Dixie Rebel - By Patricia Rice

Chapter 1

I Souport Publik Edekasion.

"If you're a bill collector, all the money we have is in the cash box under the counter. If you take it all, you'll be taking food from the mouths of babes," a musical, feminine voice called from behind the long glass counter.

Startled, Axell Holm waited for his eyes to adjust to the murky interior of the New Age gift shop. The chiming bells of the door behind him silenced, and in their place the haunting aria from Man of La Mancha: "To dream, the impossible dream... To fight the unbeatable foe..." swelled to a crescendo.

Intrigued despite himself, he wondered if he'd entered some netherworld far from the ordinariness of the Carolina sunshine outside. "Shall I leave the change?" he inquired dryly, searching the narrow shop for the source of the voice. A display case counter stretched along one long wall. Crammed with items too intricate and numerous to identify, the case claimed his interest first. The layer of dust and fingerprints on the glass could be the reason most of the objects were unidentifiable. Fastidiously, he dusted a corner over a bumper sticker reading: Very funny, Scotty, now beam down my clothes.

"You can have the Canadian pennies and McDonald's tokens," the voice called cheerfully.

"Miss Alyssum?" he inquired, bending to look over the glass for the shop proprietor but captured instead by what appeared to be a crystal ball beneath the spot he'd wiped clean. He ignored the overflowing shelves of commonplace gnomes, dragons, cards, and dangling beads, but the shimmering rainbow crystal deserved further examination.

"Still there? Be with you in a minute. Once I'm down here, it's a struggle to get back up."

Intrigued by a telescope on a tripod, Axell used his handkerchief to dust it off, adjusted it to face the dirty shop window, and peeked through the eyeglass. A kaleidoscopic whirl of colors materialized before his eyes, sparkling like jewels through the sunshine, gliding and transforming from the fires of the sun to the tides of the sea in vivid blues and greens.

"Haven't seen one of these in years. They've improved." He'd come in here with a definite purpose, but it slipped his mind as he turned away from the viewer and fell into eyes the same shade of sea blue and green he'd just admired in the kaleidoscope.

Startled by the unexpected intimacy of her gaze, Axell stepped back. He'd thought that silly nonsense about a man drowning in a woman's eyes a lot of sentimental claptrap. Maybe the air of the shop contained hallucinogenic smoke.

Wryly noting the dusty handkerchief in his hand, she brought him back from his cloud. "Let me guess, Virgo, right? I don't suppose you've come to make order of my universe, by any chance?" She threw her own dusty rag onto the counter. "It's murder cleaning all this junk. Cleo's ideas were always bigger than her ability to carry them out."

Grounded again, Axell blinked and tried to sort out the impressions conveyed by the extraordinary vision behind the counter. Once he disentangled himself from the crystal turquoise of long-lashed eyes, he encountered a fiery explosion of dark red wiry curls streaked with—purple? He'd had some interesting clientele in his bar before, but none could equal this eccentricity.

This wouldn't do. He'd come here for a reason. He couldn't allow himself to be distracted—his gaze drifted back to that purple streak. It almost made sense against the blue-green of those eyes.

Taking a deep breath, he gathered his wits again. "Miss Alyssum?"

She nodded, and the curls bobbed vigorously. "Right the first time. And you are...?"

"Axell Holm." Unconsciously, he rearranged the disorderly stack of loose cards on the counter. One fell over, revealing a grinning jokester figure. "Tarot?" he inquired.

"Don't do this to me. I definitely do not need this." She removed the cards from his hands, tapped the deck together, and stacked them with the unopened boxes. "Not only Virgo, but probably Aquarius ascendant. I can't imagine a worse combination. You must have driven your mother crazy."

Unperturbed, Axell opened the cover of a book titled Messages from Michael. "I've examined the precepts of astrology and while it has a curiously reassuring effect on certain personalities, it has no scientific basis whatsoever. When looked at as a whole, it is not only improbable, but laughably naive. If this is the kind of thing you teach in your school, then perhaps the mayor is right in wanting it closed. I'm certain the children would benefit from more scientific direction."

A benevolent smile lit her face,