Conn MacNeill rubbed sweat from his chest. This Carolina town was too damn hot for a Boston boy.
He leaned against the wall of the First Baptist Church, seeking shade and the cool prickle of brick against his back. Main Street, North Carolina, was not his scene at all. But with Lynn's wedding scheduled for three weeks from today, even Boston had begun to feel uncomfortably warm. Too many parties. Too many phone calls from mock or mutual friends eager to pry or express sympathy. He was better out of it. All of it. The offer from Edward Cutler couldn't have come at a better time.
Nothing like a new challenge to get a man over being fired.
Conn crossed his arms against his chest, shutting down the flare of frustration. Define the problem, he reminded himself. That was the way he operated. Solve the problem.
He surveyed the street, spanned by a banner that proclaimed the town of Cutler's Seventh Annual Super Summer Sidewalk Sale. From the church parking lot to the county courthouse steps, racks of out-of-season clothes competed with bins of plastic trinkets. Halfway down the block, Arlene's Country Cafe supplied coffee and doughnuts to passing patrons, while the rival establishment on the opposite corner handed out clear plastic cups of...Lord knew what.
Conn narrowed his eyes at the freshly painted green-and-white sign over the door: Wild Thymes. Cute. Very cute. As he watched, a vendor leaned forward from beneath the cool canvas awning to offer an elderly customer a plastic fork and a smile.
Sunlight dropped across her face. Her tawny hair blazed, stirred by a hot breeze. For that one moment, sun and wind combined to create a vision of light and movement that burned like summer sparkling on lake waters. For that one moment, the woman leaning across the plank counter was Woman, divine and incarnate. Wild yearning uncurled in Conn's Celtic heart. Awe breathed through his Catholic soul. She was Eve before the Fall. She was Niamh of the Golden Hair, legendary love of Oisin. She was the Lady on the White Horse in his mother's stories.
Desire hit him, hard and low. And striking harder, unrecognized and unwelcome, possibility assailed him like the sea.
Then the breeze dropped. The woman turned her head to talk to someone over her shoulder. Green shade drabbed the golden hair and dimmed the radiant face, leaving only a waitress, chatting up a customer.
Holy saints and martyrs.
Conn forced himself to relax against the brick wall at his back. She was just an ordinary pretty girl in jeans and a gauzy shirt and a glint of silver jewelry. Less Venus, he thought, his mind recoiling in panicked reaction, than a poster child for Haight-Ashbury. She looked like she smoked dope or at least ate sprouts.
He started to feel better. He could only have imagined that one moment of blinding beauty. He must have imagined his over-the-top reaction. His brothers would laugh themselves sick at the picture of cool, logical Conn losing it over some sweet Southern thing in barely there gauze. Lynn, at least, had been a rational choice for an ambitious deal-maker with no social background.
Conn scowled. He had a new business to occupy his mind and a new client to focus his thoughts. What he'd experienced was a normal male response toward a passably attractive female, that was all.
Simple male appreciation. Sure.
He caught himself watching for that fall of brown-and-gold hair again, just to prove it to himself, and snorted in disgust.
Pushing away from the shadow of the church, he strolled along the baking sidewalk, conscious of heads turning to follow his progress. A woman nudged her neighbor. A trio of old men broke off their conversation to stare him past the hardware store.
Under his sweat-dampened shirt, his shoulders squared. Okay, sometime during puberty he'd caught on to the fact that MacNeill men attracted their fair share of feminine glances. More than their fair share, in his younger brother Sean's case. But this wary inspection felt different. Wryly, Conn wondered if they still hung carpetbaggers in Nowhere, North Carolina.
On the sidewalk ahead of him a couple of boys had dragged out a card table and a cardboard sign. Lemonaid, it proclaimed, the word misspelled but boldly lettered. Baseball Cards.
The setup reminded Conn of a time twenty years ago when he and his big brother Patrick hawked Kool-Aid from the bottom of the driveway in Quincy. God bless free enterprise. He stopped by the table, digging in the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet.
The boys gawked at him as if he'd just asked to buy a jug of moonshine.
"For the lemonade," he clarified. "How much?"
One of the boys, older or quicker to scent a profit, pushed his baseball cap back on his head to evaluate his mark. "Uh...fifty cen'."
The kid next to him made a strangled noise and was kicked under the table.
Conn suppressed a grin. "That's kind of expensive."
"It's hot. We can sell lots of lemonade."
"It's good lemonade," the younger kid chimed in helpfully.
"Is it? All right." Conn laid a dollar on the table. "Give me a big glass, then."
The older kid stuffed the bill away and then poured, slopping liquid on the table. "Here."
Conn accepted the sticky cup cautiously. "Thanks."
He turned, lifting the cup to his lips...and found himself staring over the rim straight into the wide gray eyes of the tawny-haired goddess, behind him in line.
A trio of silver hoops glittered from one of her earlobes; a feather on a hook dangled from the other, lending her face a lopsided appeal. Her hair waved in heavy snakes of brown and gold, inviting him to imagine how it would look spilling over his pillow. How it would feel, fisted in his hand.
Conn sucked in a breath. What the hell was the matter with him? He was a business consultant, not a randy teenage boy.
His turn, so close, had startled her. Her mouth parted in surprise. Recovering, she stepped back and smiled, revealing quick creases at the corners of her eyes. So, she was older than she looked from half a block away. The spurt of relief he felt annoyed him.
Define the problem, he reminded himself. He had a job to do. Obviously, Blondie here worked at the restaurant Edward Cutler had hired him to advise. Here was an opportunity to start interviewing the staff.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he offered.
Val felt the exploding attraction like a bitten peppercorn, hot and unwelcome. Her mouth watered. The man had the lean, disciplined face of a scholar and the hard, muscled body of a gym jock. His eyes, meeting hers, were bright and cold as sapphires.
Not her type, she decided instantly. He was too tall, too broad and much too full of himself.
"Thank you, no."
Her eyes were on a level with his big, broad chest. He was still in her way.
"Pardon me," she said politely to his sternum, and then made the mistake of looking up into those cold blue eyes. They smiled at her with such unexpected humor, such seductive complicity, that her insides went as gooey as melted chocolate. She stepped around him, uncomfortably aware of his size. His heat. His torso in that snug white T-shirt.
Forget the torso, she ordered herself, and smiled across the card table at Jimmy Jackson.
"Hey, Jimmy. How's business?"
Jimmy twisted his baseball cap around and grinned bashfully. "Great. You want a lemonade?"
"I sure do," Val said. She needed something to cool off. She felt like that frustrated spinster in The Long Hot Summer, sipping lemonade to quench her desires. "How much?"
"Uh..." Inexplicably, the boy's gaze flicked over her shoulder to the big man standing behind her. "Twenty-five cents."
The man laughed. Val ignored him. She gave Jimmy a quarter and her best smile and accepted a foam cup in return.
"Mmm. This is good. You planning on putting me out of business?"
"Naw. This is kid stuff. My dad says I should go into software design when I grow up like him."
Val couldn't help it. Her smile froze. "Don't do it. Follow your dream, Jimmy."
"He's what, ten?" the man behind her asked. "More likely to dream about major league ball than selling lemonade."
Despite herself, Val laughed. "Much more likely," she agreed.
That blue gaze snagged hers as she turned. Attraction thumped her midsection. Oh, my. Flushing, she looked away, down the street. Oh, dear. Was that Rob Cross parading from the bank, blond hair gleaming, warm and welcome-in most circles-as a pastry tray?
"Pardon me," she murmured again, and stepped off the curb. "Thanks for the drink, Jimmy."
The torso fell easily into step beside her. "The kid charged me fifty cents."
Like she would stoop to flirting with a man who practiced pickup lines over lemonade. But the humorous grievance in his tone drew her response. "Not from around these parts, are you?"
"I take it it shows?" His voice was pure Yankee-New England, maybe?-with a cool assurance that raised her hackles faintly.
She bit the inside of her cheek. That was definitely Rob, stopping to chat with the trio of regulars holding down the bench in front of the hardware store. He was a popular guy. He remembered your daughter's name and your son's soccer team and your mother's arthritis. Everybody in Cutler liked Rob.
She quickened her walk, dodging a rack of pale blue and lavender polyester disconcerted by the way the stranger kept pace at her elbow. "Yes, it does. Would you excuse me?"
"Do you make a practice of stiffing strangers in this town?"
"Not at all. Jimmy gives me a discount. As a professional courtesy." They'd reached the restaurant. Her unsought companion rocked back on his heels, hands thrust casually in his back pockets as he surveyed the entrance. Val satisfied herself with a quick glance around.
Perfect, she thought. Perfect and hers.
A standing chalkboard in the doorway announced the day's specials. White caladium and red impatiens spilled from a terra-cotta planter. Around the big picture window, Ann had stenciled bunches of herbs with joyous care. Ann herself tended the makeshift counter they'd set up on the sidewalk, her hands folded over her pretty green-and-white apron, and that guarded look she wore too often on her face.
Everything about Ann was quiet and neat and understated, Val thought with appreciation, from her smooth brown hair to her soft tan flats. Even in this heat, she wore a full-length slip, its straps visible through her white blouse, tucked into the waistband of her khaki skirt.
"Annie, Rob's on his way here," Val said quietly. "Was he expecting you at the bank? Do you want to call it quits for the day?"
"Oh, I... Yes, I'd better." Ann's hands reached behind her for her apron strings.
"You both work here?" the torso asked.
Why didn't the man just go away? "Yes."
Val angled her chin, mildly affronted by the question.
"Do you like the working conditions?" he amended.
She thought of her twelve-hour days battling purveyors over freshness and price, kitchen help who didn't report to work, repairmen who never seemed to come when they were needed. The unforeseen operating costs. The struggle to make the day's deposits cover the unexpected expenses. The blessed, blessed independence.
"Yes," she said again.
His mouth, with its full lower lip, quirked up. "That's it? No sales pitch?"
"Are you a food critic?"
She shrugged. "Well, then."
"But I could be a customer."
"I doubt it."
His dark brows lifted in surprise. "Why the hell not?"
Momentarily distracted, she permitted her gaze to drift down the well-developed pectorals and muscled forearms of a man who pressed weights and loaded proteins. "Wild Thymes features a vegetarian menu. Our clientele are students who want sandwiches and seniors who want soups and ladies who lunch. No offense, but you look like you hunt your kill and eat it charred."