Rose shrugged and looked uncomfortable. “Well, I wasn’t friends with Mia either, back then—there are a couple of years between us—but I knew her, and those pageants were icky if you ask me.”
“What do you mean?”
Rose took a moment to answer. “I guess a lot of the girls wanted to be there, but there were others who competed because their mothers wanted them to, you know? And I think Mia was one of them.”
Luke didn’t know Enid Start all that well. She was short, like Mia, and decidedly middle-aged. In her conservative clothes and understated makeup, she kind of faded into the background, so it hadn’t occurred to him that she would be the motivation behind Mia doing pageants.
“Mia didn’t want to do them?”
“I’m not sure I’m explaining this right,” Rose said, offering him a basket of biscuits. “Little kids don’t sign themselves up for pageants, right? Someone has to do that for them. Mia started really young. And I get why a parent would do it, you know? You get to dress your kid up and show them off, but by the time they’re preteens, it’s a little dicey. You have to ask yourself why a mother would want her daughter to stand in front of a crowd in a fancy dress—and then a bikini—to be judged on how her body looks.”
“Lots of girls do beauty pageants. It doesn’t hurt them.” Luke had grown up seeing articles in the local newspaper about them. He knew plenty of girls who had participated.
“No, you’re right. It’s probably fine for most girls, but I don’t think it’s good for all of them. For some it’s too much pressure. I mean, what kind of a message does it send?
“The kind of message that gets women killed,” Cab put in darkly.
Rose shot him a look. “That’s going too far. Beauty pageants don’t lead to murder—but they can lead to bad body images.”
“When you train a woman to need approval or to determine her self-worth that way, you train her to be vulnerable.” Cab was adamant.
“I’m not disputing that,” Rose said. “But back to your question, Luke. Mia’s mom put far more emphasis on those pageants than she did school. She made it pretty clear: Mia’s job was to look good enough for a man to want to support her.”
“Well, it worked,” Luke joked. “She looks great and I do want to support her. Nothing but the best for my Mia.”
Rose shook her head. “You’re missing the point. It’s Enid who thinks she should trade looks for security. Not Mia.”
“I don’t want to trade anything,” Luke said. “I just want to marry her.”
“Then maybe you better start by figuring out why Mia quit those pageants—because she did, all of a sudden. There were some rumors, too—nasty ones.” Rose stabbed a piece of chicken so hard her fork scraped across the plate.
“What kind of rumors?”
“I hate to even repeat them, since they’ve finally died down over the years.” Rose took in his expression and sighed. “There were rumors Mia offered to trade favors for the crown of one of the more important pageants.”
Luke pushed back from the table. “No way. Not Mia.”
“No. Of course not. But something happened, and whoever sent you that message wants you to know what it was. If I were you, I’d look into it.”
A wave of defeat overtook Luke. Of course he’d look into it, but when would he have time? And what had happened to Mia when she was fifteen?
His fists clenched under the table. He was damn sure going to find out.
“Are you sure you still want to help me plan my wedding?” Rose asked the next day when Mia joined her at Linda’s Diner for a breakfast meeting. Mia had opted to hold the meeting away from both Rose’s cabin and the Cruz guesthouse, needing a change of scenery after spending the previous night wondering what Luke’s visit had entailed.
“Of course.” But the truth was, she wanted to grill Rose about what Luke had said the night before far more than she wanted to talk about invitations.
“Listen.” Rose cupped her mug of coffee with both hands, huddling over it as if hoping it would warm her entire body. “Luke stopped by last night. He ended up staying for dinner. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. He’s your friend.”
“Sort of,” Rose said. “Anyway, he asked about you.”
“Oh?” She tried to be nonchalant. Probably failed.
“About your pageant days.”
Mia stilled. “Why did he want to know about that?”
“I don’t know.” Rose took a sip of her strong, black coffee. “I might have spoken out of turn.”
Mia’s unease deepened. Why did the pageants keep coming up suddenly? She’d put all of that behind her years ago. “What did you say?”
“I told him your mom pushed you to do them. That maybe you would have preferred to do something else.”
Mia wrinkled her nose. “Damn straight. I wanted to get a job so I could save up for a car. Plus…” She trailed off, not eager to talk about the rest of it.
“There was an… incident. A judge who got a little handsy. You know.”
Rose pushed her cup away. “I might have mentioned that, too,” she said in a small voice.
Mia’s heart sunk.
“I’m sorry,” Rose rushed on. “It just came out. I didn’t think until later that maybe you hoped he didn’t know.”
“Well, he knows now,” Mia said. She felt like a noose was tightening around her neck. She wanted to get away from the past, but it kept creeping up on her and drawing her in again.
Mia considered refusing to talk about it, but decided to open up instead. She could use a friend’s opinion about what to do, and Rose had proved herself a true friend these last few days.
“I was fifteen and competing in my first big pageant. I was so nervous. I wanted to win so badly. It was the one place my mom and I really connected, you know? I knew she’d be proud of me if I won, and besides—who doesn’t want to be crowned queen?”
She took a sip of her orange juice. “Fred Warner was one of the judges. I met him in one of the practice sessions, where they tell you how the pageant will go—where to stand, and so on. He seemed ancient to me, but was probably only middle-aged. He was kind. Asked me if it was my first big pageant. Gave me some tips. He told jokes, too, and made me relax. I thought he was like any other adult I might meet—like one of my parents’ friends, or someone from church.” She swallowed hard. “But during the second practice session, he took me aside. He led me to a storeroom in the convention center where the pageant was being held. I’d seen one of the other girls come out of that room with him, so I believed him when he said he was just giving some of the better contestants some special tips.” She lowered her gaze. “You can imagine what happened next.”