Romance Novel by RITA Award Winning writer Inglath Cooper
Holt Medallion Award Winner
Annie McCabe loves the town of Macon’s Point, and she’s ready to fight to save it.
After her bitter divorce, Annie wanted to put down roots for herself and her son in the small community. As mayor, Annie works hard for the people she has grown to care about. Now the town’s main employer, Corbin Manufacturing, is on the chopping block, and Annie must convince Jack Corbin to keep the company in business. Annie quickly realizes that Jack just wants to wrap things up and move on, and things are further complicated by her growing attraction to him. Will she be able to make Jack see the true value of his hometown. . .and its mayor?
MAYOR ANNIE MCCABE WAS LATE.
Her meeting with Jack Corbin was not the kind of meeting a person was late for. It had taken three weeks of unreturned phone calls to get it. And in less than thirty minutes, she would be sitting across a table from the one man who had the power to prevent the town of Macon’s Point from drying up and blowing right off the Virginia state map.
The population sign standing guard at the Langor County line read 3032. Anyone passing through would likely label the town nothing special. True, there was no hub-bub of cultural activity at its center, no opera or art museum. Only a farmer’s market and a once-monthly Friday night bluegrass jamboree. But Macon’s Point had become home to Annie in the past three years.
And to her that meant something.
In the year since her divorce, Annie had found peace in this town, a certainty that she would be perfectly content to spend the rest of her life here. It was that kind of place.
The only problem?
If Jack Corbin auctioned off Corbin Manufacturing, half the town would have to move elsewhere. Somehow, tonight, she had to find the words to make him look for another solution to the company’s problems.
Meanwhile, her hair was still wet, and her blouse was missing its middle button.
“What, honey?” Annie wrestled a comb through her tangled hair, glancing up with a distracted smile at her six-year-old son’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. Sometimes it shocked her how much he looked like J. D. His hair was a shade of blond women tried to emulate in the priciest salons. His blue eyes had lashes thick enough to generate the same kind of envy. The one concession to cuteness over outright beauty was the dimple in each cheek.
In the father, those dimples had once made her knees go weak. In the son, she was similarly unable to frown on even the most mischievous of deeds when he turned them on her.
“Cyrus sure does like chocolate cake,” Tommy said.
“Did he tell you that?” Annie gave up on the comb and grabbed the hair dryer from the second drawer of her vanity. Tommy was always telling her something Cyrus had said. She sometimes thought the two of them had a language of their own.
“No, but he ate it real fast. Wasn’t it ‘sposed to be my birthday cake?”
Tommy’s birthday was on Friday. Annie had made the cake early to freeze in an effort to be a step ahead of herself. She dropped the blow-dryer on the sink counter, grabbed her son’s hand and bolted down the stairs. “Cyyyyrus!”
With Tommy still attached to her hand, she skidded to a stop in the kitchen doorway, a run popping up in the right heel of her stockings. Too late. In the middle of the floor sat Cyrus, all one hundred plus pounds of him, his nose looking as if it had been dipped in chocolate, the plastic plate on which the cake had been sitting as clean as if it had gone through the dishwasher’s pot-scrubber cycle.
“See, Mama. I told you he liked it.”
“Bad, Cyrus. At least you look guilty,” Annie said, picking up the plate. Chocolate. The cake had been chocolate. Wasn’t chocolate bad for dogs? She struggled to remember what she’d heard about it, but only came up with the vague recollection that it could damage their nervous systems.
Annie’s own nervous system was well on its way to meltdown.
Cyrus hung his head and plopped down on the floor with a whine. Whether it was guilt or the beginnings of the stomachache that was his destiny, Annie didn’t know.
“Is Cyrus sick, Mommy?”
Worry lines knitted her son’s forehead. Six-year-old boys shouldn’t have worry lines. But more often than not, Tommy did.
“I don’t know, honey. He’ll probably have a belly ache.”
“He’s not gonna die, is he?” The lines on Tommy’s forehead deepened.
Alarm jangled along Annie’s spine. Cyrus was Tommy’s best friend. As much as she had been against getting the dog, she had to admit he had been good for her son at a time when he’d desperately needed a diversion. But then if J. D. hadn’t run off with his all but jail-bait girlfriend, Tommy would have no need for a diversion.
Giving a five-year-old boy a St. Bernard puppy was just the kind of thing J. D. was famous for. At least in the context of their marriage. Tommy had seen one in a dog food commercial and asked his father if he could have a puppy like that. J. D. had gone right out and bought him one. Of course, doing so had made him a king in Tommy’s eyes. And when Annie had said he couldn’t keep it, she’d been tossed the mantle of Cruella DeVil.
Considering that Tommy had only recently begun to show signs of the carefree child he had once been, she did not want to risk a setback brought on by Cyrus’ sudden demise. And on top of that, Annie now loved him, too. Even if he had been a present from J. D.
“No, honey,” she reassured him. “But we’ll run him over to Doc Angle’s. They’ll know what to do.”
The cordless phone on the kitchen counter rang, rattling Annie’s already rattled nerves. She glared at it, then yanked it up and barked a hello stern enough to deter even the most hardened of the telemarketers who always seemed to call around dinnertime.
Annie dropped her forehead onto a palm and rubbed the heel of her hand against a budding migraine. She really did have to get caller i.d. “I do not have time to talk to you, J. D.”
Tommy glanced up, his eyes widening in happiness just before a mask of indifference slipped up to conceal it. It had been months since he’d asked to speak to his daddy on the rare occasions that J. D. called. Annie’s heart throbbed with the realization that pride demanded this lack of concern even in a boy his age. She and Tommy both had made excuses for J. D. until they’d been forced to admit that was all they were. Excuses.
She turned around so that her back was to Tommy. He got up and trudged into the living room with Cyrus lumbering behind him.
“So the little mayor’s staying busy, huh?”
The amusement behind the words made Annie wish for a voodoo doll with extra pins. Divorce rule number 54: ignore jabs deliberately meant to rile. “What do you want, J. D.?”
“What are you offering?”
Annie balked at the flirtation underlining the question. He was amazing. Truly amazing. “J. D.” she said, her voice sub-zero.
“To see my son. That’s what I want. Put Tommy on a plane and send him out here to visit, sugar pie. I miss him.”
The command was issued with all the certainty of a man who never entertained even the notion of the word no. “I am not sending Tommy across the country by himself, J. D. He’s six years old, for heaven’s sake!”
“Kids ride airplanes by themselves all the time, Annie,” J. D. said in the same you’re-being-ridiculous voice he’d perfected when they’d been married, and she’d tried to explain why he couldn’t just write checks off their bank account without ever looking to see if they had the funds to cover them. “I have a right to see my son.”
“You know where your son lives, and if you want to see him, you can get on an airplane and come here.” The last two words took a leap toward hysteria, and she forced herself to draw in a calming breath before going on in a lowered voice. “You’ve made no effort to see him in nearly a year, J. D. Do you think you can saunter back into his life as if you just saw him yesterday? How am I supposed to explain that to him?”
“JaaayyyyyDeeeee, I’m still waiting,” a woman’s voice called in the background.
There. She had her explanation. Annie stomped across the kitchen floor and slammed the phone into its wall cradle, hoping the collision would blow a hole in J. D.‘s faithless eardrum. But it did little more than rocket a bolt of pain straight up her arm where it landed in the center of the headache now pounding full force.
There had been a time since the demise of their twelve-year marriage when she would have shed a kitchen sink full of tears over that very audible reminder of her husband’s betrayal. But even had she cared to indulge the tradition, she didn’t have time for it tonight. She glanced at her watch. In twenty minutes, Jack Corbin would be waiting for her at Walker’s. Jack Corbin, who hadn’t been back to Macon’s Point since his father’s funeral six years ago and who, according to Mary-Louise Carruthers at the post office, traveled to exotic-sounding places such as St. Tropez, Lyon and San Gimignano (none of which had sounded all that exotic under Mary-Louise’s pronunciation).
His track record for changing addresses rivaled even J. D.‘s.
Annie’s stomach churned.
Somehow, she, pinch-hitter Mayor Annie McCabe, former housewife, a woman unable to figure out how to keep her husband from straying, had to persuade a man with enough money to live out the rest of his days on some private island sipping piña coladas, not to give Corbin Manufacturing the death knell.
And before she got around to that, all she had to do was finish drying her hair, change her blouse, drop her son off at the babysitter’s and deliver Cyrus to the emergency animal hospital. While she was at it, maybe she’d leap a tall building or two just for good measure.
JACK CORBIN PULLED into the parking lot of Walker’s Restaurant a few minutes before seven. He cut the engine to the Carerra, and it let out a throaty rumble before going silent.
September twilight gave the near-night sky a rosy glow. An easy breeze fanned the leaves of a giant old beech tree that hugged the right side of the building. Jack had ridden his bike by there the morning Mr. Walker had planted that tree. He must have been eight or nine years old then. He’d stopped to ask what kind it was, and Mr. Walker had told him when the tree grew up it would have roots that looked like gnarled old feet. They did, indeed.
Jack ran a palm across a cheek badly in need of a shave, then reached for his cell phone and punched in his office number.
“Corbin, Mitchell Consulting. Pete Mitchell here.”
“You make it out to the boonies?”
“Just got here. And if you weren’t from Arkansas, I’d be offended.”
Pete laughed. “Fair enough. I just got an e-mail from Fogelman in London a little while ago. Wanted to know when you were coming. I told him you were going to be held up for a week or two. They’re anxious for you to get there. But if I had a business in that kind of shape, I’d be anxious, too.”
“Actually, I do have a business in that kind of shape. I just don’t plan to keep it.”
“Auction’s all set?”
“Yep. Wish I could snap my fingers and have it be over.”
“It’s a bummer, that’s for sure. Maybe this London stint will be good for you. British babes and-”
“Fogelman breathing down my neck?”
“That’s the needle across the record. ‘Fraid he comes with the deal. It was a lucrative one so suck it up.”
“I knew there was a reason I asked you to be a partner in this firm.”
“Everybody’s gotta be good for something,” Jack said, reaching for the notepad he kept in the center console and scribbling a reminder to e-mail Fogelman his best guess on when he would be arriving.
“So you’ve got the big meeting with the mayor tonight?”
“During which I’ll try to convince her that even after forty-seven phone calls, I haven’t changed my mind. And I’m not going to.”
“Have to give her an ‘A’ for persistence.”
Pete chuckled. “Wonder if she’s hot.”
“Do you ever get your mind wrapped around any other subject?”
“I try to discourage it. You’d do well to borrow the philosophy.”
“Out of the market.”
“When are you going to quit beating yourself up about that, Jack? Lots of people change their mind about getting married. Better before than after.”
“At the altar though?”
“Okay, so right before.”
“Which makes me a very bad cliche´.”
“No. Just a man who hasn’t found the right woman.”
Jack aimed the subject in another direction. “I left a file on my desk with some info I need for the lawyers on the auction. How about scanning it and e-mailing it to me?”
“Not a problem. They have phone jacks down there?”
“Do it before I leave.”
“Check in with you tomorrow.” Jack hit the end button on his phone, dropped it on the passenger seat.
Another car pulled up beside him. A man and woman got out, fortyish, headed for the restaurant holding hands. She dropped her head back and laughed at something the man said, her hair brushing her shoulders. A single glimpse of the two made it clear they were a couple of long-standing, their ease with one another nearly tangible. A pang of envy hit Jack in the chest, surprising him with its lingering sting. Ironic considering that a year and a half ago, he’d broken off his engagement to a perfectly nice woman because in the end, he hadn’t been able to go against his own belief that it wouldn’t last.
Jack got out of the car, closed the door with a solid ka-chunk. He crossed the parking lot, fighting with the knot of his tie. What was he doing here, anyway? In addition to the pile of work stacked up on his desk back in D.C., he had about a thousand loose ends to tie up in Macon’s Point before he could leave for London. He’d driven straight down, still in his work clothes. What he wanted was a good hot shower, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. At least the meeting wouldn’t last long. He’d say his piece and be on his way.
Walker’s hadn’t changed much. Looked the same, in fact, except for the fresh coat of paint dolling up the exterior.
Jack pushed open the front door and stepped inside the well-lit foyer where a waitress greeted him with a bright smile that seemed a watt or two above just-friendly. “Welcome to Walker’s.”
“Thanks. Any chance of getting a table in the back?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” she said, holding up a pink-tipped finger. “Let me just go see.”
The place was jam-packed with the dinner crowd. Several heads turned to send him a curious glance. Sudden awkwardness grabbed him by the throat. His name wasn’t going to be a popular one around Macon’s Point. No doubt about it.
He turned his back to the dining room and shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his grey wool pants, his gaze resting on the vehicles in the lot outside. His stomach did a hungry rumble, the smells wafting out from the kitchen tempting and familiar. Homemade yeast rolls. Coffee brewing behind the counter. His mother had brought him here when he was a boy more times than he could count, to pick up his father’s favorite peach pie on the way home from a visit in town or a dozen chocolate chip cookies for the jar on the kitchen counter. And the three of them had come here for lunch on Sundays when Jack had been in from school. The recollection was poignant, painful.
“Got that table for you.”
The waitress was back, beckoning for him to follow her. Her walk had a seismic wave to it, her hips sending the ruffle at the hem of her skirt left to right like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. “I’m Charlotte,” she threw over her shoulder. “You sure do look familiar.”
“One of those faces.” He somehow knew that if she put a name with it, everyone else in the place would soon do the same.
Stopping at the table, Charlotte cocked a hip. “Now there I’d have to disagree. We don’t see too many faces like yours around here. You new in town?”
“Not really. Just back for a quick visit.”
“Hope you decide to make it a longer one,” she said, adding a not-so-subtle wink to the assertion. “What can I get you to drink?”
“Southern roots.” She gave him a nod of approval. “Back in a gnat’s blink, honey.”
Again, Jack felt the glances being sent his way from the crowded dining room, most less than friendly. He heard his name mentioned once or twice.
“Have you had time to decide?” Charlotte, true to her word, came right back, placed his tea in front of him, righting the lemon wedge teetering on the rim.
“I’m waiting for someone, ” he said.
“That figures,” she said, not bothering to hide her disappointment. “The good ones are always waiting. Just let me know when you’re ready.” She sauntered off then with a regretful smile.
Jack reached for a couple packs of sugar and emptied them into the glass. This was a mistake. Why hadn’t he just called Annie McCabe and cancelled this meeting? Even if he hadn’t had his own reasons for wanting to close this chapter of his life once and for all, Corbin Manufacturing was beyond saving. The company hadn’t made a penny since his father died. In fact, it had been losing increasingly large sums of money for the past six years.
Ironic, really, that Jack had built a career around fixing broken businesses. Going into hopeless situations, finding the terminal wound from which a company’s lifeblood was seeping, and figuring out how to suture it up again.
But in this situation, there was no point in trying to determine a cause when he had no intention of fixing it.
Corbin Manufacturing’s demise was inevitable, whether he put it out of its misery by sticking it on the auction block as he fully intended to do, or let it die the slow death it had been dying for years.