Authors: Mya Barrett
Tags: #Contemporary, #Family Life/Oriented, #small town
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT © 2014 by Mya Barrett
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art by
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First Champagne Rose Edition, 2014
Print ISBN 978-1-62830-281-3
Digital ISBN 978-1-62830-282-0
Published in the United States of America
To my husband, whose patience, encouragement, and support makes everything in my life possible.
It was all over Exum before she’d even driven into town. Maggie was sure the news wasn’t more than a day old, but it had already been making the rounds. She’d heard it from the mail lady, who had blurted it out while Maggie had calmly signed for her package. Everyone was talking, conjecturing, gossiping about the Warrick family—and in particular about the eldest son, Hale. His return, it seemed, was imminent.
She maneuvered her car into a skinny, slanted parking space in front of the small grocery store. Maggie closed her eyes and sat for a moment, breathing in and out, trying to focus her thoughts. She would run into him, there was no way to avoid it. She couldn’t very well hide on her mountain, as she had when she was younger. She’d worked too hard for her dignity to slink behind pillars and disappear behind stacks just to keep from being seen. And moreover, there was no reason for her to do anything that spoke of guilt. If they happened upon each other, she’d simply offer him an off-handed smile and move past; there was no need for anything else.
With that thought firmly set, she climbed out of her car and blinked against the bright sunlight of early fall.
“Maggie!” an enthusiastic voice called from across the street.
She paused as she closed her car door, looking over her shoulder to find Jolene racing across the two lane road. Maggie smiled when her friend reached her, watching as the other woman’s blond curls bounced around her shoulders and her blue eyes sparkled with unspoken rumors. Jo’s Hairport was the hub of Exum information, and since Jolene was the owner and proprietor, she knew most things before they’d even reached Mayor Wilson’s ears.
“Maggie, I can’t believe it.” She stopped to catch her breath and rest her hands on her thin hips. “Hale Warrick is in town.”
“I’d heard he was coming back soon.”
“No, no, he’s here right now. He’s in Exum. He’s inside Adkins’ Groceries, shopping of all things.”
She stared at Jolene, her mind completely blank as the words sank in. “He’s inside?”
The blonde nodded animatedly. “He just drove up not more than five minutes ago, big as you please in a new convertible sports car. I swear I don’t know where the man fits his legs in that thing. When he got out all of Main Street was stopped, watching him. He just gave everybody a smile and walked on inside. Darndest thing I ever saw. Hale Warrick, picking up Thursday night dinner.”
Maggie’s gaze strayed to the small car just a few spaces over and squinted against the blinding rays that bounced off the silver paint. It was hard to miss the sleek Mercedes Benz among the more practical, affordable cars. The vehicle, much like its owner, stood out in the usual crowd of mere mortals.
“Maggie, are you okay?”
“Huh? Oh, yes, of course. I’m fine.” She did her best to smile as her heart jerked and slammed against her ribcage. “Well, we all knew it was going to happen. Royce has been gone for four months now.”
Jolene’s look was suspicious as she nodded, but thankfully she didn’t pursue the matter. “Trent’s been doing fine keeping Warrick Holdings going, I suppose," she said instead, “but I just can’t see him as the sort to take the type of risks Hale does. I guess that’s why his momma called him back from South Carolina.”
“I doubt Cordelia has as much control over her oldest son as others might think,” Maggie replied absently as her mind struggled with rising tangles of emotion.
“I don’t think there’s any woman who has control over Hale Warrick.” Her friend let out a long, full laugh. “People are already speculating about who his next conquest is going to be. You remember how all the girls threw themselves at him; word has it, it was the same way when he was going to Vanderbilt. Had as many girlfriends as he had college courses.”
Maggie gave a small smile, because it was expected and because it covered her own uncomfortable insecurities. She, of all people, understood how easy it was to fall for the charms of the tall, dark haired, brooding eyed Hale. Hadn’t she done just that when she’d been a girl? Pined with unrequited puppy love over the son of the family who considered her own a blight on society? How deluded was that?
“Hey, what’s with that look?” Jolene asked, her eyes narrowed. “Are you worrying about what’s going to happen now that Hale’s back?”
It was close enough to the truth for Maggie to wince. “I suppose I am, a little.”
Jolene laid a comforting hand on her arm. “I know how bad his daddy was to your family, Maggie Mae, but you’re past his manipulation now. Besides, Trent’s always let you be. I can’t see why Hale would come after you.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” She hoped her friend was, because her heart was racing like it had when she was a teenager. And it wasn’t thudding erratically out of simple fear.
Jolene studied her then shook her head. “You’re still not all right. Why don’t you come by the shop after you pick up your things? We can talk and—”
“I said I was fine.” Maggie gave Jolene’s hand a friendly squeeze to ease the sharpness of her reply. “How about you call me tonight when you close up? We’ll schedule a girls’ night.”
Jolene paused, still appearing unsure. “Just be sure to pick up plenty of mint chocolate chip while you’re shopping. There’s no way to properly enjoy Cary Grant without a gallon of good ice cream.”
The statement did what Maggie was sure it was intended to do. Their shared love of classic black and white romance movies, and their swoon-worthy leading men, was one of the many reasons they’d become friends. Maggie smiled, warming slightly at her friend’s banter. “Cary Grant can be properly appreciated with a long sigh.”
“I suppose there’s that.” Jolene grinned as she turned to leave. “I’d better go get Tansy out from under the hair dryer. Can’t have one of our ladies looking like a burnt up French poodle. Girls’ night, remember. And try not to worry too much, Mags.”
With a final wave, her friend took off. Maggie watched as Jolene jogged back to her hair salon and swung inside. When the door closed, she let her smile falter. He was here. He was inside. He was shopping. Something so mundane that he could have had his housekeeper do it. Yet he’d chosen to do the task himself. To get the lay of the land, she supposed, and to make his presence known. Well, he’d done a damn fine job of that.
The idea of climbing back into her car was far too enticing. It would be so easy to run back home, to hide in the cabin and barricade herself. But that wasn’t healthy, nor was it productive. Jolene was right; she was past Royce’s machinations and bullying. The thought that the Warrick name might still hold such powerful sway over her life chafed. Running away, avoiding Hale, acting like a terrified child, feeling like a guilty teenager, was something she might have done in the past. Not now. She absolutely wouldn’t allow herself to take such huge steps backward.
Maggie rolled her shoulders back and pulled herself up as tall as possible. Taking a fortifying breath, she stepped up onto the sidewalk and opened the glass door of the grocery store.
Hale picked up a loaf of bread and added it to the small cart. He could feel the stares of the people around him and shrugged it off. It had been his mother’s idea that he come into town almost immediately, waving away his exhaustion like so much fluff. He needed to put firm feet down and show the town that he had arrived. If she hadn’t made a valid argument he would have ignored her and stayed home. But with so many businesses relying on the backing of his family, and with so many people questioning the future of his family’s investments, he knew his duty had to come before his comfort.
Holding back a yawn, he reached into the cold bin and pulled out a pack of meat. Hell, he didn’t even know what he was tossing into the cart. He supposed it didn’t really matter since the food was only a prop in this little scenario. The main goal had been to prove that the Warricks were circling the wagons. That they were not going to fall.
When he’d stepped into Adkins’ Groceries he had been greeted with dazzling grins, slaps on the back, and condolences mixed with good wishes, just as he thought he would be. It had taken him a good five minutes just to get his cart maneuvered to the first aisle. Which had been the point, he supposed. He knew all of the reasons for coming into Exum, but there was one main objective that no one, including his mother, had acknowledged. He needed people to understand that he wasn’t simply stepping into Royce Warrick’s shoes. He was his own man with his own ideas and his own strengths. Yes, he was his father’s son, but most importantly he was his own person. He was Hale Warrick. It was obvious that it would be harder to convince his mother of that than it would be to convince others. He supposed it was hard for a mother to see her child as an adult. But that problem would have to wait until he’d had some sleep and his mind wasn’t so foggy.
He stifled a sigh and stared down at the steaks, willing himself to focus. He was just reaching out to grab a cellophane wrapped package when a strange electric shock raced through his body. An odd lightning strike on a clear day, but still a strike. Furrowing his brow, he turned to see what had caused it. His gaze immediately landed on the brunette who stood a few feet away. He moved his attention past her, then swung back for a closer look.
Pretty, he thought. Very pretty, actually, in a not so obvious way. She was the kind of woman who demanded a second glance—then a third and fourth. She had what his grandmother would have called insistent beauty, the kind that stood the test of time and gently outshone more garish displays.
He studied her as she examined the chicken, her delicate profile a classic cameo style. Her long hair was caught back in a French braid, the soft mass every shade of brown, from chestnut to dark blonde. Several strands had managed to escape, brushing the gentle shell of her ear and the stubborn set of her jaw. Her lashes were long, fringing eyes that he had yet to see. Her nose was small, slightly upturned, sitting in perfect alignment with lips that looked to be full and wild strawberry sweet. His eyes followed down the column of her throat, roaming over curves he was sure had tortured many a man’s dream. Even in a plain blue shirt and soft washed jeans she tempted him to forget common sense.
Her body suddenly stilled and she slowly looked around. So, she was having the same reaction he had, Hale thought, then tilted his head as he watched her. When her eyes met his she froze, like a deer who knows she’s caught in the sights of a hunter. The first thing that registered was her unusual gaze. Violet, he realized, and felt his breath catch. Something in the back of his mind turned and twisted, trying to gain his attention. She was vaguely familiar, this pretty woman who looked like she might bolt. It was disconcerting to realize he should know her, but wasn’t able to put the face with a name.
He sent her a slow smile, hoping to ease some of her fear. She blinked, apparently surprised by his effort, but managed a small smile of her own. He stared at her, vaguely surprised by the sudden pressure against the fly of his jeans. He swallowed as he made a mental grab for restraint. Damn, he hadn’t experienced this type of immediate, physical reaction to a female since he’d been a sixteen-year-old boy trying to cop a feel of a cheerleader’s thigh.