Chapter One

Arms filled with groceries, CC struggled to pull her key from the lock and push the door shut behind her with her foot. Automatically, she glanced up at the clock in the foyer of her spacious apartment. Seven-thirty already. It had taken her an eternity to finish things up at the Communication Center and then stop by the package store and the commissary. After that, fighting the traffic from Tinker Air Force Base had been like driving through axle-deep mud. To add to her frustration, she had tried to take a shortcut home and had ended up taking a wrong turn. Soon she was hopelessly lost. A kind soul at a Quick Trip had given her directions, and she had felt compelled to explain to him that she was lost only because she had been stationed at Tinker for just three months, and she hadn't had time to learn her way around yet.

The man had patted her shoulder like a she was a puppy and asked, "What is a young little thing like you doing in the air force?" CC had treated the question rhetorically, thanked him and driven away, face hot with embarrassment.

Understandably, her already harried nerves jumped at the insistent sound of her ringing phone.

"Hang on! I'm coming!" she yelled and rushed into the kitchen, plopping the bags unceremoniously onto the spotless counter and lunging for the phone.

"Hello," she panted into the dead sound of a dial tone that was broken only by the rhythmic bleat of her answering machine. "Well, at least they left a message." CC sighed and carried the phone with her back to the kitchen, punching in her message retrieval code. With one hand she held the phone to her ear, and with the other, she extracted twin bottles of champagne from one of the bags.

"You have two new messages," the mechanical voice proclaimed. "First new message, sent at five-thirty p.m."

CC listened attentively as she picked at the metallic casing that covered the wire-imprisoned champagne cork.

"Hello, Christine, it's your parents!" Her mom's recorded voice, sounding a little unnatural and tinny, chirped through the phone.

"Hi there, Christine!" More distant, but similarly cheerful, Dad's voice echoed from an extension.

CC smiled indulgently. Of course it was her parents—they were the only two people on this earth who still insisted on calling her by her given name.

"Just wanted to say we didn't actually forget your big day."

Here her mom paused, and she could hear her dad chuckling in the background. Forget her birthday? She hadn't thought they had—until then.

Her mom's breathy voice continued. "We've just been running ourselves ragged getting ready for our next cruise! You know how long it takes your father to pack." This said in a conspiratorial whisper. "But don't worry, honey, even though we didn't get your box off, we did manage to fix up a little surprise for our favorite twenty-five year old. "

"Twenty-five?" Her dad sounded honestly surprised. "Well, good Lord. I thought she was only twenty-two. "

"Time sure flies, dear, " Mom said sagely.

"Damn straight, honey," Dad agreed. "That's one reason I told you we should spend more time traveling—but only one reason." Dad chuckled suggestively.

"You certainly were right about that reason, dear." Mom kidded back breathlessly, suddenly sounding decades younger.

"They're flirting with each other on my message," CC sputtered. "And they really did forget my birthday!"

"Anyway, we're getting ready to leave for the airport—"

Dad's voice, even more distant, broke in. "Elinor! Say good-bye, the airport limo is here. "

"Well, have to go, Birthday Girl! Oh, and you have a nice time on your little air force trip. Aren't you leaving in a couple of days?"

Her little air force trip?! CC rolled her eyes. Her ninety-day deployment as noncommissioned officer in charge of Quality Control at the Communications Center at Riyadh Air Base in Saudi Arabia to support the war on terrorism was just a "little air force trip?"

"And, honey, don't you worry about flying wherever it is you're going. You're old enough to be over that silly fear by now. And, my goodness, you did join the air force!"

CC shuddered, wishing her mother hadn't mentioned her phobia—airplanes—since she would soon be flying halfway around the world over oceans of water. It was the only part of the air force she didn't like.

"We love you! Bye now. "

The message ended and CC, still shaking her head, hit the Off button and put the phone on the counter.

"I can't believe you guys forgot my birthday! You've always said that it's impossible to forget my birthday because I was born right before midnight on Halloween." She berated the phone while she reached into a cabinet for a champagne flute. "You didn't even remember my box." She continued to glare at the phone as she wrestled with the champagne cork.

For the seven years CC had been on active duty service in the United States Air Force, her parents had never forgotten her birthday box. Until now. Her twenty-fifth birthday—she had lived one-fourth a century. It really was a landmark year, and she was going to celebrate it with no birthday box from home.

"It's a family tradition!" she sputtered, popping the cork and holding the foaming bottle over the sink.

CC sighed and felt an unexpected twinge of homesickness.

No, she reminded herself sternly, she liked her life in the air force and had never been sorry for her impetuous decision to join the service right out of high school. After all, it had certainly gotten her away from her nice, ordinary, quiet, small town life. No, she hadn't exactly "seen the world," as the ads had promised. But she had lived in Texas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Colorado and now Oklahoma, which were five states more than the majority of the complacent people in her hometown of Homer, Illinois, would ever live in, or even visit.

"Apparently that doesn't include my parents!" CC poured the glass of champagne, sipped it and tapped her foot—still glaring at the phone. It seemed that during the past year her parents had gone on more Silver Adventure Tours than was humanly possible. "They must be trying to set some sort of record." CC remembered the flirty banter in their voices and closed her eyes quickly at that particular visual image.

Her eyes snapped back open, and her gaze fastened again on the phone.

"But Mom, none of your homemade chocolate chip cookies?" She sipped the champagne and discovered she needed a refill. "How am I supposed to cover all the food groups without my birthday box?" She reached into the other bag and pulled out the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, original recipe, of course. Pointing from the chicken to the champagne, she continued her one-sided discourse. "I have the meat group—KFC—mixed with the all important grease group for proper digestion. Then I have the fruit group, champagne, my personal favorite. How am I supposed to complete the culinary birthday ensemble without the dairy/chocolate/sugar group?" She gestured in disgust at the phone.

Lifting the lid off the KFC, she snagged a drumstick and bit into it. Then, using it to punctuate her hand gestures, she continued.

"You know that you guys always send something totally useless that makes me laugh and remember home. No mat-ter where I am. Like the year before last when you sent me the frog rain gauge. And I don't have a yard! And how about the God Bless this House stepping stone, which I have to hang on the wall of my apartment, because I have no house!" CC's disgruntled look was broken by a smile as she recounted her parents' silly gifts.

"I suppose you're trying to tell me to get married, or at the very least, to become a homeowner."

She chewed thoughtfully and sighed again, a little annoyed to realize that she probably sounded fifteen instead of twenty-five. Then she brightened.

"Hey! I forgot about my other message," she told the phone as she scooped it back up, dialed her messages, and skipped past her parents' voices.

"Next new message. Sent at 6:32 p.m."

CC grinned around a mouth full of chicken. It was probably Sandy, her oldest friend—actually she was the only high school friend CC still kept in touch with. Sandy had known her since first grade, and she rarely forgot anything, let alone a birthday. The two of them loved to laugh long distance about how they had managed to "escape" small town Homer. Sandy had landed an excellent job working for a large hospital in the fun and fabulous city of Chicago. Her official title was Physician Affairs Liaison, which actually meant she was in charge of recruiting new doctors for the hospital, but she and Sandy loved the totally unrealistic, risque-sounding title. It was especially amusing because Sandy had been happily and faithfully married for three years.

"Hi there, CC. Long time no call, girl!"

Instead of Sandy's familiar midwestern accent, the voice had a long, fluid Southern drawl. "It's me, Halley. Your favorite Georgia peach! Oh, my—I had such a hard time getting your new phone number. Naughty you forgot to give it to me when you shipped out."

CC's grin slipped off her face like wax from a candle. Halley was one of the few things she hadn't missed about her last duty station.

"Just have a quick second to talk. I'm calling to remind you that my thirtieth birthday is just a month and a half

away—December fifteenth, to be exact—and I want you to mark your little ol' calendar. "

CC listened with disbelief. "This is like a train wreck. It just keeps getting worse and worse."

"I'm having the Party to End All Parties, and I expect your attendance. So put in for leave ASAP. I'll send the formal invite in a week or so. And, yes, presents are acceptable. " Halley giggled like a Southern Barbie doll. "See y 'all soon. Bye-bye for now!"

"I don't believe it." CC punched the Off button with decidedly more force than was strictly necessary. "First my parents forget my birthday. Then not only does it look like my oldest friend has forgotten it too, but I get a call from an annoying non-friend inviting me to her party!" She dropped the phone back on the counter. "A month and a half in advance!"

CC shoved the unopened bottle of champagne into the fridge.

"Consider yourself on-deck," she told it grimly. Then she grabbed the open bottle of champagne, her half-empty glass, the bucket of KFC and marched purposefully to the living room where she spread out her feast on the coffee table before returning to the kitchen for a handful of napkins. Passing the deceptively silent phone she halted and spun around.

"Oh, no. I'm not done with you; you're coming with me." She tossed the phone next to her on the couch. "Just sit there. I'm keeping an eye on you."

CC picked out another piece of delightfully greasy chicken and clicked on the TV—and groaned. The screen was nothing but static.

"Oh, no! The cable!" Because she would be out of the country for three months, she had decided to have the cable temporarily disconnected and had been proud of herself for being so money conscious. "Not tonight! I told them effective the first of November, not the thirty-first of October." She glanced at the silent phone. "You probably had something to do with this."

And she started to laugh, semihysterically.

"I'm talking to the telephone." She poured herself an-other glass of champagne, noting the bottle was now half empty. Sipping the bubbly liquid thoughtfully, CC spoke aloud, pointedly ignoring the phone. "This obviously calls for emergency measures. Time to break out the Favorite Girl Movies."

Clutching the chicken thigh between her teeth, she wiped her hands on the paper towel before opening the video cabinet that stood next to her television set. Through a full mouth she mumbled the titles as she scanned her stash.

"Dirty Dancing, Shadowlands, West Side Story, Gone With the Wind." She paused and chewed, considering. "Nope, too long—and it's really not birthday material. Humm…" She kept reading. "Superman, Pride and Prejudice, Last of the Mohicans, The Accidental Tourist, The Color Purple, The Witches of Eastwick." She stopped.

"This is exactly what I need. Some Girl Power." She plunked the video in the VCR. "No," she corrected herself. "This is better than Girl Power—it's Women Power!" CC raised her glass to the screen, toasting each of the vibrant movie goddess as they appeared. They were unique and fabulous.

Cher was mysterious and exotic, with a full, perfect mouth and a wealth of seductive ringlets that framed her face like the mane of a wild, dark lioness.

CC sighed. She couldn't really do anything about her own little lips—if she did, they would look like some kind of science experiment. Everything else about her was so small. But maybe it was time to rethink her short, boyish haircut.

Michelle Pfeiffer—now there was a gorgeous woman. Even playing the role of Ms. Fertile Mom, she was still undeniably ethereal in her blond beauty.

No one would ever call her cute.

And Susan Sarandon. She couldn't look frumpy even when she was dressed like an old schoolmarm music teacher. She oozed sexuality.

No guy would ever think of her as just a friend. At least no heterosexual guy.

"To three amazing women who are everything I wish I

could be!" She couldn't believe her glass was empty—and the bottle, too.

"It's a darn good thing we have another." She patted the phone affectionately before rescuing the other champagne bottle from a life of loneliness in the fridge.

Ignoring the fact that her steps seemed a little unsteady, she settled back, grabbed a fourth piece of chicken and slanted a glance at the ever-silent phone. "Bet it shocks you that someone who's so little can eat so much."

It answered with a shrill ring.

CC jumped, almost choking on the half-chewed piece of chicken. "Good Lord, you scared the bejeezes out of me!"

The phone bleated again.

"CC, it's a phone. Get it together, Sarg." She shook her head at her own foolishness.

The thing rang again before she had her hands wiped and her nerves settled enough to answer it.

"H-hello?" she said tentatively.

"May I speak with Christine Canady, please?" The woman's voice was unfamiliar, but pleasant sounding.

"This is she." CC clicked the remote and paused The Witches of Eastwick.

"Miss Canady, this is Jess Brown from Woodland Hills Resort in Branson, Missouri. I'm calling to tell you that your parents, Elinor and Herb, have given you a weekend in Branson at our beautiful resort for your twenty-second birthday! Happy Birthday, Miss Canady!" CC could almost see Jess Brown beaming in delight all the way from Branson. Wherever that was.

"Twenty-fifth," was all she could make her mouth say.

"Pardon?"

"It's my twenty-fifth birthday, not my twenty-second."

"No." Through the phone came the sound of papers being frantically rustled. "No, it says right here—Christine Canady, twenty-second birthday."

"But I'm not."

"Not Christine Canady?" Jess sounded worried.

"Not twenty-two!" CC eyed the newly opened second bottle of champagne. Maybe she was drunk and hallucinating.

II

"But you are Christine Canady?"

"Yes."

"And your parents are Elinor and Herb Canady?"

"Yes."

"Well, as long as you're really you, I suppose the rest doesn't matter." Jess was obviously relieved.

"I guess not." CC shrugged helplessly. She decided she might as well join the madness.

"Good!" Jess's perkiness was back in place. "Now, just a few little details you should know. You can plan your weekend anytime in the next year, but you will need to call to reserve your cabin…"

Cabin? CC's mind whirred. What had they done?

"… at least one month ahead of time or we cannot guarantee availability. And, of course, this gift is just for your personal use, but if you would like to bring a friend, the resort would be willing to allow him or her to join you for a nominal fee—or for totally free if he or she would be willing to attend a short informational meeting about our time share facility."

CC closed her eyes and rubbed her right temple where the echo of a headache was just beginning.

"And along with your wonderful Woodland weekend," Jess Brown alliterated, "your parents have generously reserved a ticket for you to the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, one of the most popular and long-running shows in Branson!"

CC couldn't stop the bleak groan that escaped her lips.

"Oh, I can well understand your excitement!" Jess gushed. "We'll be sending you the official information packet in the mail. Just let me double-check your address…"

CC heard herself woodenly confirming her address.

"Okay! I think that's all the information we need. You have a lovely evening, Miss Canady, and a very happy twenty-second birthday!" Jess Brown cheerfully clicked off the line.

"But where is Branson?" CC asked the dial tone.

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