Sweetwater Springs novel #4
Mayor Jake Fletcher’s small town of Sweetwater Springs is in jeopardy. Their coffers are drying up, thanks to mother nature destroying the major access to the town. Confessing as much to his constituents brings surprises his way:
–Ideas to fix the crisis flooding in
–Two women willing to spearhead the resulting Holiday Extravaganza. One of them, Dixie Jo DeLuca, is an attractive, outgoing real estate agent with a smile that delivers a gut punch.
There’s no time to waste. Jake and Dixie work together, friendly but cautious around each other, flirting a little, but recognizing they’re divorcees with baggage…and three daughters between them. They need to work closely together over the next two months. Any attempt at a relationship could put a strain on their endeavors and their work is too important to the town to jeopardize.
Despite those concerns, their attraction grows. Soon, they agree to a secret affair. They’re two reasonable adults, right?
But a bigger picture has each of them dealing with family concerns as well. Dixie faces an MIA ex, a teen daughter, and a mom pushing her toward an affair, Jake’s sister is divorcing and he’s her attorney, his unpredictable and self-centered ex is coming for Thanksgiving, and he’s harboring a long-kept family secret that he’ll eventually have to reveal to Dixie, even if his honesty means he might lose her.
Amid the festival whirlwind, their day jobs, and daily life with extended family and three children, can Jake and Dixie carve out enough time to build a relationship? And even if that’s possible, are they open to risking their hearts — and those of their children — again?
Warning: The author is not responsible if pizza and cake (as a meal) give you cravings. Contains two reasonably sane adults feeling out of control, sometimes precocious children, and some hot/sweet loving. It also has a not-quite-normal Thanksgiving dinner. Brace yourself. The folks in Sweetwater Springs are a force to be reckoned with.
It had been a Monday of a Monday. Jake Fletcher could think of a dozen things he’d rather do than call this town council meeting to order, but it had to be done. They had a few general housekeeping items on the agenda, then he’d have to deliver the news.
Nobody would be thrilled, but he hoped the collective would find a viable solution.
He filled his lungs, released the air on a long exhale, and rose from his chair to stand behind the small lectern.
“Ladies. Gentlemen. This meeting is called to order.” As the council dispensed with the first items on the agenda from their tables on the raised platform, nearly a dozen townspeople filed in and sat on or near the back row. Others who’d come early were scattered throughout the remaining seats of the town hall, over halfway filling the sizable meeting room.
All too soon, it was time. He gripped the tabletop
lectern, a fine coat of sweat dusting over him.
“I’m glad we have a larger than usual crowd tonight because we have a problem that we need everyone to put their heads together on. Let me explain. As many of you are aware, the county road bridge that provides access to our town from the freeway has been closed since the spring due to tornado damage.”
“Tell us something we don’t know.” Arlo Berman, a cranky old codger who owned the oldest barbershop in town—aptly and uninspiringly named The Barbershop—spoke up in a loud voice.
“Hush up, Arlo. I have to get the facts for the newspaper,” Bob Cagle grumbled.
Jake ignored them and continued. “That situation has severely limited our access to deliveries of everything from fresh food to hardware. It’s also seriously curtailed sales tax revenues from outside our town and overall permit sales are down.
“Previously, we got a lot of traffic from surrounding areas, especially to the south because we were the largest small town before Little Rock. We have more amenities like the hardware store, lumber yard, grocery stores, butcher shop, specialty shops, restaurants, etcetera.
“Not having the bridge has meant reduced traffic, reduced purchases, and reduced revenue for the shops and eateries in town as well as the town coffers. I could list how many streams of revenue have been affected, but I suspect you’re living it and know as well as I do.”
There was a low murmur of response and heads nodding.
“When’s that bridge gonna be finished?” Arlo shouted out again over the rumblings. “They’ve been working on it for months now. Can’t you hurry ’em along?’
“I can and have done so. They’d originally intended to start work on it in July. I pitched a royal fit and managed to get them to move it up to mid-May.”
Arlo hmphed, but a smattering of applause broke out despite Jake holding up a sustaining hand.
“I’ll pitch another one if it looks like they’re dragging their feet getting it finished. We need outside traffic restored by Thanksgiving. Period.”
Another spate of clapping followed his statement. He hadn’t said it for accolades, but because it was true, and he wanted to reassure his constituents he was doing everything he could. The town couldn’t afford for the repairs to go beyond the originally scheduled timeline.
As Jake surveyed the crowd, he noticed several shopkeepers, the grocer, a newspaper guy, and a local realtor were also in attendance. Even on such a chilly night, he wasn’t surprised. Many were feeling the pinch of fewer customers, fewer purchases and as mayor, he was the one they’d look to for advice and solutions.
He hoped they had ideas because he’d exhausted his. They were now at critical, and he worried he’d waited too long to involve his fellow citizens.
Arlo rose to his feet as soon as Jake asked for input via an informal discussion. “Let’s cut through the bullshit here. You’re telling us you’ve mismanaged the town’s funds and we’re broke?”
Jake’s fingers tightened painfully around the lectern before he reminded himself this didn’t involve the past. It was nothing more than Arlo being Arlo.
The guy’s voice was gruff and rusty. It sounded seldom used, though nothing could be further from the truth. The old guy could talk the ears off a goat and most of it would be gossip. The rest would be cuss words.
Most likely Arlo “misunderstood” deliberately, as he was known to stir trouble, but Jake kept a friendly, open face for the room. At least, he hoped it looked that way.
He tried to sound nonchalant. “Language, Arlo. And I said no such thing. You’ve misunderstood. No one person runs this town. It’s a collaborative effort. The lack of… ‘tourist traffic,’ if you will, means less tax revenue. The lumber yard can’t get their huge loads of lumber in because the surrounding bridges are only rated to three tons, so all construction in the area has halted and—”
“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Mayor, but Arlo knows this.” J.T. Baxter rose to his feet. “J.T. Baxter here. I expect the rest of us know it, too. He’s just busting your chops for no good reason.”
Arlo hmphed again and mumbled under his breath, his long, white beard moving with his grumbles.
J.T.’s sister, Rosie Baxter-Moreland, sat next to the pretty realtor. She shot Arlo a sharp glare. As the florist-owner of Rosie’s Posies, she’d surprised the town by first taking in a former friend and famous writer Sam Moreland, from New York City, along with his little girl. Then she’d upped and married him.
“I own Baxter Landscaping,” J.T. continued. “My fiancé, Cassandra Bing, owns Bing Gardens. Anyone who is a customer of either of our businesses has first-hand knowledge of the complications we’ve had getting deliveries. We either go meet the trucks and get small deliveries at a time, continually drive a circuitous route into Little Rock for small amounts of supplies or pay huge delivery fees that we can’t pass on to our customers. I suspect everyone here is hurting and we’re interested in knowing what the solution is.”
Jake sighed. Time for the really bad news. “I’m sorry to have to say this, but we’ve exhausted all the ideas from town hall. If you participated in the BOGO weekends, you know that they were pretty much a bust. We had radio ads going and still, we had a paltry turnout. The Discount Miles month-long sales event had about the same response. For those of you who don’t know, businesses offered customers a percentage discount off purchases for the miles traveled to reach us, with a cap of course.
“Everything we’ve tried to date hasn’t been successful, and we need something really big to jump-start the economy here again. The bridge should be completed in a couple of weeks, so I’m looking to all of you for any and all solutions or suggestions.”
Rosie pursed her lips and squinted as if pondering.
Yeah, that’s what he needed. Sharp minds thinking. “Rosie, did you have something to say?”
He hoped it didn’t show how desperate he was for a plan.
She winced and shook her head, auburn waves floating around her shoulders. “Not really. It’s good to know we can soon schedule big deliveries. If it was warmer weather, I’d recommend some sort of competitions or exhibitions outdoors that would draw crowds along with bake sales or food trucks and a big farmer’s market with advertising. Have craft booths and such to bring those not interested in the other activities.”
She spoke from her chair but loud enough to be heard. “Like I said, probably the wrong time of the year and there’s little time to get such a thing going even if it wasn’t.”
“I disagree and have an idea that piggybacks off what Rosie said.” The realtor, Dixie Jo DeLuca, stood, straightening her soft blue sweater over navy slacks.
“Those aren’t bad ideas at all, but let’s think bigger and modify them. I mean it’s a big, town-sized problem, so we need a giant source of revenue or several combined initially, right? We’d hope that previous shoppers would learn we’re accessible again, and newcomers would develop a favorable view of us and return as repeat customers.”
Dixie Jo DeLuca was a real looker with an open, engaging smile and dark brown hair. She’d been a beauty even at the age of fourteen. He’d never forget being relieved that he wasn’t the only new kid that first day of his freshman year, waiting in the school office for their schedules.
Now her likeness was on ads everywhere but seeing her smile in person held the impact of a gut punch. If he remembered correctly, her warm eyes were the color of chocolate ganache.
“Dixie, please introduce yourself for the benefit of anyone here who may not know you.”
“Oh, sure. Dixie DeLuca.” She flashed that smile again, and he was struck by the sensuality of her full bottom lip. “I think most of you know me or have at least seen my name and likeness plastered on signs and billboards around the area.”
She gave a self-conscious laugh. “A necessity in the real estate business I’m afraid. Anyway, I’m really piggybacking off Rosie’s idea, but it will take a lot of coordination, cooperation, and contributions on the part of most of the citizens. We’ll need to get the word out quickly that we’re accessible again and keep communications open and running.”
As if gauging her audience, she paused and glanced around the room. One hand lifted to tuck her softly waved hair behind one ear.
“Thank you, Dixie. I, for one, am intrigued. Please continue. Explain your idea,” Jake encouraged.
“It’s early November, so we’re already a bit behind for this kind of planning, but I think we’re at the perfect time of year for a solution to this problem. I think we should have an extravaganza of holiday attractions that bring in people from the county and surrounding areas. People from as far away as North Little Rock and Arkadelphia. Maybe farther if we can get plans going fast enough and spread the word that we have something worth coming to see.”
“In Sweetwater?” Arlo snorted. “Just what would that be?”
“Now, Arlo. Give her a chance to get the whole plan out. Dixie?” Jake hoped like hell she had a plan because he wasn’t getting it just yet.
“Well, I think we have a lot to offer as a town. Until recently, I’ve seen a few families coming out of the city each month looking to live in a smaller community. They can get more house for their money here, and we have great schools and educators.
“Up until the tornado, we were a growing town. I think we can draw them in again. So, it would go something like this. A big push for a fall or Thanksgiving celebration of some kind to draw crowds. A…uh…” She appeared to flounder.
“A Fall Festival,” Rosie offered. “Hayrides, corn stalk or straw bale maze, a pie-eating contest, apple bobbing. Is that the idea?”
“Yes, exactly, but on steroids…so to speak.”
“Plenty of hunters active this time of year. They’d likely pay to show off their target skills with a gun or bow.” A fellow from the back row in bib overalls and a well-used John Deere cap spoke up with a deep voice that carried. “Set targets up against bales of hay. Maybe the county firearms officer could supervise to keep us in compliance safety-wise for the crowd. Low cost. Easy money for a blue ribbon and bragging rights. Plus, it’s plain ol’ fun.”
“Excellent idea, Paul,” Dixie responded.
Jake had begun to wonder who was running the meeting, but he wasn’t complaining.
Bob Cagle shot to his feet. “As owner and editor of the Sweetwater Springs Sentinel and Pop’s Print Shop, I’d be willing to donate the printing of some flyers. It’d be worth it if it gets people spending money around town. Then shop owners will start running bigger ads again. The newspaper could use added cash flow. I could also do a smaller, special edition of the paper to get the word out.”
The paper was already down to eight pages if you counted front and back sides, half what it had been.
Jake could see members of the council starting to nod their heads. Like Dixie DeLuca, he could read a room, too. “Sounds great so far. Keep those ideas coming in, folks. If you’re shy about speaking up, jot them on a piece of paper and send them my way and I’ll read ’em. But Dixie, you said holiday attractions, as in plural. Do you see us continuing this sort of thing into Christmas?”
“Absolutely, and that would likely be our biggest draw. If we could get an entire neighborhood or two involved in a Festival of Lights, we could sell tickets by the couple or carload for entrance in and out of the display. Lots of big cities have one neighborhood famous for this. But it would have to be a big deal to be worth them driving out for it.”
“So, these people are just supposed to doll their homes up for the good of the community? Sounds awfully expensive to me.” Arlo chimed in again with his usual enthusiasm.
“No, that wouldn’t be fair. Right, ladies?” Jake looked to them for confirmation.
Rosie raised a tentative hand. “I think it’s likely we’d have to ask others to help add to the lights and displays that folks already have to make it special and awe-inducing. We live in a great old gingerbread house that we decorate each year, but I’d need a lot more added on plus help to make it reach the awe-inspiring stage. If others would forego decorating this year and donate their décor to the Festival of Lights area, that would be enormously helpful. Perhaps we could super-decorate the park, too.”
“I seem to recall that the park had several of those big blow-up decorations last year, then we bought a few more right after Christmas when everything was discounted.” Jake threw his recollection into the mix.
Dixie nodded. “That’ll look great and the Community Church a few blocks down displays an elaborate lighted manger scene. All the shops downtown should decorate, too. Most already do window displays. We’d just need to make a push to get everyone to do a little more for that winter wonderland look. Outside lights on doors and windows, awnings, whatever.”
Arlo hmphed again and Jake suppressed a smile. Arlo didn’t decorate. Ever.
“We’d need volunteers to coordinate all that, tag the donations, and keep track of which house they were used on, and where they’re to be returned. We’d also need volunteers to help set all these lights up so they’re not an undue burden for one community of homes.” Ever practical, Jake’s administrative assistant, Nicki Daniels, chimed in, then her cheeks flushed. “Sorry if I spoke out of turn.”
“What about a big parade with sponsored floats and Santa with his elves?” someone asked before Jake could reassure her. “Bring all the shoppers right downtown.”
“Yes. Perfect. But why stop there? We could add a big New Years’ Eve blowout which would make it nearly two solid months of bringing people and their pocketbooks into our community.” Dixie clapped her hands. “You guys are coming up with some great ideas here. Keep them coming, and I’m going to jot them down with attrition. I’ll be here for a few minutes after the meeting if you’ve got more to share and we run out of time. Then I’ll get them to the council and Mayor Fletcher.”
“Thanks for that, Dixie, but Nicki is taking notes.” Jake gestured toward his administrative assistant.
“That’s great,” Dixie responded. “We’ll compare, but I like to have my own copy to refer to.”
How could the woman be so attractive and annoying at the same time?
Jake grinned at the room, hiding his irritation. “See? We’ve already got people volunteering, so we can make this work. Just remember that we need to think smart about this. Get everything we can at cost or donated as the push is to create revenue for the town.”
“There are likely decent bands around the area that would play for some exposure.” The owner of a motorcycle repair shop off the freeway chimed in with a deep, resonate voice, a wide smile spreading his thick Fu Manchu. “We could place them apart throughout the downtown area and have all the shops open for business late that night. After the parade, I mean.”
The fire chief leaned in from his seat down the table from Jake. “Mayor, is there a plan in place for fireworks at the baseball fields again this year?”
“Yes. I believe I understand the particulars on that, but I’ll refer to our treasurer, Miss Frannie Woodard of Woodard’s Bookkeeping and Tax Services, for clarification.”
Frannie was a plump lady with a sweet disposition and a formal way of speaking, no matter the occasion.
She rose, touched a hand to her no-nonsense graying bob, and cleared her throat. “Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for that introduction. We do indeed have fireworks planned for the celebration as they’re ordered a year in advance and we members of the council had no reason to believe this year would be any different than those of the past. I feel I should mention that payments for said fireworks and the company who sets up the display are already earmarked from present funds that cannot be reassigned and will in no way impact revenues from the, ah… extravaganza of holiday attractions, as I believe it was described. Mayor, back to you.”
“Thank you, Miss Frannie. That was thorough, as usual.” Rosie and Dixie had their heads bent together toward the end of Frannie’s report and were whispering behind their hands. “I can see that the citizens of our fair town will be generous with their ideas as well as their talents and that we have some pretty intense planning to do. Dixie and Rosie, would you ladies mind sticking around for no more than thirty minutes to brainstorm with anyone who may have further ideas for consideration? I’ll be here as well if any of you have questions or comments.”
When both ladies nodded, he gave an informal thanks to all and called a formal end to the meeting.
Whew! He would never have thought of all the ideas that had been floated tonight, nor would he have strung them all together for a six-week extravaganza that needed to begin in just over two weeks. Would they implement them all? Could they? Was there even time to get the first wave ready? He chuckled and shook his head, trying to keep his panic at bay.
Time to ask the experts.
Staying to help was for a good cause, even if the Mayor had volunteered her past the time she’d planned to stay. Dixie repeated the mantra in her head while praying that her daughter was engrossed in reading the chapters for her upcoming history test, as promised. She’d dashed off a quick text to let Keeley know she’d be late but hadn’t felt the buzz of a response yet.
She checked her fitness watch again while Rosie jotted notes this time. They’d gone ten minutes over the thirty the mayor had suggested, but she’d lost her irritation at him because her own enthusiasm had grown while hearing the others’ excitement.
Thank goodness the crowd had dwindled. Only two more remained if she remembered correctly. At one point, several had begun to talk at once, tripping over themselves with ideas that fed off one another. People were excited about the Holiday Extravaganza and that boded well for success. They would spread the word and she’d encouraged just that.
Most of the suggestions were good stuff, some of it merely names and phone numbers of people to call for this and that, but she wasn’t about to discourage discourse at this point. She’d seen too much of her business fall off not to take Mayor Fletcher’s word for how serious the problem was.
An elderly woman’s voice broke through her thoughts.
“…and don’t forget, Rosie, my daughter makes delicious brownies if we do have that bake sale. They’re simply transformative! Call me, and I’ll get her right on it.” A bent-shouldered, gray-haired lady with a sweet smile stood next to Rosie.
“Thank you, Lettie. If we need them, I will.” Rosie turned toward the door with a firm grip on Lettie’s elbow. “It’s getting late. You go get in that truck Hank has all warmed up by now.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I will. Thanks, girls.”
Rosie waved her out of the building with a smile Dixie knew must be hurting. Her cheeks were feeling overworked, too.
“Next?” Dixie turned around, smile in place. When there was no answer, she dropped the professional demeanor and worked her jaw back and forth, trying to assuage some of the tightness.
Rosie looked up from the list, gaze darting about. “We will not be asking Lettie’s daughter to make brownies. The reason being they’re usually laced with pot.”
“What? You’ve got to be kidding!” Dixie’s jaw dropped.
“Hand to God. Look, I’ve got to run. As it is, Lorelei will already be in bed. Sam is on deadline, so that means he needs me to take up the slack as much as possible and tonight was laundry night. Here are my notes. Anything on there you don’t understand, just give me a call or better yet, drop by the shop.”
She hurried out, buttoning her coat as she went.
Only Jake Fletcher remained, and he was removing keys from his pocket with one hand, offering a slip of paper to her with the other. “I got the last two. Ready to go? I lowered the thermostat already, so I’ll catch the lights and lock up behind you. My apologies for how long that took. I had no idea people would be that eager to help or have so many great suggestions.”
“I think we were all surprised by the response,” Dixie agreed and picked up her coat.
Although she had seen him in a suit when the occasion called for it, she liked that he usually wore jeans and a starched, open-necked dress shirt with casual shoes. It made him seem more approachable. A suit worn daily would’ve put off a lot of his constituents.
“Here, let me help you.” Jake held the coat for her as she put her arms into the sleeves.
It had been a long while since a man had done such a courteous thing for her. She smiled, then murmured her thanks, and they turned toward the exit.
Dixie fell into step beside him. “We probably shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Things have been rough, and everyone is feeling it. If not in their shops, then from the people they work for or someone in their family who is worried about their job, their income, if they’ll be able to make the mortgage. It didn’t help that several shops closed for repairs from the storm, then opened to reduced patronage.”
“True. Our home had only minor damage from the tornado. The garage a little more, but nothing I couldn’t fix. How about yours?” He turned from locking the door and the overhead security light illuminated the cool blue of his eyes.
Combined with the premature white of his smartly cropped hair, the effect of those blue eyes was nothing short of mesmerizing.
“We were lucky there as well,” she admitted while buttoning her coat against the deep chill, “but the real estate market has really taken a downturn. Not as many buyers coming into town, especially with news about the storm damage getting around, then the bridge reconstruction creating ingress-egress problems between the freeway and here. Duke Eller, the motorcycle shop guy, told me last week it takes him forty-five minutes through the backroads to make what used to be a ten-minute commute for him.”
“I don’t doubt that. I’ve heard plenty of complaints.”
“I’ll bet. But with a lot of work and a bit of luck, we’ll make people see this is still a great little place to visit and live in. The town is beautiful.”
“Absolutely.” Jake walked her right up to her silver SUV. “I have nothing to add to that except bravo to both you and Rosie and my thanks for all your hard work tonight. That was nothing short of awesome. I’ll be sure to express my thanks to Rosie personally tomorrow.”
“It was fun. Really. Oh, here…” She dug into her bag and produced a business card. “Not that you couldn’t find my number in a dozen places around town, but here’s my card. Call me, and we’ll get together on this list and plans. I’ll be glad to help out where I can.”
Dixie was halfway home when she realized she was still woolgathering about how he’d helped her on with her coat and how seeing him up close had momentarily stunned her. This was ridiculous. What she should be wondering about was whether Keeley had finished reading those chapters.
But when she got home, her daughter’s room was dark and silent, except for the small fan she’d used in lieu of a sound machine ever since she was born. Back then Dixie hadn’t been able to afford anything except a small box fan from a resale shop to muffle noise in the little apartment they’d lived in.
She eased the door closed, leaned her head against it, and sighed. While Keeley was fourteen and accustomed to her mother’s hours, Dixie rarely missed tucking her daughter in. The goodnight ritual was one they both seemed reluctant to end. Every night, she expected Keeley to say she was too old for such things but, thank goodness, it hadn’t happened yet.
Shaking her head over how time flew with a growing kid, Dixie pushed off the door jam, removed her shoes, and strolled toward her bedroom.
Tomorrow was another day, another opportunity to succeed.
Mornings were always a bit hectic in Jake’s household with his two young girls, eight and ten, getting ready for school. They had separate bedrooms in the big, gingerbread trimmed house with a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. Each year older they became, Jake considered installing another bathroom. Even with two sinks and ample room, they’d begun to bicker. Somebody was taking up too much room, somebody was too messy, too gross, too… The list varied. Ordinarily, they were pretty good together, but in the bathroom, they turned into rabid adversaries. This morning had seen no truce. There were other bedrooms, some of them empty. Perhaps he should broach moving Gemma, the oldest, to another room.
Olive had come downstairs chanting, “Gemma and Tom-my, sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s—” at which time Gemma had pulled Olive’s braided ponytail.
Jake had stayed up too late making ridiculous minuscule revisions to a will until his eyes blurred. The exercise in futility had left his patience in short supply. He’d had enough and laid down the law. No chocolate almond milk with their breakfast if they couldn’t act like civilized humans at the table.
His ire might have been influenced by being caught unaware that his daughter was even old enough to have a crush, but the threat had worked. They’d been contrite as their housekeeper, Myra Moffett, held the carton aloft until he gave her the nod.
As they tucked into breakfast, his thoughts turned to his day and how it was shaping up. He’d need to call Nicki and have her rearrange a couple of appointments. His first stop would be to see Rosie, then Dixie, if he could get on her schedule. He had to make sure the ball was rolling on this Holiday Extravaganza project. They had no time to waste.
Where was that faint smell of vanilla coming from?
His girls ate in silence, not unusual after they’d been reprimanded.
Jake waited until he’d cleaned his plate before asking, “Gemma, who’s this Tommy?”
He shot a quelling glance at Olive when she opened her mouth. She shut it. Quick.
“Gemma, he must be somebody, or his parents wouldn’t have named him Tommy.” Keep it light, dad.
“Da-ad.” Gemma complained, her green eyes downcast, dark blonde hair falling forward on either side of her cheeks. “Olive’s just being annoying.”
“Well, now, at the risk of doing the same, Tommy who?”
She lowered her gaze. “Dardin. His mama is our principal.”
“Ah.” At least it wasn’t some older boy on the bus. He was somewhat relieved. “Okay, but no kissing in trees. That’s just dangerous.”
Just as he expected, Gemma made a sound of disgust in her throat, and he considered his fatherly duty done even if his comedic skills were unappreciated.
“Now get a move on and go brush those teeth. You’ve got to be out the door in five.”
Both girls rose from their chairs and carried their dirty dishes to the sink.
“Thank you, Myra.” They both spoke with the same sentiment, their words walking over each other as they scrambled toward the downstairs powder room.
“You’re welcome, my dears. Jake, I’d appreciate a word if you have a few minutes before you have to leave for work.” Myra rose from her chair with her plate and utensils, her gaze downcast. She wore her nearly black hair in a short, stacked bob with bangs. Just now the longer sides swung down to obscure her expression.
“Sure. No problem.” At least he hoped there wasn’t one. “Let me walk the girls to the bus stop, and I’ll be right back.”
Was Myra fed up with the girl’s bickering, too? The question settled in as he bussed his own dishes. She was a bit hard to read at times. He couldn’t exactly say she was secretive, but she appeared to like her privacy. She’d never invited the girls to her cottage behind the house.
“Come on, ladies. Let’s get a move on. Do you both have shoes, coats, caps, backpacks, and number two pencils?”
He could see that they did and were donning everything but liked to remind them, so they’d be warm. “Olive, glasses?”
Of the two, Olive looked most like him with her pale blonde hair and blue eyes. Or, more accurately, like his sister, Lilli.
She turned her face toward him and wrinkled her nose, her girly, pink glasses in place. “You’re being silly, Daddy. We’re not ladies. We’re girls.”
“I can’t argue with that, peanut. My mistake. I guess it’ll be Miss Myra’s job to turn you into ladies, and I’ve no doubt she soon will.”
They continued the banter until they reached the little covered enclosure where they waited for the bus. He could hear it lumbering in their direction, waved quickly, and sprinted away.
Gemma had informed him when she was seven that she was too old to be seen with her dad at the bus stop. She was a quiet child and an independent little thing. Came by it honestly.
He hoped he was raising his girls to be like Rosie and Dixie, strong individuals, confident in their strengths and abilities. The memory of helping Dixie put her coat on came unexpectedly. She’d smelled nice. Feminine. Some light scent with tropical notes, maybe even hair products, but it had made him realize he missed such things in his life. Ah, well. He had his girls and soon they’d fill the house with perfume and delicate feminine scents again. Still, it wouldn’t be quite the same.
Now it was time to see what Myra had to say, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. Sometimes he wished for a wife to share in the parenting woes.
Inside the foyer again, Jake shivered off the autumn chill and called out, “Myra, I’m back.”
She popped into view, having apparently been lying in wait.
That didn’t ease his worry. He planted his hands at his waist. “What have they done?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing to do with the girls.” She held her hands clasped together in front of her. Apprehension darkened her eyes. “I just wanted to ask if you have a problem with me having a friend over for dinner or…overnight. A special friend.”
“You mean like a boyfriend?” He’d never known Myra to date. She was probably fifteen years his senior, but still an attractive woman.
She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Never mind.”
“Sorry, my bad, Myra. The cottage is your home. Who you have as a houseguest is your business unless you’re planning on inviting an ax murderer. In which case, I’d highly suggest you rethink him as a friend.”
The word was so quietly delivered, he wasn’t sure he’d heard it. “I beg your pardon?”
“My guest. My special friend would be a female.” Myra’s cheeks were flushed a dark pink.
Special friend. “Oh.”
Jake felt like an idiot. “Oh, Myra. I’m…I’m happy for you, that you have someone special.”
“Thank you.” She blinked rapidly, her throat bobbing. Her hands were clasped tightly together. “We’ll be discreet.”
She turned to go.
“Wait. There’s no need for discretion unless it’s your preference. You’re so much a part of this family. If she’s special to you, we’d all love to meet her. How about dinner the first chance it fits everyone’s schedule? If that suits you, of course.”
His offer got him a wide smile. “I’ll ask her. That would be lovely.”
“One more thing.”
Myra shook her head. “Not unless you follow me. I’ve got a cake ready to come out of the oven.”
He followed as she hurried back to the kitchen and pulled the oven door open. Immediately, the faint sweet vanilla smell he’d noticed at breakfast surged into the room.
“I’m curious. Did you really think I’d have a problem with your…you being gay…or bi or… whatever?” He stumbled over the words, trying not to say “sexual preference” or anything involving the word sex to his housekeeper, because it just felt weird. “Do I seem like that kind of person to you?”
Myra grabbed potholders and pulled an oblong pan from the oven, the top a nice golden brown. “You’re a very nice man, but my niece was a nice woman, too. Except for when it came to me being out. I’m not bi. I like women and have never had any interest in men.”
She touched the oven control off and closed the door. “I had to be sure it was safe before I brought her to my home.”
Jake and his ex-wife, Valerie, had more or less inherited Myra with the house when they bought it from Myra’s niece and nephew-in-law. Her staying on in the guest cottage as a housekeeper had been a stipulation of the sale.
Of course, they’d met her before agreeing, and legally, once the sale went through, they were under no obligation to keep her on. But Jake wasn’t a man to renege on a promise and Myra had made herself indispensable. Especially since Val wasn’t interested in the domestic arts and had been gone much of the time with her job. That left Jake with a budding law career that needed attention and two little girls who needed even more.
“Well, in this family we don’t discriminate. You’re safe here.”
Myra was a godsend and family. Period.
As a single parent, he couldn’t imagine getting through a day, much less a week without her presence in their everyday life. “No thanks necessary. It’s the way things should be. Have a good day, Myra. I’ve got to run. Unless…”
His brows rose and he peered around her, the divine smell of that cake drawing him in.
“Oh, no. It still needs to cool and be iced. You can have some with the girls tonight.”
She shooed him out of the kitchen with a flick of her wrist and opened the dishwasher.
As he returned to the foyer and donned a khaki trench coat over his usual jeans with a starched dress shirt, Jake’s mind automatically turned to how his day was shaping up. He called Nicki as he got into his truck and had her rearrange his morning as he wouldn’t get into the office until midday. His first stop was Rosie’s Posies, the florist shop that Rosie Moreland owned.
The window displays and inventory inside looked sparser to him than the couple of times he’d stopped by to order flowers. Made sense she’d pull back on inventory if she didn’t have as much business. The old-fashioned bell overhead dinged as he opened the door and breathed in the scents of flowers, eucalyptus, and scented candles. Mostly feminine scents, but more overpowering than Dixie’s. Damn. The woman was invading his thoughts again today.
Rosie’s attention turned to him as he entered.
“Hey, Rosie. How’s it going?”
Her wry smile gave him a response before she said, “Kinda slow this morning, but that’s nothing new.”
“Yeah, I hear you. When the bridge opens in two weeks, it should help to increase traffic again.”
“I welcome that.”
“I’m sure. Well, I just stopped by to offer my thanks and appreciation for all your help last night.”
“You’re welcome. It was fun.”
They talked for a few minutes about what her role in the festivity plans might look like, then he turned to go.
Rosie cleared her throat before he got two steps. “You sure you don’t need a bouquet for a special lady or to grace your dining table?”
He turned, considering the idea.
Her grin was a tad sheepish.
“There’s no special lady but the table bouquet isn’t a bad idea. We haven’t had fresh flowers in the house for far too long. Can you deliver it to my house? I’ll let Myra know to expect it.”
He concluded his business with Rosie and returned to his truck. Jake shook his head. He certainly couldn’t do that in every business in town, but he liked that Rosie had asked, suggesting uses for a bouquet. That was smart.
Now to meet with another smart woman on his agenda. Dixie Jo DeLuca.
After that initial introduction in the school office, he’d seen her in the hallways at school, had heard about the new girl from Georgia from more than one teammate. Like all the other guys, he was interested but never pursued her because he’d have been one in a long line. Now, he’d say she was lovely rather than cute, but when she flashed that smile…wowser. That shot her straight into beautiful territory.
Dixie overslept. She never overslept, never forgot to set her alarm. But last night she’d forgotten to set it or had dismissed it this morning without waking. Either way, Keeley was already eating breakfast while Dixie showered and dressed, thankful her hair tended to be dry and didn’t need washing every day.
“Mom, hurry!” Keeley yelled, her footsteps rapidly fading from the hallway.
Dixie grabbed a pair of short boots and stepped into them. “Hon, can you grab me a power bar?”
Gawd. They were yelling from one end of the house to the other. She yanked at the heel zippers.
“Sure. Anything else?”
“Would a cup of coffee be too much to ask? Ah, in my insulated mug.” She needed the caffeine more today than usual and lots of it.
“Okay.” The response held tones of long-suffering that only a teen could elicit.
“The French vanilla, please.”
“Already streaming out. I’ll meet you at the door. You’re ready, right?”
One side of Dixie’s mouth lifted with wry humor, thinking how their roles were reversed.
Shaking off the feeling of exasperation, Dixie took several deep, slow breaths as they hurried into her SUV. Even though the day had yet to drop its dark hours chill, the sun was shining. That was a good omen, right?
After dropping Keeley at school, she concentrated on going over her tasks for that day.
Arrange any showings—yes, she was an optimist.
Then get all the notes from last night typed into her computer.
Arrange them in some kind of order in anticipation of Jake—should she call him mayor?—calling to meet and discuss putting plans in motion.
Had she called him Jake last night or said his name at all? She couldn’t remember much of anything beyond seeing those startlingly blue eyes zeroes in on her.
Mayor Jake. No, that sounded odd. Just Jake. He had an important role in Sweetwater Springs, but he was just a guy, a guy she’d gone to school with.
A guy who’d never asked her out. She would’ve said yes. He’d intrigued her because he was aloof but good-looking. He excelled at a lot of things. Sports, clubs, grades. He’d impressed her.
Jake. Mayor Fletcher? No. Too formal.
And why was she obsessing about what to call him? Sheesh. The delayed start to her day was scrambling her brain.
Okay, back to her notes. They’d likely need to separate items into Fall Festival, Christmas, then New Year’s.
She turned into her office parking lot.
Then she’d separate each section into…oh. No, no, no.
She needed time to get her thoughts together, to get a grip on her day. Dixie pushed out a slow, frustrated puff of air and tried to breathe slowly, to compartmentalize her frustration into acceptance.
Why was he already in front of her office, leaning against his pristine, white, I’m-all-man extended cab pickup? And why did he look as if he’d just finished a GQ mag shoot with his legs crossed at the ankles, his long, loose trench coat reflecting his lean length? The dark glasses gave him a slight air of mystery, and his white hair almost glowed in the sunlight.
At the moment, he appeared to be texting someone.
An image flashed into focus of his long, thick fingers with nails trimmed short settling her coat over her shoulders and releasing it without touching her.
What was the matter with her, going gaga over such a mundane thing?
He was a handsome guy. Big deal. He’d been handsome back in high school, and she hadn’t gone gaga over him then. Well, not much, anyway. He hadn’t been the least interested in her.
She shoved the vehicle into park. A lot of men she’d dealt with over the years were handsome. It was no big deal, and she so didn’t have time for this today. Rein it in, Dixie Josephine. This isn’t high school.
The stern self-rebuke did nothing, seeing as he was right beside her marked parking space as she turned off the engine. An uncharacteristic frisson of nerves shimmered over her, leaving behind cold chills. Something was going on, something unfamiliar and she didn’t like it.