"Boss, I have a baby possum for you."
"Miss Hunstomper, I distinctly recollect telling you that I wanted fried chicken and cole slaw for lunch, not baby possum."
"This is no joke, boss. Now look, that Alabama mayor you wrote the column about–the ex-Miss Georgia–has taken revenge. I guess it’s because you called her a 'possum queen' and made fun of her town"s Possum Days Festival."
Rucker McClure finished double-checking his latest column and slowly lowered the Lifestyle section of The Birmingham Herald/Examiner. When the top edge of the paper was just beneath the level of his eyes, he arched one auburn brow at his secretary. Nothing about his handsome face indicated that he believed her claim that a baby possum was now residing on the editorial floor of one of the South's largest daily newspapers.
"A possum, you say, Miss Hunstomper?"
His feet, encased in custom-made eel-skin cowboy boots–a hint that his taxable income had been half a million dollars last year–remained nonchalantly cushioned on top of a golf bag, and the golf bag remained stretched out like a beached whale across one end of his crowded desk.
"Miss Hunstomper," he drawled in a deep voice as mellow as ripe peaches, "after three years of bein' overpaid to do whatever it is you do here, you ought to recognize how important I am and stop tryin' to drive me crazy."
She exhaled in disgust. Rucker grinned affectionately as the pretty, businesslike blonde kept her truant stance in his doorway. The sixth-floor newsroom stretched out behind her as a reminder that the rest of the world was a serious place. As usual, Millie Surprise–known to Rucker's readers as Miss Hunstomper–finally grinned back at him. "I'm not joking, Your Majesty. There's a live possum out here on my desk, in a wire cage. A courier just left it for you."
"Good grief." An incredulous smile crept across his face. "Bring my gift critter on in here," he ordered cheerfully.
Millie gingerly set the wire cage in the middle of his desk. Rucker made room by pushing aside a stack of Sports Illustrated magazines, his baseball autographed by the Atlanta Braves, and the keys to his Cadillac. Then he opened the cage door.
"It looks like a giant rat! It might bite!" Millie exclaimed. "It might be rabid!"
"Naaah. Millie, where I grew up in south Texas, the only pets we could afford were possums. We'd peel 'm off the road–"
"Oh, please. Save the lurid details for a column."
Chuckling, Rucker reached inside the cage and tickled the small gray animal under its long snout. At about the size of a half-grown kitten, the possum didn't look threatening. It peered up at him with beady, timid eyes. He slid one hand under it and lifted it out, then cradled it to his stomach. Its long, hairless tail curled around Rucker's wrist in a frightened way.
"Poor baby," Rucker crooned gently. "Millie, gimme that letter from Madam Mayor, the possum queen."
She handed him a sheet stamped with the official seal of Mount Pleasant, Alabama. "Seat of Twittle County," Rucker read in a wry tone. "That's one of the few backwards places I've never heard of, and I thought I'd swilled beer and chased women everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line." He scanned the letter quickly, smiling all the time. "Listen to what Madam Mayor says, Millie. 'Mr. McClure, if you are ever again so desperate for material that you besmirch the good name and good people of Mount Pleasant, I shall personally supervise the shipment of a second opposum to your office. Along with it, you will receive notice of a libel suit.'"
Rucker put the letter down, his eyes gleaming with intrigue. "For an ex-beauty queen, she sounds pretty smart," he commented.
"One of the reporters looked up an old article about her after your column ran. Just for curiosity. She has a Mensa-level IQ, boss," Millie informed him. "And a master's degree in political science. She probably would have been Miss America six years ago, if she hadn't walked out a day before the competition. Her father had died a month earlier in an airplane crash. She said the pageant didn't matter anymore."
"Sounds like a gutsy woman."
"You better leave her alone. She's not your type–she can read, write, and think. You swore you'd never have anything to do with that kind of woman again, remember?"
"That was personal, m' dear. This is professional." Rucker leaned back in his chair. The possum crawled up his shirt and buried its dark little nose in the soft chest hair above his unbuttoned collar. Rucker stroked its back and nodded to himself, thinking. "Call Mount Pleasant and find out when the next city-council meetin' is. I'm goin' to visit Madam Mayor."
After a stunned second, Millie said with glee, "Trouble. We got trouble my friends, right here in Possum City."
Excerpted from Hold on Tight by Deborah Smith. Copyright © 1988 by Deborah Smith. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.