“Camp will be good for her,” Autumn said. “Fresh air, physical activity, new friends.” Summer camp had been one of Jasmine’s more sensible ideas. She had a tendency to overspend on Sabrina, though the budget Autumn had helped her with had encouraged her to be more thrifty. Jasmine thanked Autumn over and over for the college savings account that was slowly building.
Jasmine leaned on Autumn for financial advice, support at work and help with Sabrina, but she held her hands to her ears whenever it came to romantic issues.
This latest was the worst. Mark Fields got a walking-into-walls crush on Jasmine after seeing her perform a few months ago. Two short visits and some phone calls later and Jasmine had declared him Mr. Forever.
This worried the hell out of Autumn. Jasmine fell in love too fast and the breakups devastated her. She’d spend days in bed sobbing, blackout curtains in place, leaving poor Sabrina to fend for herself. Autumn always felt so helpless when her friend suffered. And she wanted to kick the shit out of the scumbags who caused it. Each time, Jasmine made Autumn swear: Never let me do that again. I mean it this time.
Easier said than done. Jasmine was too much of a romantic. Why couldn’t she just accept lust for what it was and not dress it up in a ball gown of love and parade it around?
During the month in Copper Corners, Autumn hoped to help Jasmine ease back into reality—the way you gently guided a sleepwalker back to bed—before things went bad. She worried about Sabrina, who did not need another father figure to disappear as soon as the affair cooled. Which it likely would.
“You have time for dinner?” Autumn asked her.
“Dinner? Uh, well I—” Jasmine blushed “—I’m kind of waiting for Mark. He plays the town founder, Josiah Bremmer. It’s the lead. So he’s got to be here for the reading.”
“You don’t mind,” Jasmine said. “Really?”
“I’ll grab something at the diner. I want to make it an early night anyway. Maybe I’ll study.” Now that she’d forced Mike to give her the job, the jitters had started up. Working for Copper Corners would not be as simple as tracking the receipts at the strip club for Duke. She would be accountable for the entire town’s finances. There were budgets to wrangle and Lydia’s complex software to figure out.
She didn’t dare screw up. She needed the mayor’s recommendation for her class and her résumé. Plus, she’d practically strong-armed him into hiring her. Her pride was at stake.
“How’s this going?” she asked Jasmine, nodding toward the lit stage, where people stood talking, scripts in hand. Two young guys banged away on a rickety-looking covered wagon, while two girls painted saguaro cactus onto a backdrop of a pink-and-orange desert sunset.
“They’re waiting for Mark to start.” Jasmine sighed like an obsessed fan.
“It looks fun.” Autumn loved the feel of the theater—the bright-white lights, the black-painted stage, the smells of wood and linen and paint and pancake makeup. She’d discovered the glory of it when she got a part in a high school musical, but that was an old story that had ended all wrong.
She felt similarly when she performed in the three-woman burlesque revue with Jasmine, who did their costumes, and Nevada Neru, their choreographer. The revue had opened last year to rave reviews and had drawn steady crowds all season. She loved the excitement, the magic, the rapt faces of the audience. When she performed she felt so alive.
She enjoyed the revue better than straight stripping, she’d concluded, because they were a team and their dances were more complex and told a story.
“There’s the director, Sheila,” Jasmine said, pointing to a blond woman who was gesturing dramatically as she talked to the actors on stage. “She wants to meet you.”
“You didn’t tell her, did you?”
“That you’re a stripper? No. I promised I wouldn’t.”
“Good. And no telling Mark, either.” Autumn had been off the night Mark saw the revue, so, if Jasmine kept her promise, Autumn could remain incognito while she was here.
“You’re safe,” Jasmine said in a stage whisper. “No one knows that inside the chest of an ordinary accountant beats the heart of a man-killing pole dancer.”
“And let’s keep it that way,” Autumn said.
“I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. Sheila thinks it’s great that I’m a stripper. She auditioned to be a Vegas showgirl, you know.”
“You give people too much credit, Jasmine. Strippers scare the hell out of women and turn men into slathering beasts.”
“What the hell is slather? Is it sweat or drool?”
“You’re ignoring my point.”
“Whatever. How does the mayor seem as a boss?” Jasmine asked, doing it again.
“It’s too soon to tell.” Heidi had described Mike as everybody’s big brother, and in just the few minutes it took Autumn to fill out payroll papers, she’d seen that. Mike had taken several calls that all ended in him offering some kind of help, then headed out to discuss a property dispute between two ranchers.
“I wonder what’s keeping Mark?” Jasmine looked up the burgundy-carpeted aisle toward the auditorium door, practically quivering in anticipation.
As if on cue, the door opened and two men entered—Mike and a guy who looked like a smaller version of him carrying an armload of books.
“There he is,” Jasmine breathed.
Autumn enjoyed what she could see of the night sky through the doorway before it shut. One nice thing about a tiny town—its few lights didn’t interfere with the darkness so the sky could show off all its stars, millions of tiny pin-pricks in the velvet vastness. The big sky almost made up for the small minds.
The brothers loped toward them. Autumn was annoyed to realize that watching Mike approach had her holding her breath.
“Well, hello,” Mike said. He seemed surprised to see her there. “This is Autumn Beshkin, Mark. She’s taking over for—” He turned to his brother, who was busy staring at Jasmine.
“Missed you,” Mark whispered.
“Me, too,” Jasmine said, looking at him as though she wanted to swallow him whole. They’d seen each other the night before. How could they miss each other?
“Give her the books,” Mike muttered, elbowing his brother in a way that showed he was annoyed, too.
“Books? Yeah, sure.” Mark extended his armload. “Here’s the town history, some Web sites and stuff on old mining towns.”
“Thank you, Mark. So much.” You’d think he’d given her an orgasm.
“That’s a lot of reading,” Autumn observed.
“I want my costumes to be authentic.”
“Don’t you have to get up there?” Mike said to his brother, nodding toward the stage.
“Yeah,” Mark said, his eyes glued to Jasmine.
“The director’s heading over here,” Autumn said, rolling her eyes. She caught Mike doing the same. She hoped it was because of how silly these two were behaving and not because he disapproved of Jasmine.
“There you are, Mark!” Sheila chirped. “We need you on stage. If we can pry you away from our costume designer here.” She smiled indulgently at them both. Already Sheila knew about the affair. So much for discretion.
Sheila turned to Mike. “What brings you here, Mayor? Are you interested in a part, too? I think we could fit you in if—”
“No, no. Please. Just want to be sure you have what you need, Sheila, for the production.”
“So far, so good. I’m thrilled to have a real costumer. I’m still