On a sunny Saturday when she was seven, Carly Mae was discovered. It happened while she was painting portraits of Buster, a thirty-pound, tricolor husky-sheltie cross with a lopsided grin and only one ear. The dog had arrived on the Foley family’s doorstep as a scrawny pup the day Velda and Damon brought Carly Mae home from the hospital. He looked like he’d been mauled by a bear, with gashes all over his body and one little ear torn off, but his eyes were bright and his energy high, so they let him in, tended to his wounds, and joked he was likely descended from the husky-sheltie pups that, according to local lore, had survived a drowning generations ago. He soon became the babe’s constant companion and co-conspirator—a good thing since the twins were only mildly interested in their sister at the time. As the subject of her paintings, Buster was helping Carly Mae raise money for a new cause, the Touch of Kindness Rest Home, which was in danger of being shut down due to a leaky roof. She sold poses of her imperfect pooch on the sidewalk in front of the Kiminee Five ‘N Dime for $1. There she caught the eye of Jasper Skrillpod, an art dealer passing through while on the hunt for antiques with his wife, Emily.
“Whoa! Look at that little girl painting right out there on the sidewalk.” Jasper’s unusually large brown eyes opened wide as he braked his Willys wagon. “I’ve got to check her out. Look at her red-brown Heidi braids. And do you see that dog? What a Norman Rockwell scene.”
Emily fanned herself with a flyer for a pancake breakfast she’d picked up in a nearby hamlet. “Do we have to stop? I don’t feel well.”
“You were fine just before we pulled into town. I wonder what happened.” He brushed sandy blond bangs off his forehead.
Beads of sweat formed at Emily’s temples and the nape of her neck, moistening her dark brown hair. “I don’t know. I’m just overcome with nausea. It came on suddenly.”
“I don’t have to meet our little Picasso right now. We should go to the motel.”
Knowing how much her husband loved introducing new talent to the art world, Emily decided to rally. “Maybe it’ll pass if I just sit here while you go.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want this to bring on bad dreams tonight.”
“You worry too much. I haven’t had a nightmare in ages. Go on, go.”
“Thanks, love.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I owe you one. I’ll only be a minute.” He exited the vehicle and strutted to Carly Mae. Five minutes later, he returned with a 7-Up. “Didn’t see any Vernor’s or Canada Dry inside, but this should help.” He handed her the drink through the passenger window. “It looks like your color’s coming back a bit.”
“Thanks.” Emily took a sip and closed her eyes. “I think my stomach has settled down some, and this is bound to help.” She sipped again. “So what did you find out?”
“That sweet little girl, Carly Mae’s her name, she’d love to see if I can sell her paintings, but I need to get parental permission. The mom’s helping with inventory at the store, and Dusty, the young man working the cash register, said he’d fetch her.”
Behind him, Velda stepped out of the Five ‘N Dime. She straightened her pedal pushers, tucked in her sleeveless blouse, then patted down her disheveled brunette waves and stomped over to Carly Mae. “What’s going on? You need my permission for some crazy thing?” she said to her daughter.
Carly Mae looked up from the canvas and frowned at the only mother in town who was always difficult to track down. “Where were you this time?” She dabbed a bit of white on Buster’s ear.
“Now listen here, Carly Mae, you may be smart as a whip, but you have no call to question my whereabouts.”
“I think the mother just arrived.” Emily pointed toward Velda. “She’s the spittin’ image of Natalie Wood—well, a disheveled Natalie Wood.”
Jasper turned his head and said, “Right you are. … Bear with me, can you? I’ll be quick as a wink.”
“I’ll do my best.” Emily closed her eyes again and sipped more soda, relieved it was going down.
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