Authors: Jackie Weger
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Eye of the Beholder
, Harlequin Temptation, November 1, 1987
Eye of the Beholder
, Digital, December 17, 2013
, Digital, January 1 2014
Copyright © 2014 Jackie Weger
Cover Design: The Cover Collection
Formatting by Rich Meyer of Quantum Formatting Service
Copy Editing by Carolyn Steele of Friendly SEO
’s pace hastened
as she approached her truck parked in the lee of the building near the big trash compactor. She’d had to find a spot away from prying eyes because she couldn’t trust Maydean and Willie-Boy to behave without her standing over them. Like now, she noted, discovering Willie-Boy hanging out the window.
Did you get work?” he asked.
Not yet,” Phoebe said, brushing off the fact that the interviewer had insulted her down to muscle and bone. “I didn’t want that old job nohow. Dern it, Maydean. I told you not to mess with that mirror, didn’t I?”
Twelve-year-old Maydean flounced. It took her whole body to do it.
“How much money we got left, Phoebe? I’m hungry.”
’t want to think about money. Or buying food. Or where they were going to sleep that night. She reached up, adjusting the mirror. “We’ll eat when I get hungry.”
You never get hungry! And you’re never going to get no job, either. You’re too skinny. I told you! If you want to work in the city you got to have a figure. I told you! Stuff toilet paper in your bra. There ain’t nobody going to hire a flat-chested string bean like you. Not to work in an office, they ain’t. And you oughta dye your hair. Folks take one look at that fire-engine red and they know right off you got a temper. Know right off you’re skinny and mean. You ain’t never going to find us a place, Phoebe. I know you ain’t. Ma should never have trusted you to do it. We’ll probably never see Ma and Pa and Erlene the rest of our lives.”
For an instant Phoebe closed her eyes against the bright glare of the sun. Pride and anger warred within her. In her heart she wanted to be as good and kind thinking as the all-forgiving Lord meant her to be
, but right this minute she felt awfully like grabbing a handful of Maydean’s hair. “I wish I had your cold heart, Maydean. Then I wouldn’t be worryin’ about what to do, where our next meal is comin’ from or where we’re gonna sleep tonight. Anyhow, it ain’t in the chest. It’s in the backbone. Hair color don’t make no never mind. Now shut up. You’re makin’ me mad. Hike up and look out over that trash bin. I got to back out.” Phoebe focused on her sister with an expression so fierce Maydean grudged a skittering glance over her shoulder.
But there was, and Phoebe backed right into it.
A pickup, newer than her own, but not much newer. Still, she felt her mouth going uncommonly dry.
We’re goin’ to jail now, ain’t we?” cried Willie-Boy. He scrambled to his knees to look out the cracked back window. “Lor, Phoebe,” he whispered. “There’s a giant gettin’ outen that truck.”
Phoebe watched the man emerge.
Labeling him giant wasn’t far wrong. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a waist tapering into well-cut jeans filled out so she could tell he had never missed a meal. She left off watching him disentangle his legs to focus on his face. He was putting on a frown.
The eyes were dark, deep set and thick lashed. Sparking eyes, Phoebe thought. Most likely he used them to advantage on women. The idea made her feel an odd fluttering in her stomach.
Had she been able to snag a man like him back home, why her whole family would still be together.
The rest of the man
’s face was filled out with a good straight nose and kissing lips. All over his head was curly black hair, tidily cut. Went to the barbershop every month most likely. Curls like that couldn’t be kept aright if left to grow wild. She ought to know. It’d been months since she’d had her own curls parlor cut, and now they slipped band and pin and pomade with fierce regularity.
The man was looking at her. Phoebe saw the kissing lips turning down at the corners and the good straight nose beginning to narrow like he was
smelling dead fish. Edgewise she caught a glimpse of Maydean patting her hair and puckering her lips, one hand on the door handle. Phoebe grabbed her.
Stay put,” she ordered. “You too, Willie-Boy. I’ll see how much damage he done.” Adjusting her cotton skirt and brushing trailing wisps of red hair back from her face, Phoebe stepped out of the truck. “How ‘do,” she said, polite like. She tracked all of him in a close-up glance before she gave her attention to their locked bumpers. “Looks like you hit me a fair blow, don’t it?”
His gaze darted over her, taking in the narrow, heart- shaped face, the shoulders, true and squared, slender legs below the flowered skirt, the once-white sneakers, laces knotted twice over where they
’d broken. His eyes lifted back to her face where wisps of red hair—hundreds of them—were all astray. Phoebe watched the frown spread out all over his face. He hadn’t answered her and she was not equipped to meet silence. She spoke again.
I know what you said. It’s the other way round. You ought to look where you’re going.’’
Phoebe tried not to pay attention to his voice. It was deep, good sounding and smooth.
“I was looking,” she said resolutely. “I didn’t see you.”
I came out of that parking space.” He waved his hand in an easterly direction. It was a big hand, finely shaped and callused. The calluses impressed Phoebe. A woman couldn’t go much wrong latching onto a man with calluses. It took steady work to thicken skin like that.
Phoebe decided to be friendly, generous of spirit. She was proud of her teeth. They were white and even with no gaps. She gave him her best smile.
“I can’t tell which dent I did you or you did me. We can call it even, I reckon.”
Even?” He eyed her with suspicion. “Are you telling me you don’t have any insurance or money to make good on the damage you did my truck?”
All sorts of dreadful apprehensions began to rise in Phoebe. Still, she was reluctant to give up being friendly.
“I’m not sayin’ any such thing. I don’t discuss personal things like that with strangers.”
He muttered something beneath his breath.
“I didn’t catch that,” Phoebe said, hanging on to her smile.
You probably don’t have a driver’s license either. You old enough to drive?”
Offended, Phoebe bristled. Her smile faded.
“Way old enough.”
Disbelief made his eyes go cloudy.
“I’m going to call the cops.”
Twenty-five. Almost. I swear. That’s what it says on my license.” The truth was that she was twenty-four, looking to be twenty-five and an old maid. She wanted to skip being twenty-five. She decided against any further friendliness. “‘Scuse me a minute.” She sidled up to the cab where Willie-Boy and Maydean were arguing for gawking space. “Count to ten, Maydean, then you two start wailing.”
Wearing her most serious expression she rejoined the man. He was scowling at the locked bumpers.
“If you stood on yours,” she suggested, “big as you are, I could drive my truck right off it.”
One of us is bound to lose a bumper.”
The caterwauling began. He looked up startled.
“What in hell—”
When you run into us, they hit their heads on the windshield. Like I said, you hit us a fair blow.”
His whole body went rigid as a block of granite.
“I didn’t run into you, lady. You backed into me.”
My sister and little brother said you run into us. They were watchin’.”
And that’s what you’d tell the cops,” he replied, sarcasm flowing.
Well, not me, mister. I didn’t see you and that’s a fact. But Maydean did, certain.” Phoebe aimed an anxious look toward the noise. “We better figure somethin’ out quick. I might have to take those kids to the hospital.”
He growled an epithet. Ladylike, Phoebe pretended not to hear. Her eyes stayed glued to his face. He was making a
decision, she could see it in his expression.
A fender bender’s not worth the trouble,” he said. “I’ll stand on the bumper, you see if you can pull your heap off.”
Moving quicker than a sprite, Phoebe got back in her truck.
“Y’all can quit your snivelin’ now.”
I can’t,” whimpered Willie-Boy. “Maydean pinched me.”
Phoebe hung her head out the
window. “Hey, mister, you set?”
I’m set.” He gave a tentative bounce on the bumpers. “You go slow. Easy and slow. I don’t want to end up with a broken leg.”
Phoebe put the truck in forward gear while he rocked the bumpers. The vehicles parted with a screech. Her flesh crawled. It sounded worse than chalk gone awry on a blackboard. She got out and went to the rear of her truck again.
“Afraid your bumper came clean off,” said the man.
That’s okay,” said Phoebe. “I can weld it back once I get the chance. Just toss it in the back yonder, will you? On top of our suitcases and such.”
Effortlessly, he picked up the torn and bent metal. Phoebe noticed his face didn
’t even go red with the strain. When he had the bumper chest level, his dark eyes held hers a heartbeat. Then he tossed the bumper into the bed of his own truck.
Hey! Hey, mister, you can’t do that. That’s my bumper.”
Sure it is. And when you get the money to pay for the damage you did mine, you can have it back.”
’s wide eyes narrowed to slits. “That’s a mean trick, mister. I’ve got to have that bumper. It’s got my tag on it. I can’t go drivin’ around Alabama with no tag. Troopers would stop me, sure.”
He brushed his callused hands together.
“I’ll take good care of it for you. You just come out to G. G. Morgan’s junkyard when you get the money. It’s on the other side of the bayou. Ask anybody to point the way.”
’s heart sank. “C’mon, mister, can’t we talk this over?”
I’m done with talking, I’m late for an appointment.” He stepped into his cab, slamming the door then leaned out over his elbow. “You’re real slick, little lady, but you’ll have to go some to out slick G. G. Morgan.”
I got seven dollars,” Phoebe called with a failing heart. “You can have it.”
G. G. Morgan lifted an eyebrow and laughed.
“Come up with seventy and we’ll do business.”
Riding fury, hands balled into fists and propped on her hips, Phoebe watched G. G. Morgan maneuver out of the parking lot into light midmorning traffic.
Watched her bumper and tag disappear. Her shoulders sagged, and for once her brain couldn’t grab hold of any ideas. She felt tired. The worrying and the driving and the hope she’d been harboring—all of it hit her at once.
You look fretted,” Willie-Boy said when she slid onto the seat beside him.
I got things to fret about, don’t I?”
We ain’t goin’ to sleep in the back of the truck again tonight, are we?” asked Maydean, puckering her lips into a peevish moue, which she thought most attractive. “I’m gettin’ tired of that. I still got wrinkles in my skin from last night.”
You got wrinkles in your brain, Maydean. Be quiet and let me think.”
How’re we gonna get our bumper back?” Willie-Boy wanted to know.
I’m studyin’ on it,” Phoebe said, forcing up the determination not to let things get her down. That was Pa’s problem. He let things carry him into a sulk so as nothing got done. Phoebe fought the feeling, afraid it was a family failing. She wasn’t sure, but she thought that was what had happened to Erlene. Erlene had been fine until she went into a sulk with a fever. When the fever went, Erlene’s grown-up mind had gone with it.
What we’ll do...” she said, shaking loose old thoughts, “is, we’ll just go out to G. G. Morgan’s junkyard and get the bumper when he ain’t lookin’.”
’s eyes grew wide. “Ain’t that stealin’? Ma said—”
Stealin’ is when you take something that don’t belong to you. That bumper is ours.”
You shoulda let me handle it,” said Maydean. “I have sultry eyes. Everybody in Cottontown says so. G. G. Morgan woulda looked into my eyes and I coulda made him give us our bumper. And, speaking of my eyes, Phoebe, first chance you get, buy me some mascara.”
Phoebe bit down on her tongue to keep from screaming.
“Maydean, when you bat your lashes all you look is cross-eyed. Besides, G. G. Morgan didn’t strike me as the swoonin’ type. Now get out and watch traffic so I can back out. That is, if you can see anything besides pants with your sultry eyes.”
‘You’re just jealous cause my lashes are longer’n yours and I poke out more in front.”
Stand behind the truck, Maydean. Then I won’t have to worry ‘bout feedin’ you.”
What pokes out?” asked Willie-Boy.