“If I may,” Jake began.
Was he really going to try to
If he had any hope of going forward, he'd better.
“If I were foolish enough to demand that you make a decision to change a long-standing town policy on the spot, I'm pretty sure I know how you'd vote,” Jake said. “And I understand that. Major changes don't usually take place within ten minutes. Am I within my rights to suggest that you take some time to consider this before coming to a decision? Possibly form a committee?”
“You do seem to have a knack for making suggestions about town policy, Mr. Wyndham,” Brewster said.
“Not my intention,” Jake said. “I'm coming to you with a proposal. Not an ultimatum. What I'd like is to provide you all with some time to weigh both sides of the issue. The misgivings are easy to see. I'd like to allow you time to consider the possible benefits.”
Brewster looked him up and down, and Jake's suit felt increasingly warm. Winston Frazier sat farther back from the panel.
“Does anyone second the motion to table this decision until the next town council meeting?” Brewster asked.
“I second,” Margery Williams said.
The six-member town council voted three to two in favor of making a decision at the next meeting, with Rick Brewster abstaining. A committee was formed to evaluate the project, consisting of Brewster, Williams and Frazier. It felt like a stay of execution, but Jake thanked them and turned to rejoin Mandy. She looked paler than ever.
If he'd been running, he'd be bending forward and clutching his knees now. Too bad the pose was out of the question in a three-piece suit, in the town council chambers.
Jake settled beside Mandy and sat quietly through the rest of the meeting, taking pains to maintain his posture and appear to listen politely, although he had no idea what was being said. Something about a program to ensure that residents maintained their rain gutters.
Mandy slipped her hand into his on the arm of the seat between them. Her fingers, interlaced with his, felt cold. But somehow, her touch helped.
“Well, that could have gone better.” Back at Jake's hotel room, he shrugged out of his suit jacket as if he were shedding an unwanted skin.
Mandy cringed inwardly. The drive back to the hotel had been a quiet one. But at least it was short. On the brief ride back, the one thing they established was that neither of them had eaten since lunch, so they'd stopped back at the hotel for Jake to change before they got a bite to eat.
“I thought you were great,” Mandy said. “I was proud of you.”
“Thanks.” Jake hung the jacket in the room's shallow little closet, clearly anxious to be rid of it. “It wasn't exactly what they're wearing in Tall Pine this season, was it?”
“I'm sorry. I made the wrong call.”
Jake pulled out a fresh shirt and slacks from the closet. “Don't worry about it. How would you know?”
I should have said something while I had the chance.
Clothes over his arm, he started toward the bathroom to change. Then he turned back to her, his thick hair ruffled, navy tie askew.
“Did I ever say thank you?” he asked. “I mean, for being here tonight.”
His eyes were aimed at her, but he still wore a distracted look. He didn't seem quite like Jake. Or maybe this was just a side of Jake she hadn't seen beforeâuncertain and off guard.
“You did.” She mustered a smile. “Did I say you're welcome?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted. He stepped back to Mandy and kissed her forehead. Her forehead? He was somewhere else, all right. “I'll go get changed. Be right back.”
While she waited, Mandy eyed the side of the closet exposed by the sliding door Jake had left open. A small, practical assortment of polo shirts, one other dress shirt, a couple of pairs of slacks. He did travel light.
Packing would be easy.
She sighed and sat down heavily on the foot of the bed. She could see her reflection in the mirror above the dresser a few feet in front of her. She looked pale, and her light makeup job did little to disguise it.
She didn't know how much the suit, in and of itself, had hurt Jake's chances, but she'd give anything for another opportunity to change her answer. She didn't want him to go anywhere, and she couldn't imagine why there'd been any doubt in her mind. Maybe her thinking would have been clearer if she wasn't so preoccupied with hiding the truth about herself. Had her fear made her blurt out the wrong answer?
Enough was enough. She should have told him long before this. She'd tell himâ
Jake emerged from the bathroom, looking much more like himself. A neat blue polo, crisp slacks, his hair and his smile both back in place. And killer brown eyes.
She'd tell him. Tomorrow.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
Mandy nodded. Jake took her hands and pulled her to her feet, so they stood close together in the small space between the bed and the dresser. Looking at him, she felt her eyes prickle. She blinked and glanced away, not quite fast enough. She felt him searching her face.
“Hey, are you okay?”
She studied the fibers on the shoulder of his shirt. “I justâ” She sucked in a breath. “I feel like I let you down.” She risked meeting his eyes, willing hers to stay dry. “And I really want you to stay.”
It wouldn't make any sense to him, but she wanted to make sure he knew she meant it.
“What, are you still worried about the suit?” He squeezed her hands lightly. “That's the least of my problems. If they're going to be scared of a twenty-nine-year-old in pinstripes, that's because I didn't get them to see past it. My problem is making sure I get my point across. I ended up punting tonight, because I went in underprepared.” He smiled ruefully. “I guess I've been a little distracted.”
If he'd meant it as some kind of a compliment, it didn't have that effect. She averted her eyes again.
“Come on,” he said. “Let's get some food before we faint.”
She made herself smile. “You're on.”
He kissed her again. On the cheek.
No, he definitely wasn't himself tonight.
Mandy only knew of one place that served the kind of drink she liked, so she directed Jake to the Foggy Notion, a busy little cafe on Evergreen Lane.
did you order?” Jake asked after the waiter took their drink orders and left them with their menus.
“It's called a Gingerbread Spritzer,” she said. “It's got raspberry juice, ginger ale, cinnamon . . . There's no alcohol in it. And it really does taste a lot like a gingerbread man.”
His brow furrowed. “Where'd you find out about a thing like that?”
“Here. It was a special on one of those little stand-up displays on the table.” Mandy fingered the current placard next to the salt and pepper shakers. Tonight it was promoting their apple pie, which didn't sound like a bad idea either. “I don't think they invented it, but it's tasty.”
“Leave it to you to find a drink that tastes like a Christmas cookie.”
His smile might have been one of amusement or bewilderment, but Mandy decided it didn't matter either way. Anything to distract Jake seemed like a good idea at this point. From the time they left the hotel, he'd been analyzing what he'd done wrong and strategizing what to do next.
He was back at it now.
“I've been going about this all wrong,” he said. “I thought playing softball was the way to go. I didn't want to come off like some kind of a lobbyist. But the soft-sell isn't working. I wasted too much time glad-handing without getting down to the real subject. Direct is always better.” He passed a hand roughly through his hair. “I'm not sure what I thought was going to happen in there.”
Mandy nodded. He'd been chasing around the same theme for a while now, and it wasn't doing him any good.
“Take a look at your menu,” she said. “Before you start on your first ulcer.”
That might have gotten his attention, but she couldn't tell for sure. He did look at his menu.
Mandy started to reread her menu, remembered she'd already decided what she wanted, and glanced past Jake to the waiting area by the front entrance.
Scotty Leroux was standing at the register, paying the hostess for a large white box that probably contained either a cake or a pie.
Scotty Leroux, the class clown and former bane of her existence.
Scotty Leroux, Winston Frazier's nephew. And maybe, just maybe, a chance to help Jakeâand make up for her own mistake.
Mandy stood before she could talk herself out of it. Jake looked up. His eyes still held that hazy, preoccupied look, and her heart wrenched a little. Tonight had been rough. It was almost as if they weren't sitting at the same table, and she missed him.
“Be right back,” she said, resting a hand on Jake's shoulder as she sidled past him. “If the waiter comes back, I'll have the angel hair pasta with Alfredo sauce.”
She wondered if he'd remember that.
Mandy caught up to Scotty as he was picking up his box to leave. “What's the occasion?”
He stopped in surprise. “Vicki's birthday is tomorrow. I was going to surprise her at work.”
Vicki Martinez. She'd been a junior when they graduated. She hadn't realized Scotty was dating her. “Tell her happy birthday for me.”
“Okay.” Scotty cracked a smile. “So what's up with you and the suit?”
“He's not a suit.” Mandy tamped down her indignation. “He's a really nice guy. So, you were at the council meeting?”
“Two rows back from you. I wanted to hear about the duck-feed thing.”
Mandy craned her neck up a little. Scotty stood several inches taller than Jake, and Jake was far from short. “Scotty, I need a favor.”
“You're kidding.” He leaned against the counter where the hostess had rung up his pie, as if to say,
This has got to be good.
“What do you mean?”
“Could you talk to your uncle? Ask him to meet with Jake?”
kidding. Why would he listen to me?”
“It's worth a try.” She remembered Frazier's implacable expression. “Scotty, Jake really
a good guy. I just feel like the council had their minds made up before he ever went in there. If Winston would
to him . . . then maybe the rest of them would, too.”
“I don't know. He's a pretty stubborn old guy.”
“And he's one-third of the committee.” Mandy glanced across the room at Jake's back. He was starting to fidget with his menu. “Please, just ask. All I want is for Jake to have a fair chance.”
Scotty contemplated her, then nodded. “Okay, I'll ask. But I can't promise anything.”
Mandy cast her eyes around and found a pen in ajar on the counter. She scrawled Jake's number on the back of one of the restaurant's business cards and handed it to Scotty.
“Just try,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Okay.” He took the card from her and pocketed it with a smile.
“You know, you're a pretty decent guy yourself,” Mandy admitted.
“But I'm still not sure if it makes us even for âMandy Claus.'”
“Hey, a good line is a good line.” Straightening from his lounging act against the counter, he adjusted his hold on the cake. “You know, you might not be dealing with all this if you'd gone out with me.”
“But then Vicki might not be getting her cake tomorrow.”
Plus, when he'd asked her out their senior year, after years of calling her Mandy Claus, she'd been half-convinced it was a joke. “You would have made fun of me anyway,” she said.
“Well, sure.” Scotty looked down at her with a lopsided grin. “When you're six feet tall before you hit junior high, you learn not to be too serious about anything.”
While Mandy chewed on that, Scotty cuffed her shoulder lightly on his way out. “Good luck with the suit.”
Moments after Mandy left the table, the waiter brought their drinks. Jake tried to remember what she'd asked him to order and found he couldn't. Something about pasta.
“Thanks,” Jake said as the server set the glasses down. “We'll be ready to order in a few minutes.”
The waiter nodded and left.
Jake sighed. He'd been playing Monday morning quarterback, both out loud and in his head, ever since the town council meeting. He was starting to get sick of himself.
It brought back memories.
was the guy his other girlfriends had complained about. All except his last, another rep at Regal Hotels who was almost as work-obsessed as he was. He didn't think he liked this guy very much. But maybe this was the guy he had to be, if he wanted to pull off this project. He'd have to work smarter, use his time more effectively. And that probably meant spending less time enjoying himself.
He felt as if he'd been on vacation. A vacation where he came back feeling relaxed and refreshed, until he set foot in the office and realized what a mess he had waiting for him.
He hadn't set out to be different here. It had happened by degrees, he supposed, but it had happened fast. Starting around the time a certain blue-eyed brunette had stepped from behind an artificial tree.
He looked over his shoulder in the direction she'd gone. He'd figured the ladies' room.
Instead, she stood in the front waiting area, talking to the lanky Scotty Leroux.
The Neanderthal section of his brain felt an immediate surge of jealousy. Fortunately, the analytical side had the sense to step back and watch. He knew a little about body language, and what he saw didn't look much like a romantic tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte. She stood slightly back from Leroux, her posture taut, while he leaned against the counter, looking slightly amused.
Not romantic, at least not at the moment, but he got the impression there was some kind of history there. All because of that nickname? Really?
Then Leroux started out of the lobby, giving her shoulder a pat as he went, and she smiled. Jake hadn't gotten many smiles out of her tonight. He had himself to blame for that, and that realization didn't help at all.
He should know better than to read too much into things, but the little scene grated on him like a rock in his shoe as Mandy returned to the table.
He couldn't stop himself. “So, did Scotty finally give you his class ring?”
It sounded more snide than he'd intended.
Mandy's face went through a quick series of reactions. First, she looked as if she'd been caught. Then, almost as if she'd been slapped.
Then, as if she'd really, really like to slap him back.
She didn't dignify the crack with a response. Instead she sat down, her eyes quietly taking in the fact that their drinks had arrived and their menus were still there. She didn't comment on that either. She picked up her tall red drink and sipped it.
Jake toyed with his coffee, thinking he probably should have ordered decaf. Not that he'd sleep much tonight anyway.
She reached for her glass again, but this time she slid it toward him. “Try it?”
It was as good a peace offering as any, and at least one of them was adult enough to do it. Jake didn't find the tall red concoction particularly tempting, but he picked it up and took a sip. Not bad, actually.
“You're right,” he said. “It does taste like gingerbread.”
He set the glass down in front of Mandy. Then, resting his hand on the table, he laid his fingers lightly over hers. She met his eyes with what was almost a smile.
Jake felt it again, like a faint hum running up his armâthat funny little current that seemed to connect them, like a battery sliding into place.
“It's been a rough night,” he said. “You've been awfully patient.”
I'm sorry for being a jerk
would have been more on the nose. But for some reason he couldn't make himself say it. So he went on for the rest of the evening, trying to apologize without actually apologizing, trying to stay away from shoptalk. The trouble was, that didn't leave much room for conversation, since that was all that kept swirling through his mind.
He'd have to report to the home office in the morning, and he didn't know how that would turn out. Since he hadn't gotten a go-ahead from the town council, justifying another month up here to corporate wouldn't be easy. Just another area where he hadn't worked up a good Plan B. In all of tonight's rambling, that was one problem he'd managed to refrain from mentioning to Mandy. He didn't want to lay that on her, on top of everything else.
It was the first time he could remember having a hard time finding something to say to her.
After dinner, he drove Mandy back to the hotel and walked her to her car.
“It feels weird leaving you here,” he said. “I should be dropping you off at home.”
She quirked a little smile at him. “I'm pretty sure I can find my way.”
Standing under the parking lot's weak streetlamp, she looked tired. And beautiful. Jake framed her face in his hands and did what he should have done hours ago.
He kissed her, not a quick peck the way he'd done earlier tonight, but the way he always did. He could tell the awkward evening had taken a toll on Mandy, because at first she didn't respond the way she usually did. He didn't blame her. But he didn't give up so easily. He folded his arms around her gently, bringing one hand up to tunnel his fingers through her long, smooth hair. Soon her arms were around him, too, and it was a long time before either of them let go.
He hadn't said anything right all night.
This was better.
Finally he rested his cheek on top of her head and just held her. Mandy sighed, and he hoped that meant they were back where they'd been when the evening started. Where they should be.
Mandy spoke against his chest. “Jake?”
“What happens next?”
“Well, unfortunately, I guess you drive home without me.”
“You know what I mean.”
Of course he did. He'd just been hoping, all night, that she wouldn't ask.
“I talk to corporate in the morning.” With Mandy in his arms, the words felt foreign. He felt like his more recent, Tall Pine self.
I'd much rather be
“And, don't borrow trouble. It's too late at night for âwhat-ifs.' I'll find out tomorrow.”
It was the kind of thinking that had landed him in this predicament to begin with. But strategizing at this hour wouldn't do him any good. He needed sleep first, and a little perspective.