Mayor Sandra Crawford has survived divorce. She's survived cancer. But she's not at all sure she'll survive the discovery that her town's billionaire philanthropist benefactor is actually the man she nearly left her husband for almost thirty years ago.
Gerald Peyton, III didn't fight for Sandy back in college--a decision he's regretted ever since. Now Trey's older, wiser, and determined to win the heart of the woman he's never forgotten.
When they wake up married in Vegas, Sandy chalks it up to a reckless mistake, but Trey's not willing to let her go so easily. Can he convince her to give their marriage a legitimate chance, or will she let him go for good this time?
Release date: June 30, 2017
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 202
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See You Again: A Small Town Southern Romance
“THIS IS ALL YOUR fault.” Trey Peyton glared at the owner of the big brown eyes, who couldn’t seem to care less about the wreck she’d just caused.
She just blinked at him, all innocence, as if she wasn’t the reason his sensible sedan was currently nose-first in a ditch. Given how fast he’d been going when he came over that hill, he was lucky he only had a flat.
Sucking in a breath, he scooped a hand through his hair and searched for some calm. “Oh, excuse me. Where are my manners? Let me introduce myself. I’m Gerald Peyton, III, CEO of Peyton Consolidated.”
She ignored the hand he offered.
“Never heard of it? It’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Mostly real estate and hotels these days. Though I’ve been dipping my toes into urban redevelopment and rural tourism lately. Maybe you’ve seen some of the stuff my company has done in Wishful? The Babylon is a top-rated boutique hotel and spa. Or maybe you’ve been to The Madrigal Theater since it was restored?”
His audience twitched one hip, restless.
“Am I boring you? My apologies. You know, that notion that billionaires only drive pretentious sports cars that cost as much as a normal person’s house is really a stereotype. Although maybe if I’d been truer to form, I’d have actually managed to stay on the road when I swerved to avoid your sizable ass.”
Unconcerned with the insult, the cow moseyed to the other side of the road and began to crop grass.
Where had the damned thing even come from? Trey saw the answer to that as he climbed back up to the shoulder. A little way up the road, a tree branch had taken out part of the barbed wire fence. Judging from the other leaf trash and sticks strewn across the road, it was evident that last night’s storm had been a doozy.
“Well, Bessie, you’re about to see a billionaire change a tire.” Trey circled around and popped the trunk. Leaning over the ass-end of the car, he shoved his bag aside and lifted the bottom panel of the trunk.
“Or maybe not. Damn it.”
Somebody would be hearing about that when he got back to his offices, but for now, he’d settle for arranging a tow. At least, that was the plan until he discovered his phone had died somewhere on the flight from Denver to Mississippi. Undeterred, he dug in his bag for a charger. It wasn’t in the side pocket as it was supposed to be. He fished around the other pockets, even emptied the main compartment before admitting defeat. He must’ve left it in his car in Denver.
“Perfect. Looks like I’m walking.”
Thankfully, Wishful was only a couple of miles away. He’d have probably been there by now if he hadn’t felt compelled to take the scenic route from the airport in Lawley. But he’d wanted a chance to unwind from the flight and get his head on straight. Seemed like it took longer and longer to accomplish that every time he came here to check on his assorted ventures.
Trey thought about finding the cow’s owner to let them know their animal was loose, but he didn’t see a driveway or a house anywhere. Better to get on into town and arrange for the tow truck. Somebody there would likely know whose land this was and who needed to be notified.
Locking the car, he set out for town, grateful for the mild November weather. There was already snow on the ground in Colorado, but this far below the Mason-Dixon, it felt like Indian summer. At this hour, the locals were already at work, their kids at school, so nobody drove by as he walked. It felt strange to be so wholly disconnected. No texts. No calls. No emails. Nothing but birdsong and sunshine. Trey felt the layers of city start sloughing off and slowed his pace as he reached the outskirts of town and the first smattering of houses. As he took the turn onto Maple Street and cut toward downtown, he felt the years peel away too.
The houses in this part of town were tiny. Boxy little two- and three-bedroom houses built in the sixties. They’d been old and a little worn around the edges when he’d seen them last. In the intervening decades, some had become downright dilapidated. Still, others had been fixed up with fresh paint, new shutters, updated landscaping. Trey imagined most of the occupants were young. Maybe first-time homebuyers. Young couples or single parents. He liked the idea of that—fresh starts, new beginnings. He hadn’t been so lucky. This place had been an ending for him.
He almost didn’t recognize her house when he saw it. The ugly, sandstone brick had been painted a fresh cream. The front stoop had been expanded, replaced with slate, and the roofline had been extended to make a little porch, held up with thick, cedar beams. It gave the house more presence than the squat square had on its own. The azalea bushes, which had been newly planted last time he saw the place, had grown thick and lush, filling up the flowerbeds all along the front of the house. He imagined, in spring, they’d be a riot of color. A tire swing hung from the branch of an oak tree that had been a mere sapling all those years ago, and a little girl’s bike lay abandoned in the front yard, as if its rider had just run inside for a snack. Someone had turned this place into a home.
But it hadn’t been her.
Trey didn’t know how to feel about that. Since he’d started doing business here in Wishful, he’d avoided this place, just as he’d avoided the woman who’d once lived here. That had been a good call. Standing here now, it was all too easy to get caught up in the storm of old emotions, too easy to look at the old picture window and see the moment his heart had cracked right in two.
He’d been eaten up with worry by the time he’d risked coming here. She should’ve met him hours before at their designated spot, with everything she needed to start over packed. When she didn’t show, he’d feared the worst—that her deadbeat husband had found out and stopped her from leaving. Darkness had hidden Trey as he got out of the car, but it made the drama unfolding through the illuminated window stand out with all the clarity of a movie screen. The woman he loved squaring off with the man who’d made her life hell. Trey had already been on his way up the walk, headed for the door, when her husband kissed her. And she hadn’t fought him. She’d wrapped her arms around him, and they’d both laughed and smiled—as if relieved that some great crisis had been averted. She’d chosen the prison of her marriage instead of Trey.
The wound had never really healed in all these years. He’d expected the memories to stop having power over him the longer he did business here—a sort of emotional exposure therapy. But everything he felt was as strong and steady as it had been for thirty years. Trey didn’t want to think about what that meant.
A car horn beeped.
He turned, expecting to see a minivan or a little compact car waiting to pull into the driveway he was standing in, but instead he found a familiar face.
The brunette in the driver’s seat rolled down her window. “I thought that was you! What are you doing out here?”
Reliving the past. Trey stepped toward her. “Hiking to town. I had an unfortunate run-in with a cow on my way in.”
Norah arched a brow in question.
“The cow won,” he added.
The corners of her mouth twitched. “Careful, Gerald. Your city boy’s showing.”
“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. You haven’t exactly turned into a country girl since you moved down here.” Norah might’ve been Mississippian by birth, but she’d come back nearly two years ago from Chicago. “I wound up with a blowout and no spare. Cell phone was dead, so I couldn’t call anybody.”
“Good lord. Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.”
He circled around to the passenger side and climbed in.
“I didn’t realize you were coming back today,” she said.
It hadn’t been a planned trip. By rights, he should’ve been on a flight to London, overseeing the final stages of renovation planning for a new property there, but he’d felt drawn back to Wishful. It seemed he’d been feeling that pull more and more over the past eighteen months. As he’d had a full office suite built at The Babylon, he felt justified in doing some telecommuting. It was as close as he came to rest and relaxation these days.
Trey stretched out in the passenger seat. “I was coming in for your wedding anyway, so I thought I’d come early and work from here until. Particularly once I read your latest proposal.”
Norah Burke was one of the most brilliant marketing minds he’d ever known. He’d tried to hire her to run his marketing division at Peyton Consolidated, but she’d ultimately taken a job as Wishful City Planner—after convincing him to invest in assorted projects meant to revitalize the economically-depressed town. She was the reason he’d come to Wishful. Part of the reason. His reasons for being here reached far beyond investment opportunities and into the realm of deeply personal—and possibly foolish. But he kept coming back, kept getting further involved in the affairs of the town. Eventually, he’d have to face the consequences.
“Oh, don’t get me started. Cam will murder me if anything else delays this wedding. I think he and the entire staff of City Hall ganged up to block off the city calendar so we could finally set a date.”
“You, my girl, are a workaholic.”
She glanced over at him and grinned. “Takes one to know one.”
“It is possible I resemble that remark,” he admitted. “But everything’s all squared away for the big day?”
“It is. You’ll get to see the church. I’ve got to swing by and drop off some paperwork on the way. I hope you don’t mind.”
“You’ll still get me to work faster than walking.” He noted more downed limbs as they drove. “Big storm last night?”
“It was, as Cam’s grandmother would say, a frog strangler. Lots of wind too. Hush was so freaked out she crawled under the bed and shook the whole thing. I suppose we should be grateful she wasn’t howling. I…” Norah trailed off, leaning forward in her seat. “No. Oh, no no no no.”
Hearing the alarm in her voice, Trey straightened.
Norah whipped into the small parking lot and skidded to a halt. They both stared at the fifty-foot oak tree sprawled, roots-up, across the church. The weight of the thing had caved in part of the roof and a chunk of the south wall, taking out at least two stained glass windows and letting in God knew how much rain.
“This is your church?” he asked quietly.
In answer, the unflappable, always-in-control woman in the driver’s seat burst into tears.
* * *
“Agnes Crockett is complaining about that stoplight at Market and Spring Street again.”
Mayor Sandra Crawford resisted the urge to bang her head against the desk. That defective stoplight had been the object of more contention…
“What do you want to do about it?” Avery asked.
“Put it on the agenda for the next City Council meeting.” It wasn’t the first time it had been on there and probably wouldn’t be the last. Their town was in considerably better shape financially than it had been, but they had other priorities. Like recovering from the $124,000 their previous city planner had embezzled from city coffers. Sandy still hadn’t gotten over the fact that had happened on her watch.
Her administrative assistant consulted the list in her hands. “You’ve got a meeting with the Christmas parade planning committee next week to discuss in-case-of-rain plans. And at three o’clock you’re meeting with Linda Odom and Beulah Cartwright.”
“Well, it seems the Singing Christmas Tree has become the Battle of the Baptists. There isn’t enough room for everyone in the stands, so someone has to decide who actually gets that honor—the choir from First Baptist or from St. Paul Baptist.”
“How did that someone get to be me? I’m no music expert.”
“No, but you’re the boss.”
Sandy loved her job—most of the time. Her town meant everything to her. But some days, she felt less like the mayor and more like an over-extended kindergarten teacher. Today was clearly going to be one of those days. “I guess I can’t fake food poisoning, can I?”
“Not unless you want to get on Mama Pearl’s bad side for impugning the diner’s meatloaf.”
She’d rather face her ex-husband than insult the Goddess of Gossip herself. That would be the shortest route to historic low approval ratings. “Then I guess I’m putting on my mediator hat. Where are we on reports of damage from last night’s storms?”
“A lot of roof stuff. Some downed power lines that Light and Water is already handling. All in all, not nearly as bad as it could’ve been. Those straight-line winds were killer.”
“Let’s all be grateful. Is that everything?”
“Just one more for now. Mamie Landon wanted to schedule a time with you to discuss fundraiser options for the Coleman family. They lost everything in the fire last week. The area churches have taken care of the necessities, but there’s still the issue of where they’re going to live.”
That right there was why Sandy loved what she did. Because her town cared about their own. “See if you can schedule that for tomorrow. And while you’re at it, check with Brody Jensen and see if you can’t get him in as well.” Brody was one of her son Cam’s best friends. He’d returned to town a year ago and opened his own construction firm. It could be he’d have some ideas about rebuilding and could give them a cost estimate for reconstruction.
“I’m on it.”
As Avery rose from the chair across the desk, a knock sounded on the open door. Sandy looked up to find Cam standing in the hall. Her quick spurt of pleasure shifted to a Momdar alert as she caught sight of his face.
“Got a minute?” he asked.
“For you, always.”
He murmured a hello to Avery as she passed, then shut the door.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“A tree took out the church.”
Sandy blinked at him. “I’m sorry, what?”
“That big old oak got uprooted in the storm and fell on the church. I just came from there. The damage is pretty extensive.”
“But…how? The storm wasn’t that bad…was it?”
“With all the rain we’ve had the past few weeks, the ground was loose. With those winds…it just went straight on over.” Her tall, broad-shouldered son scooped a hand through his blond hair. “Norah cried. She never cries.”
Sandy knew that gutted Cam. His fiancée had been a beacon of hope during the darkest hours for their town. If she was shaken, the situation must be worse than dire.
“We’ve been planning this for months. It took nearly a year to pin her down for a date in the first place. How the hell are we going to have a wedding with no venue?”
Her mind was already spinning, considering options. “We’ll find a way. I promise.” She didn’t know what that way was, but she’d find it if only to take that look of dejection off her baby’s face.
“I’ve gotta get back to the nursery—we’re rotating some stock for a Thanksgiving sale and Violet wants me to do up some more planters—but I just wanted to swing by and let you know, so you could put your thinking cap on.”
Sandy came around her desk and hugged him tight, wondering when he’d started towering over her since he was twelve years old yesterday. “I’ll do that. And I’ll call Mom. She’ll call everybody else. Between the lot of us, we’ll figure something out. We’ve got nearly two weeks.”
“It’ll take a miracle.”
It might take more than that. But Sandy kept the thought to herself as she ushered her son out. When he was gone, she paced a few restless laps in her office. Needing to move, she grabbed her phone and her purse and stepped out into the outer office. “Avery, I’m going for a quick walk. Can you forward my calls, please?”
“Sure thing, Sandra.”
She headed down the stairs, her sensible heels echoing off the walls. With a smile and a nod for old Jerry Noble, the security guard manning the front desk, Sandy stepped out of City Hall. She paused for a moment on the steps, soaking in the sight and sound of the town she loved. Courtesy of her future daughter-in-law, Wishful was enjoying its first economic growth in decades. The facelift Norah had arranged to give downtown was in evidence everywhere Sandy looked. Pedestrians strolled the sidewalks and cars lined the streets on all sides of the town green. Her town was not only still alive, it was thriving.
Looking both ways, Sandy crossed Main Street to the town green. Her destination lay at the far end. Fed by nearby Hope Springs, the fountain dated back to just after the Civil War. And according to local legend, it granted wishes. Norah had rebranded the entire town around it. Banners with their slogan hung from every street lamp that marched the length of Main Street. Welcome to Wishful, Where Hope Springs Eternal. She wasn’t sure if she really believed. It had been years since she’d made a wish herself and that one hadn’t panned out. But because they desperately needed some of that hope if they were going to save Cam and Norah’s wedding, Sandy strode purposefully to the fountain.
The happy burble of water was soothing and nice to hear after years of nothing. The temperamental old fountain hadn’t run properly since Cam was little, but over the past couple of years, it had slowly been coming back to life. Digging a quarter out of her purse, Sandy held it tight. I wish for a miracle to save Cam and Norah’s wedding.
She tossed it in, listening to the thunk as it hit the water.
Well, that was that. Maybe she should run by Brides and Belles and talk to Babette Wofford. She might have some ideas for alternative, last-minute venues. As she hit the far side of the green and prepared to cross over Spring Street, her phone rang.
“What is it, Avery?” Sandy prayed it wasn’t another disaster from the storm.
“You’ve got a call from Louis Harker over at The Babylon.”
She’d seen the name often enough over the past year and a half as the city had begun doing more business with Peyton Consolidated, but generally Norah handled all the liaising. Then again, Norah was supposed to be out for meetings with the Chamber of Commerce this afternoon. “Patch him through.”
A moment later, the call connected.
“This is Sandra.”
“Mayor Crawford, this is Louis Harker. I’m Gerald Peyton’s executive assistant. I’m calling to inquire whether you’d be free for dinner this evening.”
It was the last thing she’d expected him to say. “I beg your pardon?”
“With Mr. Peyton,” he added. “He has some business he’d like to discuss with you.”
Sandy’s curiosity piqued. Her town had been doing business with Peyton Consolidated for eighteen months, but she’d never actually met the mysterious Gerald Peyton, III. He was rarely in town, and when he was, he tended to keep to his hotel. According to the local gossip mill, he worked long hours, usually ordering in meals, and rarely actually leaving his offices at The Babylon. All his direct interactions with the city had been handled through Norah, as she was the one who’d convinced him to invest.
“Does Norah need to be in attendance as well?”
“No ma’am. Mr. Peyton was clear this was a meeting specifically for you. Are you available?”
Curiouser and curiouser. “I can be. What time?”
“Seven o’clock. The Spring House.”
“I’ll be there.”
She hung up and her imagination fired. What on Earth could Gerald Peyton want to discuss with her over an after-hours dinner meeting? Especially one without Norah. Did he have some problem with her future daughter-in-law? Was he going to try to hire her away again? Sandy had no idea. But as she prepared for her next meeting, her brain turned to a far more important question.
What did one wear to a business dinner with a billionaire?
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