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No Words: Chapter 11

Saturday, January 4

Meeeeeee-OW!

I woke up to the ringtone on my phone jangling in my ear. I struggled to find it in the mountain of fluffy hotel throw pillows I’d passed out against, lulled into unconsciousness by a combination of wine, The Moment, and the diffuser Kellyjean had insisted on setting up before returning to her own room.

“To bring you inspiration,” she’d said.

What the gentle hissing sound and surprisingly pleasant scent of rose had apparently brought me instead was the deepest sleep I’d had in months.

Meeeeeee-OW!

Blinking groggily, I saw that Bernadette was calling.

“Hello?” I croaked.

“Where are you?” she screeched. “It’s eight o’clock and I’m down in the lobby where you said you’d meet me. The festival starts at nine o’clock and we have our first panel right after that and the author bus is coming any minute and there’s no sign of you.”

Kittens! “I’ll be right there.”

I leaped from the bed and into the shower, then threw on makeup and whatever clothes I could find that were the least wrinkled, which turned out to be a black sundress topped with a jean jacket, last night’s mules, and sunglasses to cover the terrible job I ended up doing on my eyeliner in my haste to apply it.

When I got downstairs, I saw that everyone was in the dining room enjoying what appeared to be a full buffet breakfast, complete with eggs, bacon, waffles, mimosas, and an enormous fruit salad that included fresh mango. I knew this not because I had some, but because Kellyjean, who looked bright as a newly gathered bouquet of wildflowers, called out as soon as she saw me, “Oh, Jo, I’m so sorry I forgot to wake you! But you just have to try the fruit salad. The mango is so fresh!”

In response I could only shake my head—my hair was still wet from my shower; I hadn’t had time to dry it and so had again pulled it back in a ponytail—poured coffee into a to-go cup, then grabbed a chocolate croissant from a basket of baked goods, noticing that Frannie had been wrong: they did have bagels on Little Bridge Island, and they looked just as good as bagels from New York.

“There she is,” Garrett cried when he saw me. He had on his cargo pants again, along with a T-shirt that read Dark Magic School Grad, and Crocs. The man was wearing Crocs to an event at which he was a paid speaker, and he wasn’t doing a cooking demonstration. “Good morning, sunshine!”

I wanted to tell him to shut up, but that seemed unnecessarily rude. Instead I added cream and sugar to my coffee and mumbled, “Sorry I’m late,” to Bernadette, who looked fabulous as always in a tiger-striped shirtdress along with her dagger necklace and black leather booties, her purple hair standing in carefully gelled spikes.

“It’s okay.” Bernadette, organized as ever, had a coffee to go in one hand and the book festival guide open in the other. “Although by rights I’m the one who should have had trouble getting up. It’s five in the morning in San Francisco right now. But anyway, here’s the lowdown. You and I are doing a panel on female empowerment in the children’s novel. From Little Women to Teenage Assassins in Space, How Young-Adult Literature Focused on the Female Point of View Has Developed and Changed Through the Years. Molly is moderating. This should be a breeze. We’ve done plenty of panels just like this before. How do you feel?”

I assessed myself and was surprised by the answer. “You know, it’s weird. I don’t feel that bad, actually. Maybe it’s the fresh sea air.”

“Or the fact that you finally told Will Price where to get off.”

“Well, I don’t think I’d go that far.”

“Wait.” Bernadette eyed me. “You didn’t tell Will to go screw?”

“I mean, kinda. But he basically apologized before I got the chance.”

“Oh, right. The ‘I was going through a difficult time’ apology. Did we figure out what the difficult time was?”

I pulled out my phone. “No. I texted Rosie last night to see if she knew, but she hasn’t written back. It’s a bit early for her, and also the weekend, so I don’t know if—”

“Good morning.” Frannie came sailing up behind us looking as if she’d just had her hair and makeup professionally done, wearing all black except for a red scarf tied jauntily around her neck, a to-go cup of what I knew would be jetblack coffee in her hand. “I can’t wait to hear you two speak. Saul and I are really looking forward to it.”

I smiled at her. Frannie dragged Saul to every author’s panel at every book festival or con they attended, even though he was only expected to show up for the ones at which he was a panelist. Frannie was extremely supportive of other authors, and Saul was extremely supportive of Frannie.

“I hope you’re going to come to my panel, too.” Garrett had crept up with the many things he was carrying with him to the festival, which for some reason included his fishing pole, the festival swag bag, and the ukulele in the case I’d seen him pick up on the airport tarmac. “Kellyjean and I go on right after Bernadette and Jo. We’re doing World Building: Making the Magic Happen.”

Barf. Magic, again?

“It’s going to be so good.” Kellyjean drifted over, wearing another floaty maxi dress, but this time with more sensible shoes, having apparently learned her lesson, and carrying an enormous straw beach bag along with an equally enormous straw beach hat. “I can’t wait to hear more about the Dark Magic School. But they don’t really practice dark magic, do they, Garrett? Because you know children really need to be learning that what they cast out into the universe will come back at them, times three.”

Garrett laughed. “That’s only in cheesy teen witch movies.”

Bernadette and I side-eyed each other. We both knew this was the wrong thing to say to Kellyjean, who took her magic very seriously.

“Of course that’s not just in movies,” she cried. “I hate to think what kind of negative energy you’re out there teaching kids to draw to themselves with your books.”

“Oh, wow.” Jerome came up behind us, holding a coffee and looking mildly excited. “I see there’re already sparks flying between two panelists and the festival hasn’t even officially begun. This is going to be some day.”

Silently, I agreed with him, but I didn’t want to add any more fuel to Garrett and Kellyjean’s fire. Instead I took a bite of my croissant, relieved to see that the author bus was pulling up outside. “Oh, look,” I said. “Here’s our ride. Let’s get going.”

But my relief turned to another feeling entirely when the doors to the minibus slid open to reveal that the driver this time wasn’t Molly or her husband, but someone I recognized instantly by his overlong curls, broad shoulders, too-small mouth, and night-dark eyes.

“Good morning,” Will said cheerfully from his perch behind the wheel.

I stood there frozen, my coffee in one hand and croissant in the other, staring up at him. What was happening? Was I still asleep? Was this a nightmare . . . or a dream?

No. Definitely not a dream.

Because even in my dreams I wouldn’t have pictured a bus driver who looked as delicious as this. Unlike Molly, Will filled the seat, looking large and absurdly competent for someone I knew perfectly well didn’t make a habit of going around driving mini-shuttles in his daily life.

Still, he had the sleeves of the pale gray button-down he was wearing rolled up like he was just some ordinary transit worker, driving his daily route—though those rolled-up cuffs revealed muscular forearms that I knew had become toned from regular workouts in his home gym, not hauling the luggage of passengers.

To my astonishment, he was smiling. Not the fan-friendly smile I’d so often defaced in airplane magazines, but a smaller, less assured smile that seemed to be saying, Hi. I know this is awkward, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m hoping this is all right. Is this all right?

Um, no. No, it most certainly was not. Especially not after the love scene I’d read in his book last night.

“Wh-what?” I could find no words. “Wh-where’s Molly?”

The smile didn’t waver.

“Oh, she’s at the hospital.”

Frannie came squawking up behind me like one of the chickens we’d seen running around loose on the streets the night before. “What? Is she all right?”

“I think so,” he said. “It’s probably a false alarm—she’s not due for another two weeks. But, you know—” He shrugged. “Better to be safe than sorry, right?”

Frannie, Bernadette, and Kellyjean exchanged knowing glances. “First baby,” they all said in unison, members of a club I was relieved, at that particular moment, not to be a part of.

“Well, is the festival still going to go on?” I was hoping the answer was no—not because I wanted to deprive the people of Little Bridge Island of their first-ever book festival, but because I really didn’t want to have to spend any more time with Will than was strictly necessary. Even though I’d lose out on selling a lot of books (probably), I’d be fine with being as far away as possible from those eyes and those arms.

Unfortunately, the answer was not to my liking.

“Of course the festival is still going on.” Will was laying it on thick, giving us the hundred-watt smile I recognized from the red carpet photos at his many movie premieres. Not that I’d spent much time poring over them. Okay, maybe I had. “Molly always considered this a possibility since the festival was so close to her due date, so she made a backup plan. And this is it.” He gestured broadly at himself, which sadly only drew my attention once again to those wide shoulders and lean waist, which even his oh-so-casually-loose resort wear couldn’t hide. “I’m here to give you all a lift.”

Never in the history of time had there been such a good-looking—and well-dressed—bus driver.

This was a disaster.

No one else seemed to think so, however.

“Well, all right, then!” Frannie cried. “Saul? Saul, come on. Will’s driving.”

Then she and Saul climbed onto the bus, followed by Jerome (who at least murmured a polite “Excuse me” to me before he passed by), and then everyone else.

It was only when I was the last author standing on the sidewalk that Will said to me, conversationally, “Since Molly probably won’t be back in time, I’ll be giving the opening speech just before your panel in order to welcome everyone to the festival.”

What? Bernadette and I were going to have to follow an opening act by Will Price?

I thought of Lauren and her friends on the plane and how happy they were going to be about this, and felt a little queasy.

“Jo?” Will eyed me. I think he was wondering why I’d been standing for so long with my coffee and croissant held frozen in my hands. I’d stood there so long, in fact, that the hotel’s resident cat had walked up, butted its head against my bare leg, got tired of my lack of response, and moved on. When had I ever not leaned down to pet a cat that had head-butted me? Never, that’s when. And it was all Will’s fault. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” No. No, I was not all right. I was never going to be all right. “Yes, I’m fine.”

He smiled again, not quite the hundred watter, but close. “Great! Well, you’ve already got quite a crowd gathered over at the library, so we better get going.”

Perfect. Just perfect.

Things only went downhill from there. The croissant, I soon realized, had been a poor choice, since I noticed after I took my seat that I had croissant flakes all down the front of my black dress.

Yes, I’d been talking to Will Price while covered in pastry crumbs.

Not only that, but the weather outside was so warm and sunny that it had seemingly attracted every tourist from every wintry corner of the globe. And all of them had emerged from their hotels at the exact same moment our bus left for the library, darting out into the street without looking (because apparently they thought downtown Little Bridge was like Main Street in Disney World, and not a real street with actual vehicular traffic that might run them over, so they could just wander out into the middle of it).

So Will kept throwing on the brakes to avoid hitting them, making the milky coffee and not-yet-digested chocolate croissant inside my stomach lurch.

But then, as if all of that wasn’t bad enough, for some inexplicable reason Garrett, who was sitting on the seat in front of me, decided to remove his ukulele from its case, turn around, and begin playing (and singing) the song “You Are My Sunshine.”

“‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,’” he sang, directly into my face. “‘You make me happy when skies are gray. . . .’”

For a few seconds, everyone on the bus, including me, sat in stunned silence.

Then, just when Garrett got to the part about “please don’t take my sunshine away,” I lost it.

“Garrett,” I snarled. “Stop it.”

Garrett did not stop.

“What’s the matter, sunshine?” he asked, continuing to strum away. “You don’t like fun? Hey, everybody: Jo Wright doesn’t like fun!”

What was wrong with this guy? I was ready to pour what was left of my coffee over his head.

“I like fun,” I snapped.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Garrett said.

“I do. I do like fun. Just not someone singing in my face at eight-thirty in the morning.”

“Really, Garrett.” I was glad that Frannie felt compelled to intervene on my behalf. “It’s a bit much. Why don’t you save the song for the festival? I’m sure the children there will find it delightful.”

“Oh, come on.” Garrett continued to play. “Everyone loves this song. We’re all young at heart, aren’t we? Saul, I know you agree. Come on, everybody, let’s sing together!” Then he leaned halfway over the back of his seat and began strumming while singing even more loudly into my face. “‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine—’”

It was right then that the bus lurched to an abrupt stop—abrupt enough that Garrett, who’d been sitting facing backward so he could sing to me, lurched heavily into the seat in front of him, losing the grip on his ukulele and causing the strings to clang tunelessly.

“Hey!” he called out in irritation to Will.

“Sorry,” Will said. But I could see his face in the rearview mirror above the driver’s seat, and he didn’t look sorry at all. He was wearing a little smirk. “But we’ve reached our destination.”

I turned my head. Out the window, I could see a large, graceful brick building surrounded by lovely thick-trunked banyan trees, with a full parking lot and a soaring porticoed entrance, below which hung a banner that read:

WELCOME TO THE 1ST ANNUAL LITTLE BRIDGE BOOK FESTIVAL

Above that, carved into the stone façade of the building, read the words, NORMAN J. TIFTON PUBLIC LIBRARY.

Festive helium balloons in multiple colors had been strung everywhere, and people were streaming into the many double doors leading into the library, all wearing happy expressions and carrying swag bags much like the ones we’d been given and that Garrett kept dragging around everywhere. I was relieved to see that the majority of the people were women and young girls, which meant that my panel with Bernadette was going to be well attended—although many of them, I was sure, were coming early to grab seats for Kellyjean and Garrett’s panel, or for Saul’s or Jerome’s, the final speakers of the day.

Will had stood up in the driver’s seat and now turned back to face us.

“Here we are,” he said. “If you follow me, I’ll show you to the auditorium. We’ve got a green room where you can sit and relax before your panel, or, if you’d like, you can explore the festival. We hope you’ll find a lot to entertain you.” Then his gaze flicked to Garrett. “You can leave that here on the bus.” He gestured to Garrett’s ukulele.

Garrett had wrapped his hands protectively around his instrument. “But I—”

“I promise it will be safe.” While Will’s tone was perfectly pleasant, there was something deadly serious in his dark eyes. “We’ve already hired local musicians—as well as face painters and jugglers—to entertain the children attending the festival, so I don’t think you’ll be needing it . . . unless it’s part of your presentation?”

But before Garrett had a chance to reply, Kellyjean interrupted in her loud Texas drawl, “Oh, no, he won’t be needing that thing. We’re going to be talking about writing and magic. You don’t need a ukulele for that, do you, Garrett?”

“I guess not.” Garrett mournfully laid the instrument back in its case.

“Psst,” I said, poking Bernadette in the back as we shuffled off the bus behind the Colemans.

She was talking on the phone to her wife. Apparently, there was some kind of crisis involving Sophie, their eldest.

But since there was always some kind of crisis involving Sophie, I didn’t think twice about whispering, after Bernadette mouthed, What? “Do you think Garrett uses that ukulele to seduce unsuspecting fangirls?”

Bernadette rolled her eyes. “Would you have been seduced by ‘You Are My Sunshine’ back when you were younger?”

“No. But my personality was about as sunny then as it is now.”

Bernadette snorted as we disembarked, then said into the phone, “No. No, I never said Sophie could have her friend Tasha sleep over. Well, why didn’t you mention this when we talked last night? Yes, of course I trust you, but they’re six years old—”

As I moved away from Bernadette to let her argue with her spouse in private, I saw that there was an air of excitement outside the library that was almost contagious. Will hadn’t been kidding: Little kids were running around with their faces painted like tigers and butterflies, and there were jugglers tossing colored balls high into the air amid the enormous roots of one of the banyan trees. Live music was coming from somewhere I couldn’t immediately see, but it sounded about as festive as the wafting scent of cookies and brownies, coming from the Snappettes’ nearby bake sale, smelled delicious.

“Jo! Jo, over here!” I heard some female voices squeal nearby, and when I turned my head, I saw the girls I’d met on the plane—Lauren and her friends—waving excitedly to me from one of the small lines that had formed to get into the building.

I waved back, which caused them to giggle and wave even more excitedly.

“I told you, didn’t I?” Will had come up behind me. He was carrying a wooden sign that said PUPPET SHOW THIS WAY with an arrow pointing to the right. He seemed unconscious of the fact that there were a lot of people (such as myself) who’d have paid good money to see Will Price carrying a sign that said Puppet Show This Way, only now we were getting to see it for free. “You’ve got a ton of fans here.”

“Uh . . . yeah.” Did he really not know that the person those girls were waiting for was him? Of course they liked me, too, but he was the one whose signature Cassidy wanted on her chest.

“Are you nervous?” he asked. “I still get sick to my stomach every time I have to speak in public.”

“Do you?” Why was he telling me this? Why was he even talking to me? I’d agreed—sort of—to pretend to have forgiven him for the weekend for his sister’s sake, but not to be friends. So what was this? “I used to get nervous, but I don’t anymore.”

He nodded like he knew what I was going to say. “Practice?”

“Sure, something like that.”

I’d lost my fear of public speaking after years of visiting schools and talking about writing the Kitty Katz series. Many school systems understood the impact that bringing an author into the classroom could have on impressionable young readers. Not only did it teach them that books were written by actual living human beings, it inspired many of them to read more, and even try writing their own stories.

But Will Price had obviously never been asked to do a school visit because his books, instead of inspiring kids, would only end up putting them into therapy. Take The Moment, for example. Johnny and Melanie’s relationship? Completely toxic.

“Are you carrying that sign somewhere,” I asked him in order to change the subject, “or are you just holding it because you’re the festival’s official puppet show sign holder?”

He looked down at the sign in surprise. “Oh, right. There’s so much to do with Molly out of the loop. Which reminds me, since she’s at the hospital, I’m going to have to moderate your panel this morning.”

What?

Will Price was going to moderate a literary panel on female empowerment in young-adult fiction? Will Price, who routinely wrote books where the female characters became empowered only after being rescued from their tragic past by a man with whom they fell in love (who then died or, alternatively, was the one who rendered the heroine’s past so tragic in the first place)?

My shock must have shown on my face since he asked, “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes,” I said faintly. “I’m fine.”

But I was lying. My fear of public speaking—or something like it—had returned, with a vengeance.


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