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He didn't look much like a mayorespecially in the lighted ranch yard, wearing blue jeans and a battered Stetson, his dark eyes, square chin and straight nose set in a deeply tanned face. From this distance, Seth Jacobs was all cowboy, all rugged and as powerful as they came in Lyndon Valley.
Sipping her vodka tonic out of a disposable plastic cup, Darby Carroll hovered in the wide-open doorway of the newly raised Davelyn barn. Thirty feet across the dirt construction site, Seth was standing with a group of cowboys, chatting over an open fire, passing around a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey. He chuckled at something one of the cowboys said, white teeth flashing in the firelight.
It was nearing ten at night, and most of the young Lyndon Valley families had packed up their kids and headed for home. The holdouts were the singles, young married couples and a few fiftysomethings, whose child-rearing days were over, but who hadn't yet traded after-parties for early bedtimes and cups of hot tea.
The September sky was awash with stars, muted dance music throbbing far behind her. The air was warm, fragrant with wheatgrass, and the Lyndon River roared softly at the base of the hill. Most of the west valley had shown up for the barn raising. Community was alive and well in Lyndon.
Family was everything. And that only added to Seth's power and prestige. While the Jacobses had arrived many generations ago, Darby was a newcomer, having taken over her estranged great-aunt's property only three years previous. There were people who thought she wasn't entitled to an opinion, many who thought the old guard should remain in charge forever. She took another sip of the tart, bracing drink, gaze still resting on the group of six cowboys.
She couldn't help but wonder if an in-person appeal would help her cause. She had so much to say to him, so many points to make, arguments to mount, facts and figures to put forward. That is, if Seth Jacobs or anyone else was willing to listen.
He caught her gaze, trapping her in place as surely as if he'd wrapped his callous hands around her arms and held her steady. He cocked his head, spoke to the cowboy next to him, handed over the bottle then broke from the group, pacing toward her.
His shoulders were wide, hips slim, strides easy as he ate up the ground between them. She had no doubt whatsoever that he'd garnered nearly 100 percent of female voters in the mayoral election. Well, maybe 99.9, since Darby had voted for his opponent.
He slowed his pace, stopping in front of her in the doorway. "You look like a woman who has something to say."
She brushed her auburn hair behind her shoulders. "Are you a man who's willing to listen?"
"I took an oath that says I am," he responded easily, shifting to lean one shoulder against the wide jamb of the barn doorway. "I take it doubly serious for pretty women."
"I'm not here to flirt with you, Mayor."
There was a teasing warmth in his dark, blue eyes. "Too bad."
"I'm here to argue with you."
He heaved a sigh. "Yeah, well, that's my bad luck, too."
"Did you know that a train whistle is one hundred thirty to one hundred fifty decibels?"
"Can't say that I did," he drawled.
"At one hundred twenty-five decibels, pain begins." She tugged at her ear as she quoted the researched statistics. "At one hundred forty decibels, even short-term exposure can cause permanent damage."
"You know, you have the most arresting eyes. What are they, turquoise? Green?"
Darby's thoughts stumbled for a split second. But she reminded herself that it was the Jack Daniel's and the cowboy talking. She had to focus on the mayor.
"Right now, we're talking about my ears."
He smiled at that, canting his head to one side. "Interesting ears, too."
"And I'd like to keep them in working order. Mine and those of every other resident of Lyndon Valley, especially the children."
"Well, unless you're planning to stand on the tracks, I'm guessing your ears will be safe."
She ignored his sarcasm. "Uncontrolled railway crossings account for eighty-nine percent of fatal train-vehicle collisions."
"Again, my advice is to keep your pretty eyes, your pretty ears" he drew slightly back to make a show of checking out the length of her body "and your pretty little body off the railway tracks."
"How drunk are you?" she asked, wondering if there was any reason to continue the conversation.
He grinned unrepentantly. "Why?"
"Because you're not behaving much like a mayor."
He removed his Stetson, raking his fingers through his hair to give it some semblance of order. He squared his shoulders and neutralized the cocky grin. "Better?"
"Your draft plan calls for twelve uncontrolled railway crossings in the greater Lyndon City area."
"Yes," he agreed.
"That's twelve new chances for Lyndon City citizens to die."
"You don't think they'll notice the one-hundred-thirty-decibel whistle and get out of the way?"
Darby was not going to be deterred. "That adds up to twelve blasts, per train, of up to one hundred fifty decibels, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."
His grin crept back. "You did the math."
"I did the math. And you need to take this seriously."
"Mountain Railway is pouring tens of millions of dollars into the region. Believe me when I tell you I take that kind of money very seriously."
She polished off the last of her drink. "Money's not everything."
"The railway benefits the ranchers and other businesses, such as DFB Brewery, and it brings new economic opportunities to the entire region," he countered, not seeming remotely intoxicated now.
Darby did some other math inside her head. Perhaps three vodka tonics into the evening wasn't the best time to get into this debate.
But Seth wasn't finished. "Ranchers and trains have been coexisting in this country for well over two hundred years."
"There are more than just ranchers living in Lyndon Valley."
He smiled again, knowingly this time. "And there we have it. The crux of your opposition. You think the ambiance at your ladies' retreat should take precedence over the economic well-being of the Lyndon City ranching community."
"My ladies' retreat?'" Darby felt her cheeks heat with indignation on behalf of her clientele. "Do you think we're up there quilting and swapping cookie recipes?"
"What are you doing up there?"
What they were doing up there was none of his business, and she had no intention of sharing it with him. It wasn't exactly a state secret, but there were definitely elements of national security.
"Fair warning, Mayor Jacobs. I'm going to formally request you hold a referendum on whether or not to allow a railway line through Lyndon Valley," she told him instead.
His smirk telegraphed to her he'd noted the evasion. "I don't need a referendum. The new railway line was the centerpiece of my campaign."
"That's why I voted for Hal Jameson."
Seth gave an unconcerned shrug. "Yet, I won."
"That doesn't mean you get to be a tyrant."
"They voted with me on the issue, Darby. You're in the minority. That's how democracy works."
She leaned a little closer to him. "Democracy also gives me the right to free speech."
He searched her expression for a full minute. Was he impressed, annoyed, refocusing and coming at it from a new angle? She couldn't help but wonder if she'd made her point.
"You really do have incredible eyes," he said.
The unexpected statement caused a little lurch of attraction inside her chest, but she quickly shoved it to the far reaches of her being. "Behave yourself, Mayor Jacobs."
"Free speech, Ms. Carroll. It works both ways."
"Are you telling me your mayor's code of conduct allows you to flirt with the citizens?"
"I'm not on the job right now. I'm attending a party."
She had to concede that point to him. "Then we should stop talking business."
She hated to admit it, but maybe this hadn't been the greatest idea.
"You started it. I wanted to flirt all along."
She held her ground. "I'll never flirt back."
"Too bad for me."
"Mayor," she warned, not liking his apparent knack for flirting, nor how susceptible she appeared to be to it. "I'm your opposition."
"On a single issue."
"It's do or die for me."
"It's do or die for me, too." He gave a regretful shake of his head. "But you still have astonishing eyes."
She ignored his attempt at distraction and refused to be swayed. At the same time, she used a warning tone. "That's not the only thing I have."
Darby had a Ph.D. in psychology, a black belt in karate and five years' experience in the military. Normally, she was prepared for any challenge, but she'd never run up against politics before. And she'd never run up against anyone like Seth Jacobs.
Just by walking into a room, he seemed to garner respect in Lyndon City. People spoke about him with awe, and she'd yet to meet anyone willing to fight him head-on. He was a unique and formidable opponent, and he was standing between her and her dream.
Arriving at her home, Sierra Hotel, she left her SUV in the front driveway and made her way into the entry lounge. A new group of guests was expected late next week, but for now, she and her small staff had the lakefront retreat to themselves.
"How'd it go?" asked Marta Laurent. Marta had been her first friend in Lyndon Valley, and she was now assistant manager at Sierra Hotel. Marta muted a news story on the wide-screen television. "Did you get a chance to talk to him?"
Darby dropped her small backpack on the end of a sofa and plunked herself down. "I did. But I don't think he's taking me seriously. Hey, have you noticed anything weird about my eyes?"
"There's nothing wrong with your eyes. What did he say?"
"He said the Lyndon City constituents put him into office knowing he was in favor of the railway, so he doesn't need a referendum now."
"He's not wrong about that," Marta conceded with her usual logic.
"I know," Darby had to agree. "He's wrong to support the railway. But he's not wrong to say people knew about it when they elected him."
"Did you check? Is there any way to force him to hold a referendum?"
"The only way to do it is to get six hundred signatures on a petition by next Monday."
"That's not impossible," Marta mused, sitting up straighter. "I know a lot of people. We can canvass the city, mount a public-information campaign, put clipboards at sympathetic businesses."
"Fight politics with politics?" Darby couldn't help but let her optimism rise.
She'd do anything to protect Sierra Hotel. She loved this place, and she knew it provided a vital service to women.
On the shores of Berlynn Lake, it was in a perfect retreat location for women who worked in high-intensity, maledominated security, defense and lawenforcement jobs. Here, they could recharge and rejuvenate around others who understood the pressures of their careers. One of the things they needed to get away from was sudden, loud noises.
As a military psychologist, she'd been frustrated by the narrow range of support options she could provide to female soldiers in combat. They didn't want to engage in the typical R & R activities that their male counterparts used to blow off steam. The women needed camaraderie, a safe place to let their hair down and interact with peers. And so, Sierra Hotel was born.
Darby had put everything she had into building it, including taking out a rather sizeable mortgage on the land, resulting in payments that she was only just able to maintain. Luckily, word was spreading, and her client base was growing.
She came to her feet, drawn toward the big window and the soothing view beyond, her large back deck, a rolling lawn, a pot-lighted pathway leading to a sandy beach.
"We can't let this happen," she said out loud.
Marta followed her lead, coming to stand next to her in front of the glass. "We won't."
"They've been trucking steers from Lyndon Valley to the railhead for decades," Darby reasoned, framing up a new tactic. "Ranching has been profitable so far. This railroad is only a matter of convenience."
"Whereas Sierra Hotel is irreplaceable," Marta added. "With far-reaching implications to the safety and security of our nation. Why don't you tell the mayor what you do up here? That might help him understand."
Darby shook her head. "We can't call that kind of attention to ourselves."
Some of her clients were high-value targets of the country's enemies. Many were irreplaceable to their organizations. And most represented an investment of millions of dollars in their personal recruitment and training. Clustering them together required a certain level of secrecy and discretion.
"Yeah, I get that," said Marta.
"We have to stop the railway development without giving ourselves away."
"I can have an anti-railway website up and running for us in an hour," Marta offered. "Stop-the-evil-railroad.com."
"Too on the nose," Darby returned, buying into the idea. " Save-our-pristine-wilderness.org."
"That one's not bad." Darby nodded her agreement.
A website was certainly a good place to start. Lyndonites couldn't make the right decision if they didn't have accurate information. At the very least, she had to convince them that holding a referendum was in everybody's best interest. What was the point of democracy if the majority didn't get a chance to make decisions?
"We can put all your facts and figures out there," said Marta. "Charts, graphs, you name it. And we can print up flyers and deliver them door to door. We could target the women close to him in his life. His parents moved away when they retired, but his sisters are in town. Abigail's pregnant."
Darby couldn't help but admire the way Marta's mind worked. It didn't matter what the topic, she automatically cataloged, reviewed, analyzed and predicted.
"You mean pregnant with a baby who might one day get hit by a train," Darby continued the thought.
"Or whose delicate little eardrums might be ruptured by one hundred fifty decibels of train whistle."
"Doesn't his sister Mandy have a baby boy?"
"One year old now."
Darby surprised herself with a grin. "Those are some really great ideas."
"Thanks." Marta smiled in return. "Seth Jacobs, here we come."
Seth was beginning to realize he might have underestimated Darby Carroll. It was obviously a bias on his part, one he'd never admit to his sisters or his cousin, but it hadn't occurred to him that a woman so incredibly gorgeous and sexy would also be so incredibly efficient.