“Right, so where are all the good-looking men in formfitting tights?”
“Probably rehearsing. You can set that down next to the cooler.”
“Rehearsing? Rehearsing what? Hunky men in skintight clothing don’t rehearse! They’re far too manly for such a sissy thing. Actors rehearse. Men in tights … well, they just don’t. Unless … hey! You wouldn’t drag me out here to the middle of nowhere by promising me really handsome, dashing guys in extremely cool knight getup without telling me they were all gay, would you?”
CJ grinned as I deposited a box of toilet paper, napkins, and assorted towels on top of the red plastic cooler. “I’m sure some are, but not all. Don’t worry; you’ll have lots of manly-man guys to slobber over.”
“I’d better,” I muttered darkly as I stomped off to the car to fetch another load of camping accessories. Twenty minutes later I returned from the wilds of the parking lot. “You know, I always imagined ye old days of medieval yore had a whole lot more dashing, daring knights hanging around, and fewer steaming piles of poop.” I stepped carefully over the huge pile of fly-bespecked horse manure, and staggered toward the ever-growing collection of bags, boxes, coolers, food hampers, and suitcases that contained those items my cousin deemed vital to our continued existence.
“Oh, no, poop was everywhere back then. Open sewers, you know,” CJ answered from where she was on her knees digging into a rucksack, muttering to herself as I dropped a box of canned beans and packages of freeze-dried hiking food next to her.
“I still haven’t seen even one man in tights. There’s a couple of women a few tents down who are dressed like knights, but that’s it. So help me, Ceej, if you dragged me out here on false pretenses …”
“I didn’t!” CJ all but climbed into the rucksack, her voice muffled as she tried to placate me. “They’re rehearsing, I promise. Everyone rehearses before opening day. The vendors are probably vendoring or setting up their booths. And the jousters are doing practice runs.”
“Okay, but I’d better start seeing some soon. You promised me great big herds of manly guys being knights and rogues and swashbuckling pirates.” I peered around at the sea of tents that surrounded us. The flat, open field adjacent to the fairgrounds housing the Faire served as a tent city of Faire performers, vendors, employees, and joust participants. Most of the tents were blocky squares and rectangles of dull gray or green, like the one CJ had provided for us, but at the far end of the tent city were clustered beautiful striped tents of all colors, some with pennons and flags bearing coats of arms waving lazily in the late afternoon summer breeze. Other than the two women I’d seen coming from the car, the tent city was strangely devoid of human life. “I’m not seeing even a small flock of manly knights, much less a herd of them. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anyone here at all. Are you sure that this Faire is a hotbed of romance and dishy guys?”
“Would I lie to you?” CJ pulled herself out of her rucksack, a smile lighting her happy gray eyes. “I personally know of six couples who met because of the Faire in the last two years, and they’re all happily married. So don’t worry; there are oodles of manly knights here, all of them dashing and daring and wildly romantic, just like my lamb.”
I rolled my eyes as I started back toward the car, located a hot, sweaty half mile away in a distant field. “Oh, yeah, your lamb, the man known to everyone as the Butcher of Birmingham. I said I wanted a modern-day personification of knightliness, Ceej, a man who’s not afraid to laugh triumphantly in the face of death, a man who lives for adventure and excitement—not a guy who scares the crap out of anyone who gets a good close look at him. I’ll go get the last of the stuff. If I’m not back in half an hour, find the bravest, handsomest jouster you can and send him after me. Maybe you’d better make it two. I’m feeling like I’ll need a lot of resuscitating.”
CJ waved an acknowledging hand at me as she dug through the canvas bag. “Right. After you get back you can slip into the garb I brought for you.”
I sighed a sigh of the soon to be martyred, and staggered off toward the car. By the time I collected the last items, locked up CJ’s VW Beetle, and returned to our tent, sweat was rolling down my back, soaking the light gauze shirt I’d put on before we left my aunt and uncle’s house in London—the town midway between Detroit and Toronto, not the English capital.
“Whew!” I set down the box of kitty litter, kibble, tiny little cans of premium cat food, bottled water, three different kinds of cat treats, a bag of dried catnip, assorted cat toys, and one huge domed litter box with infrared beams and automatic clump removal. “Criminy dutch, the things this cat … Moth! Come back here; that isn’t yours! Ceej!”
My cousin CJ looked up at my whine. “Hmm?”
“Your parents’ cat is eating someone’s tent.” I pointed at the huge white cat with four orange stockings that was gnawing on the black canvas tent set up next to ours.
“Oh. Probably isn’t best that you let him do that. He’ll just puke it up later. I wonder where I put my side-lacing bodice?” Ceej walked on her knees over to where three suitcases were stacked neatly in front of the humongous pea-green tent it had taken us a half hour of sweating (and swearing) to erect.
“Me? He’s not my responsibility anymore. My job was to get him from Seattle to Ontario in one piece while your parents did the cross-country thing. I did that, not that it was easy, since he insisted on yowling and trying to claw me through the cat carrier the entire flight. But we’re here now, and that means he’s your responsibility.”
“Nope, sorry, I’ve got too much to do, what with the official Wenches’ Conference and all. Besides, Mom paid you to take care of him.”
“Only for the flight!” I dug through the ice in the cooler and extracted a chilled bottle of water. “They were supposed to be home by now to receive the horrible beast with open arms.”
“Yeah, well, you know how Dad is. Once he gets an idea in his head, there’s no changing his mind. He’s always wanted to see the Klondike.”
“He’s the only man I know who’d feel it necessary to drive from Seattle to Ontario via Alaska,” I grumbled as I swigged the cold water. “Moth, dammit … argh! No! Spit it out! Bad cat!”
“You really should keep a closer eye on him,” CJ said as I grabbed the cat and pulled out of his mouth the bit of tent he was gnawing on. “Mom’s really attached to him. She’d never forgive you if anything happened to him.”
Moth shot a slitted, yellow-eyed glare at me as I picked him up.
“The feeling’s mutual,” I growled, and lugged him over to the pyramid of stuff in front of our tent. I checked the snap on the long leash that was tied onto a lounge chair, adjusted his harness so he couldn’t slip out of it again, and tethered him to the chair so I could put stuff away. “There isn’t enough money in the world to pay me for having to babysit him for two whole weeks.”
“Well, it’s not like you have a lot of other options, is it?” CJ asked.
I froze in the act of hauling the sleeping bags into the tent.
“Oh, Pepper, I’m sorry. That wasn’t nice of me. I didn’t mean it. It’s not your fault that unemployment is so high in Seattle.”
I shrugged the sting of her comment away and tossed the sleeping bags inside the musty, faintly mildew-scented tent. “It may not be nice, but it’s the truth. I don’t have anything else to do except sit around and watch my unemployment benefits run out.” That wasn’t really the truth; my days were very busy, what with job-hunting and all the volunteering I did to keep myself sane—I didn’t even have time to date, let alone sit around and do nothing-but still, her point was taken.
“Maybe if you went to California? I always heard that was a good place for software engineers.”
“It was, which is why when so many of us were laid off two years ago, everyone moved to Silicon Valley and its environs. I figured with the mass migration south, I’d have a better chance at finding a job where I was, but …” I shrugged, unwilling to dwell on my increasingly desperate situation. This was supposed to be my vacation, my man-hunting, romantic, “fall madly in love with some gorgeous guy” vacation. I wanted to forget the depressing life I would have to face if it all came to nothing.
“Isn’t there anything else you can do?” CJ asked, her brow wrinkled as she sat on her heels watching me. “You’ve got a degree; surely there must be some job-”
I shifted a few more boxes into the tent. “You’d think so, huh? But since there were some fifty thousand other people let go by the local airplane company, there’s nada job-wise. Squat. Zilcho. Not even a McDonald’s fry-jockey job.”
“Boy, that is hard.” CJ sucked her lower lip for a moment as I flopped down exhaustedly on the cooler, brushing at the trickles of sweat snaking down the valley between my breasts. “I guess you don’t really have any other option but to find yourself a man, fall in love with him, and live happily ever after. Fortunately, I’m here to help you.”
My shoulders slumped as the full realization of what I was doing hit me. I’d been in delusional mode ever since my cousin had convinced me that she’d be able to hook me up with a veritable God of perfection, courtesy of the local Renaissance Faire and international jousting competition. And now here I was, actually believing her promise of finding me a man, a soul mate, someone who would fill my empty, lonely life. It was all so … sordid. Unrealistic. Stupid. I let my damp forehead drop into my hands as I moaned. “Oh, Ceej, what am I doing? Why did I let you talk me into this? Your plan is ridiculous, utterly ridiculous! What was I thinking? I’m thirty-six, unemployed, have a degree in programming and half of one from the vet school I quit before I got eaten by something big with sharp teeth, and guys don’t even look twice at me. Why on earth did I imagine that you can find me a man in two weeks when I haven’t in sixteen years of concerted searching?”
“Because I can!” She tipped her head to the side as I rocked miserably on the cooler. “I told you that Butcher and I met at the Faire last year, and we were madly in love after just a couple of days.”
“He lives in England. You live here,” I pointed out, wondering if I shouldn’t just give in and have an indulgent wallow in self-pity.
“But I see him every couple of months, and just as soon as I get that job at the BBC, we’ll be set. And then there was Fairuza Spenser, Cathy Baker, and Mary Denhelm.”
I looked up, having decided against the wallow. “Who are they?”
“Wenches in my local chapter whom I introduced to their respective husbands last year at various Faires. You’ll meet them later. And the year before that there were three others whom I also found hubbies for. I’m a matchmaker extraordinaire, so relax and place yourself fully in my capable hands. Before the Faire is over, I will have not only found you your perfect man, but you’ll be deeply in love and well on the way to happily-ever-aftering.”
“Life is not a fairy tale,” I said morosely, wanting to believe her, but knowing that things like that just didn’t happen to people like me.
“No, it’s better,” she said calmly, then frowned as her brows drew together. “You have to help, though, Pepper. You can’t just stand around waiting for the love of your life to swoop you up and carry you off.”
“Why not? We’re surrounded by knights in shining armor.”
Her frown deepened. “I just want to make sure that you’re totally committed to the idea of finding a guy.”
“Committed like to a madhouse?”
I held up my hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, little joke. I’m committed; I really am.”
“I hope so, because once I find a guy for you, you’re expected to keep him. I just worry that you’re not really serious about this. After all, look what you’ve done at home.”
I stood up and glared down at where she sat poking through the bag. “What do you mean, what I’ve done at home? I haven’t done anything!”
She grabbed a handful of jeans around my knee region and tugged me down to the cooler. “Stop looming over me like a great hulk. You’re too tall. I can’t bend my head back far enough to see you. And that’s exactly what I mean-you seem to expect the perfect man to drop into your lap without your lifting a single finger to find him, but that’s not going to happen unless you get proactive. You have to admit that until now, you haven’t actually expended any energy in dating.”
I grabbed her ear and peered in. “Hellooo, anyone home?” She slapped my hand away. “Didn’t you hear me on the drive up here? I’ve looked and looked and looked, but all the guys back home are either unemployed plane mechanics or likewise unemployed software geeks. The first group hang around bars ogling women and having competitions about who can pee the farthest, while the second thinks a wild time is getting drunk and creating dirty computer animations.”
“Maybe your standards are too high,” CJ said thoughtfully as she eyed me up and down. “There’s nothing really wrong with you. You’re pretty, in a general sort of way. You have nice thick red hair. And freckles—guys like freckles. And if you’re a bit … well … solid, guys like that, too. Some guys. Most guys. And you’re smart; that’s a plus.”
I paced the length of the tent, avoiding Moth as he lunged for my ankles when I passed in front of him. “You try it, cat, and you’re going to find yourself locked into the tent for the next two weeks. Thank you for your so reassuring assessment of my many fine qualities, CJ.”
“You’re also stubborn, very set in your ways, and you like to argue, but that’s okay, I think we can work around those points.” She gestured expressively with her tiny little hands. I added that to the list of injuries I was nursing. In addition to being gainfully employed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a researcher-a job that allowed her to travel to England several times a year-CJ was graceful, delicately built, and had a charming little heart-shaped face and a fragile manner that left most men prostrate before her. I, on the other hand, was built along the lines of a brick house, or so my mother always used to tell me. Big-boned, tall, and gawky-that was me. The only way a man was going to be prostrate before me was if he accidentally ran into me and was knocked out cold. I knew it wasn’t fair to add CJ’s genetic makeup to my list of ways the world was picking on me, but I was too crabby to care.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s me. Maybe something’s wrong with me.”