass Lantern Inn. All the tables were set, butters and creamers put away, bun warmer empty and turned off. The dining room was closed and she was ready for a drink.  After all, it would be a waste not to have her free one. She figured she had earned it. Her feet were aching and she couldn't wait to sit down. After making her way through the corridor to the tavern, she unloaded her arms of a coffee carafe, the register envelope and a paperback novel she’d luckily had no time to read. The first two items were handed off to the bartender while ordering,  "Bombay and tonic, tall." The book was left to hold her a spot at the corner of the bar. She slipped into the ladies room to freshen up her face and let her wavy long chestnut-colored hair free of the tight knot, which restrained it while she worked flitting back and forth between the loud and muggy kitchen and the quiet candle-lit dining room. Untucking and unbuttoning the stiff white high-collared blouse over her white tank top felt good. After a quick spin in the mirror to be sure her slip hadn't peeked out from beneath her almost knee length ruffled black skirt, she tucked her black tights into her white reptile print bag and pulled out a pair of jeweled black flip flops. Dropping them to the floor, she stepped into them on the way out of the restroom. Before returning to the bar she made a stop at the waitress’ closet and dropped her clunky black leather shoes in the corner next to the sweeper.

Sitting down to her gin and tonic at a little after nine, she took tiny sips through the cocktail straw while resolving to leave by ten or so. Bruce couldn't be too irritated with her for staying a while. He knew she loved to listen to the musicians that came to open mic nights. She also loved the historic charm of the bicentennial greystone inn. The place had an old world ambiance that attracted rather interesting travelers as well as an eclectic gathering of locals of the small Appalachian community.

Bruce and Calla had been married for little more than a year and he wasn't sure how he felt about his pretty little wife being in a tavern without him at night. Actually, he knew exactly how he felt about it. He worried she would get tipsy and be taken advantage of or meet someone more exciting than he and their lives had become lately. When he shared his feelings with Calla, she had a nuclear meltdown and left to stay in the city with her best friend, Lexi, for two days. She said she couldn’t be married to a man who did not trust her and she just wanted to make a little extra money of her own. Never mind his worries. As usual, Calla would have her way.

A piercing screech announced microphones, amplifiers and speakers being plugged in and tuned up. Musicians were milling about trying to get their name on the board. Calla thought they appeared to be jousting with their guitar cases for a spot near the top of the list. Indeed, many of them would be getting up with the birds and heading off to jobs that paid the bills and bought new strings. A few would even leave before performing if it became too late before their turn, needing sleep more than applause. Just as many would be singing and strumming, some pairing up for impromptu duets, even after last call.

By twenty after nine the surge upon the small stage had dissipated to one guitarist, a female vocalist, and a bongo player, along with the host, Derek, introducing the musicians and readjusting the soundboard. The singer sounded a lot like Joni Mitchell.

The tavern was becoming crowded. Patrons were chatting casually, catching up on events of the past week, talking about work, family and relationships. A few musicians were huddled around a corner table having an animated discussion about gigs and practices, and certain people whom notoriously missed practice. Amid the hum of conversations and the clinking and clanking of glasses and bottles, Calla was lost in the music. She loved the way it just filled the room. Wondering how so much talent found its way to Brass Lantern Inn, she was startled back to the present by a deep, velvety voice.

"Excuse me, miss. Is this seat taken?"

"No, you can have it."

"Thanks. I'm Clayton."

"Calla. Nice to meet you." She noticed he smelled like leather and hay and something a little spicy. Stealing a quick glance, she decided he looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. His short, wavy black hair framed his chiseled features finely. A look at the large, rugged left hand as he reached for his glass showed no golden band. "I've never seen you here before. Do you live around here?"

"Considering it. I’m from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  I'm an agricultural engineer and I'll be in the area for a while working on a dairy project. I noticed there is a lot of beautiful mountain property available."

"Are you looking for a family homestead or a hunting cabin?" Calla asked with twinkling eyes.

At this, his expression turned stern. Taking her in for a moment with his steely blue eyes, "I don't have a girl, if that's what you'd like to know. But, I see that you have a husband," he said looking at the rings on her own left hand.

Blushing brightly she snapped back, "Don't flatter yourself, sir. I was only asking because my friend, Alexis Green, is a real estate agent and I thought you may like to meet her."

"My apologies, ma’am. I thought perhaps you were the kind of girl my dear old grannie had warned me about. After all, it is somewhat late for a married woman to be out in a tavern," Clayton replied with a trace of a smirk on his face.

"Charming!" Calla spat back. "More old-fashioned hogwash! You sound like my husband. If you must know, I work here and I enjoy the music. I don't have to run straight home after work just because I'm married. And never mind about Lexi. She favors silly notions like feminine rights and equality. You are definitely not her type."

At this, Clayton just stared into his glass, chuckling to himself.

"And what is so damn funny?” Calla demanded.

"I was just wondering if I needed to bring your friend flowers if I hoped to buy real estate." Then, looking up at Calla's pinched face he added, "But, for the record, I have no quarrel with feminine rights or equality. I do hold fast to some old-fashioned ways, however.  If anything, you sell yourselves short demanding equal treatment. I think a woman should expect her man to love and cherish her above all else and devote his life to proving it." The last statement was made without a trace of humor.

After a reflective silence Calla smiled impishly and said, "Maybe Lexi would allow you to buy real estate here after all."

Lexi would soon turn thirty and the longest lasting relationship she had ever had with a man was less than six months. Men found her to be unrealistic and high maintenance, while she found them to be aimless and shiftless.  She would not even go on a second date with a man that didn't hold the door for her. She was independent and self-reliant, but that did not lower her standards or mean she didn't expect to be pampered.

"Having another?” the bartender asked.

"No thanks, Roy. I'd like to take some of my tip money home with me. How about the draft special? "

Returning a moment later with a frosty sixteen-ounce glass of light beer he asked, "How's Bruce?”

"He's either to his knees in dung or covered in sawdust. Between the livestock and his wood shop he keeps busy. Spends more time in the barn than the house.  Said he may come in one Wednesday evening to check out the music, though."

"That would be great. I need to talk to him about some new barstools. I'd like to update the tavern with a more rustic look."

"Okay, whatever that means, I'll let him know," she replied, rolling her eyes. Old-fashioned must be the newest trend, she thought to herself.

"Thanks, Calla." Turning to Clayton, "Another lager?”

"Yes, please. And what's good to eat?"

"The kitchen closed at nine," Roy replied. "But, I hate to see a guest here go hungry. I'll go back and make you a salad or I could heat up a bowl of chili."

"I'd love a bowl of chili, then, if it isn't too much trouble."

"No trouble at all." Roy poured the draft and disappeared into the kitchen.

"So you're a farmer?" Clayton asked.

"I'm an artist, and, as you can see, a waitress. My husband runs the farm. He's also an accomplished wood carver and makes furniture, but doesn't have much time for it any longer since his dad passed away and he had to take over running the family place."  Disappointment showed in her face as she spoke.

"How did you two meet?"

"We were both showing at a gallery in DC and met at the opening. He liked my landscapes and I admired his intricately carved furniture and wooden boxes. We discovered we only lived an hour away from each other and began dating. When my parents moved to Florida two years later we got married. We wanted to pursue our art and travel a bit before we settled down, but a few months after the wedding his father died suddenly and we've been stuck with the farm, and his mother, ever since."

“Is she bitter and mean or overbearing?"

"She's a lovely woman, but hard to live with. She crashes around the kitchen before the crack of dawn. I swear she's deliberately trying to wake me. I have to hide in my studio the rest of the day to avoid her smothering me with homemaking lessons. Then she knits booties and hats for all the grandchildren she's waiting for us to give her.” They both laughed.

Calla continued, “I'm just not sure if I'm cut out for motherhood. I'm still adjusting to marriage and country living. Sometimes I feel like I've fallen into one of my paintings. I used to drive around country roads looking for beautiful old barns and meadows to paint, but never actually thought about living here. I liked the idea of it, but now I often feel out of place. I can't cook oatmeal, barely know a cow from a bull and a rooster chased me to my car this afternoon. Grace, Bruce's mom, just stood on the porch next to her beautiful, king-sized log cabin quilt that she hand stitched every scrap of; she was 'hanging the wash', and laughing at me like an old hyena! Truthfully, I like working here because it gets me away and lets me feel useful.”

There was another silence in the midst of the drums and harmonica. Then the rhythm of the tambourine changed and the trance was broken. Calla spoke again. “Wow. I never really said all of that out loud before. Sorry you had to hear it.”

Clayton just smiled warmly. “That's okay. Though, if I were Bruce, I admit I would feel a bit tempted to hide in the barn, too.” They laughed together this time.

Calla was ordering another draft when Derek announced, “Clayton McBride's up next. Thank you, Bobbi! It's always a treat when you and the boys come out to play at Brass Lantern! Give us one more then give Clayton the floor!”

Clayton took one more bite of chili, finished his beer and turned to Calla, “It was nice meeting you. I need to tune up quick.” He stood and picked up a worn red guitar case she was surprised that she hadn’t noticed, gave a nod and made his way outside to the relative quiet of the patio.

After a few minutes Clayton was back and plugging in a beautiful red and white guitar. The red was deeply stained, shining mahogany with a bright white mother of pearl inlay. The inlay seemed to be in the shape of a hawk. She watched as he turned again to sit down on a small stool. He wore a crisp white dress shirt, a slightly worn black leather vest, dark blue jeans and square-toed black leather boots which were also a little worn. Calla couldn't help but notice that he was easy to look at, maybe six foot tall and broad shouldered. Oh, she suddenly realized, the inlay was a red-tail hawk. She had done a few rough sketches of a red-tail on a fence post.

With the guitar propped on his left knee he began, “I'm Clayton and this is Ruby,” with a deep even strum.

He played blues and country, his rich voice rolled out catching every ear in the room. Conversations were lagging while everyone listened to this new performer. As he sang, a tambourine, and then a fiddle joined in. This was one of those magic moments Calla loved here. Musicians that had never met, much less played together before, were somehow all in tune with each other. They communicated in a secret language of glances and nods, taking turns backing each other on brief instrumental leads, somehow sounding like they've been on tour together longer than the Beetles.

Having another beer and a sudden thought, Calla pulled a business card from her wallet, turned it over and scribbled on the back, If you're still around on the fourth come out for barbecue and fireworks. Bring Ruby. The front of the card had the number and address for Walnut Bottom Farm and Woodworks with contact information for Bruce Cowen. She laid the card by his bowl. Lexi would be there and just might want to do a little rockin'. She finished her draft and looked at the time. A quarter after eleven already. She gathered her things, told Roy goodnight and the same to some regulars on the way out the door.

Calla drifted her car back into the place where the rooster had chased her nine hours earlier. She let herself in and crept quietly up the stairs, carrying her flip-flops and skipping the step that always creaked the loudest. Bruce was waiting up, pretending to read a book. She began peeling off her clothes and discarding them in an untidy heap by the closet door. “Hello honey, how was your evening?” she asked.

“Quiet.” His one word reply meant he was in a foul mood. Sometimes he seemed like a cranky old man.

“Why didn't you come join me for a drink? I know you would love the music. You need to get out of here sometimes.”

Ignoring her question, he looked at her over his book, “How much did you have to drink?”

“No more than usual. Do I look drunk to you?” Fully irritated, Calla raised her voice. “Well, do I?”

“Shh! You'll wake my mother.”

“She wakes me every morning.”

“Because she thinks you should get up with me and make me breakfast.”

“And did you tell her you can make your own breakfast and she can mind her own business?”

“Come on Calla, you know she never had a daughter and she just wants you to help her around here a little.”

“What she wants is to turn me into a Suzy Homemaker like her!”

“It wouldn't kill you to learn how to boil water or make a bed.”

“I can't take that chance.”

“Don't get smart, Calla! And you better watch how much you drink. I know you're used to doing what you please and taking a cab home, but there's no cab service around here and drinking and driving is serious!”

“Yes, Father,” she mocked.

“If I were your father you'd be over my knee right now!”

At that Calla giggled and slipped between the sheets. Bruce quickly forgot he was angry as Calla reminded him of what domestic skills his wife did possess.

 


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