Book Three: The Crystal Commander
I get off the old bus and take a deep breath, adjusting my large aviators. “Welcome to Hell,” I mutter to myself. I love the South, but not when I’m broke, heartbroken, tired, and—most importantly—alone.
Here are some words of wisdom from my dear, sweet Mama.
“Baby, Southern belles are not just pretty to look at. Oh no, we are much more than that. We were raised to look beautiful, to put on a facade of elegance and old-world charm. But we can be nasty.”
Mama always said that we are nasty women when we want to be.
That’s our power, our prerogative.
The pretty demeanor is just an illusion; it hides the black mamba within, ready to sink its razor-sharp teeth into unfaithful flesh.
I walk with my head held high, tamping down the blistering rage coursing through my veins.
The scorching sun shines on me like a spotlight, almost in mockery. Charlie Wilford, the tap-dancing sensation from Montgomery, Alabama. Broadway’s newest star.
I was featured in the largest production to date, the 100th anniversary of the academy.
“Hey, baby! You want a shake with that walk?”
Without looking, I raise my arm and flip off whoever said that without missing a beat. I am not in the mood for a bad-mannered hillbilly.
I just got off the bus to Blue Spring, Alabama, on this old dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
I curse at the small town, so different from the thriving city I fled from, the slight taste of perfection I once had.
Everything was ripped away from me in just a moment’s time—or just long enough for me to unlock my fiancé’s New York flat.
I feel my eyes sting and I force the memory away like a bad omen.
I walk, shielding the sun from my eyes. I don’t know my cousin Linda, but she is on my mother’s side and lives in a large farmhouse close to here.
Ever since my mother died, I have lost touch with her family. I only have a couple of living relatives left, and Linda is the only one with a current address.
I hate that I am in this situation, having to beg for charity until I can get a game plan. I hate being vulnerable, exposed.
My mother’s death made me defenseless to Tanner Fraiser, the cheating devil.
“Honey, I am sorry. Can I give you a ride?” a man yells out of an old 70s Ford F100, the paint chipped and rusted. “A pretty thing like you should not be walking all alone. Crocs are roaming this territory.”
I glance at him and note that he is not bad looking. He’s someone I would have flirted with if I were the old me. The new me will never date another bad-boy womanizer again.
I can tell by his easy smile and hard tattoos that there are red flags flying everywhere, so I give myself permission to be a bitch.
“No, thank you. I am just fine,” I say, and keep walking, getting a better grip on my hard brown suitcase.
I am in cutoff shorts and a tight white T, so I don’t blame him for being persistent. I had to sell everything else to afford the bus ticket and food, even my pink guitar.
“Come on, let me make it up to you for being a jerk. I’ll take you where you want to go,” the man says again, revving his engine as he keeps up with my fast walk.
I look at him and smile. “You ask me again, and I will take this suitcase and shove it up your ass. Or maybe just through your window.”
The look I give him could set wood on fire.
“Shit,” he says. “Nothing worse than a woman scorned. Have a good day, miss,” he says, and floors it, spraying tons of dust-up in the air.
“Asshole!” I cough and flip him off, not that he can see me. I cough more as I walk through the brown cloud, the particles filling my lungs.
“Perfect, Charlie,” I hiss, and spit out dirt. “Look at you, girl. You’re heartbroken and you probably pissed off the only person with a working vehicle in this small-ass town of a hundred.”
I stop and set down my luggage, taking off my shades to clean them.
“You just had to fall for the famous dance instructor and ruin your career. Why couldn’t I have listened to Mama? Find me a nice boy, the pretty ones are never satisfied,” I say to myself, and will away the tears.
“I need a nice man, one that keeps to himself—refined, a true gentleman. None of this ‘bad boy with tattoos and a chiseled body’ crap. That kind of man talks real pretty, says everything you want to hear, then sleeps with your best friend.”
I pull out a letter from my ripped shorts’ pocket.
I missed my gig yesterday. I received an acting offer from Fairy Godmother Inc. yesterday morning before I left. I found it in my things at the dance studio, with my name on it.
Probably didn’t pay much anyhow.
I open the crumpled letter and sigh. This was probably a recommendation from the academy after they let me go because of the restraining order. Apparently Tanner’s broken eye socket was frowned upon.
And . . . I also smashed up his pretty new Bentley Bentayga.
This must be a pity gig. They must have told the Fairy Godmother Inc.’s recruiter about my situation.
The letter says a lot about my history of dance and expresses their sadness for my mother’s passing. Strange, but thoughtful.
Really though, I am not in the right mindset for an acting gig.
I need to take time for myself, to focus on what I want out of life. Maybe I’ll travel the world backpacking, or study abroad. I could meet a handsome, down-to-Earth professor.
We could discuss rocks and ancient structures.
Maybe learn about ancient aliens.
There’s a thought!
Who needs Tanner Fraiser.
I stuff the letter back in my pocket and wipe the sweat from my forehead. I need to find my cousin’s place before I plan my escape.
I pick up my suitcase and start my long trek down the hot, dusty road. My shoulder begins to ache, and the straps of my heels are rubbing against my feet.
Not ideal, but I have to press on unless I want to spend the night with Southern critters.
I shiver—no, thank you.
I hear a sound, and it makes me pause, my breathing harsh from my forty-minute walk. I stop and look back, seeing a cloud of dust. Someone is coming in a car and driving fast.
I cringe. This might be my only chance. I should have let the man in the truck give me a lift. My cousin’s house could take me a couple of hours to reach for all I know.
And by then I could die of thirst.
So I do the one thing I didn’t want to do. I stick my arm out with my thumb up.
I am hitchhiking.
Please do not be a murderer and take me to a deserted plantation with the intention of using my face for a mask.
I stare at the dirt cloud in awe.“Geez,” I murmur, taking off my shades. I frown. This guy is going really fast, he might not even see me. I get a little nervous and walk up on the grass bank, scared he could end up hitting me.
I wave my arm in hopes that whoever it is will spot me through all the dust he is stirring up. I gasp and jump back as the car passes me, then slams on the brakes, making a horribly loud sound.
My heart is beating fast as I start to cough from all of the dust and dirt.
I squint my eyes and see him backing up, most likely to ask if I need a ride. I feel nervous and a little confused. The car that is coming into view is the fanciest white sports car I have ever seen.
Like, even on TV, it looks like something from the future.
Whoever is driving this is giving off crazy vibes.
It’s a convertible, I realize.
My eyes widen when I see who is sitting in the driver’s seat. It’s not a man at all; it’s a stunning older woman.
She has a black and white scarf around her silver hair, and her eyes are covered with large black sunglasses. She lowers her shades and gives me a once over; her vibrant red lips turn into a smile.
I am speechless.
What the hell is she doing here?
In this small town?!
“Hello, sugar. It looks like you could use a ride?”
I think I nod.
I frown. “A bit, t-thank you, miss.”
She chuckles and presses a button on the dash, and the car makes weird sounds with flashing lights. What the hell kind of car is this?
And who is the lady that looks like she stepped out of an Aubrey Hepburn movie? The woman presses a button and a compartment opens with a drink inside. I gape as she pulls out a sparkling martini.
“I think you might need something a little stronger, my dear,” she says with a smile, and plops a sizable green olive in the dirty martini.
“I think I might be hallucinating,” I say, feeling a bit mystified.
The woman pours a small amount from the martini into a shot glass. “You never take a drink from someone unless you know it’s safe.” She downs the shot and smiles. “Come, we have much to chat about.”
“Put your suitcase in the back and get in, child,” she orders, sounding impatient.
I am not sure why, but I do as she says. The royal blue of the interior is stunning, and I can smell the rich leather. I sit in the car and shut the door, taking a calming breath.
I should not take the drink from this strange woman, but I really would like one. I’d probably do just about anything right now.
Bath salts, here I come!
“Here, drink, Charlie,” she says.
I grab the drink and shoot her a look. “What did you just call me?”
“Charlie Wilford. I know a lot about you.”
I take a big swig of the cocktail, even though I know I should not, thinking the sun must have fried my brains and my good sense. “I’m sorry, but did you just say you know a lot about me?”
What the freak is going on here.
I might just tell her to drop me off at Sesame Street.
She looks at me, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I am from Fairy Godmother Inc. You know, the letter in your pocket?”
In my pocket?
My eyes widen, realizing this was the gig I received. “Oh!” I cover my mouth. “You drove out here to get me? How the hell did you know where I was? And why?”
She smiles as she looks at her perfect manicure.
“Well, Pierce was supposed to, but he is with the other girls. I usually never come on the extractions. He is not too happy that I'm driving his precious car. You know we wanted you yesterday? I do hate when we are not taken seriously.”
I am speechless, wondering if I should get out of the car. “I am so sorry, I was going to go, but,” I pause with a frown as flashes of Tanner’s naked body with women draped over him, “life got in the way.”
“Ahh, yes, life. Well, lucky for you, I am offering you a chance at a new one,” she says and takes off her shades to stare at me. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
I stare back at her. “What? And who is Pierce?”
“You will know Pierce soon enough. I was prepared to do this without you, but Pierce always has a knack for picking out girls. He seems to think your Southern background will be ideal for this mission,” she says and tilts her head at me.
“I must say he may have a point. If not the Southern background, your looks might do the trick.”
“I’m sorry, miss, but this is very strange. I can’t believe you came all this way to get me for this gig. Is it acting? Television? I’m unclear on what this is all about.”
“Well, we can’t discuss this here in the hot sun, now can we?”
I give her a look. “You have an airplane somewhere?”
“Better.” She hands me a document. “I need you to sign, or I can’t take you anywhere. We need to be at the headquarters.”
I frown as I look at it. “Is this a contract?”
“Yes, child, now hurry.”
“I have not agreed to anything,” I say, feeling like I am in the twilight zone. “I can’t sign unless I know what I am signing.”
Every child knows this.
“Of course you can, trust me. If you want an adventure, then you have to sign the contract, or I can drop you off at your cousin’s.
“Which might be a bad idea; her husband is fresh out of prison and likes the young ladies,” she says very seriously.
“How do you know that?” I ask, feeling my pulse hammering.
“Sign the contract. You will not regret it, Charlie.”
I look down at the contact, and I can hear my mama’s voice telling me what a fool I am if I sign.
But there is something about this woman that makes me trust her; the sound of her rich voice almost eases my fears.
I sign it.
I shiver, feeling like I might have gotten into something that is way over my head, above my pay grade. I look at her and say, “Now what?”
She claps her hands. “Hold on, child. I am about to make your dreams come true . . . ”
I smile at her as my body starts to feel tingly. I gasp, hoping she didn’t put something in my drink. “Did you drug me?!”
All I hear is her saying, “Take a deep breath, this might hurt.”