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In Sutter Traub's opinion, Rust Creek Falls was as irresistibleand fickleas a woman. Once upon a time his heart had belonged to this town and he couldn't have imagined ever living anywhere else. Then she'd turned him out and turned her back on him.
Just like the only woman he'd ever loved.
Of course, he'd come back when she'd needed himthe town, that was, not the woman. Because Paige Dal-ton had never needed him, and she wouldn't ever ask for his help if she did, and thinking about her now was only going to stir up memories and feelings he didn't want stirred up.
So he focused his attention on the reason that he was standing in the back corner of town hall now: the imminent election. When his brother Collin had recently announced his intention to run for mayor of Rust Creek Falls, Sutter had impulsively volunteered to be his campaign manager. Which had resulted in him spending a lot more time in town over the past few months than he'd ever intended when news of the floods had first brought him home, which meant that he wasn't going back to Seattle before the last ballot was counted.
But for now he just wanted this debate to be over.
It was the last public face-off between the two mayoral candidatesCollin Traub and Nathan Crawfordbefore the citizens of Rust Creek Falls went to the polls on Thursday, and though it had just gotten underway, Sutter wished it was already done.
He couldn't have said why, but he had an uneasy feeling about the event. It might have had something to do with Nate's smug expression when they'd been setting up. It was as if he had something up his sleeve and, knowing the Crawfords, Sutter didn't doubt it for a minute.
As the debate progressed, he gradually began to relax. Collin was comfortable in front of the crowd, answering questions easily and confidently. He had a clearly defined plan to return Rust Creek Falls to its former glory and he made sure the residents knew it. Nate focused more on the history of the town than its future, and more on why he was the better candidate to fix the problems than how he was going to do so. But both candidates wereat least to all outward appearancesrespectful of one another, and the spectators seemed to be listening to each side.
But when Thelma McGeethe former mayor's mother and moderator of the eventstood up to announce that the debate was finished, a member of the audience loudly pushed back his chair and rose to his feet.
A Crawford supporter, Sutter immediately suspected, and the gleam in Nate's eyes made him think that there was nothing spontaneous about the man's actions.
He was a military man in a dress uniform with his medals proudly displayed on his chest, and Sutter's heart immediately began to pound. One sleeve of the man's uniform hung loose because he had no arm to put through it. Not just a decorated veteran but a wounded war hero.
Perspiration beaded on Sutter's brow and trickled down his spine.
Thelma, bless her, never wavered. "I'm sorry, sir"
"Master Sergeant Dean Riddell." He barked out the name as if it was a military order.
"Yes, well, we've run out of time tonight and"
"Time is irrelevant when our boys are fighting to protect our freedoms. And I want to remind the good people of Rust Creek Falls that they need to know if these candidates support our armed forces."
"While your concern is acknowledged and appreciated, the eventual mayor of Rust Creek Falls has no voice with respect to military activity or spending. This is strictly about local politics."
While Sutter heard and silently applauded her point, no one else did, because they'd all started talking and debating among themselves.
"Ladies and gentlemen" Collin tried to settle the crowd while Nate just sat back with his arms folded across his chest and a smug smile on his face. "Do I need to remind you that my brother, Major Forrest Traub, is a decorated war hero, too? He fought valiantly and tirelessly for his countryfor all of usand I have never been anything but supportive of his efforts and his sacrifices."
"Can you say the same thing about your campaign manager?" the master sergeant demanded.
And Sutter knew the damage had been done. It didn't matter that everything Collin said was true; what mattered to these people was that there was mud to be slungand it was Sutter's fault that Collin was the one wearing it.
He'd been young and impetuous and probably a little too outspoken in his efforts to convince his brother that he'd already gone above and beyond in the service of his country. He'd vehemently objected when Forrest had announced his intention to reenlist for another tour, because he'd just wanted his brother to stay home and be safe.
But Forrest had chosen to go back, and when he returned to Rust Creek Falls again after his medical discharge, Sutter had known the scars on his brother's leg were insignificant compared to the damage to his soul. Thankfully, months of physical therapy and falling in love with Angie Anderson had started healing his body and his heartbut his relationship with his brother was going to need something more.
Obviously no one in Rust Creek Falls had forgotten Sutter's objections. And while he acknowledged and accepted that he would always be haunted by the mistakes of his past, he hadn't expected that anyone else would have to pay for his outspokenness. Listening to the crowd, now thoroughly stirred up by Master Sergeant Riddell, he finally realized that his presence could hinder Col-lin's campaign rather than helpexactly as Nate Crawford had intended.
They were still murmuring and bickering when another spectator stood up on the other side of the room. And Sutter's heart began to pound even harder inside his chest when he recognized Paige Dalton.
He hadn't seen her enter the hall, hadn't known she was there. That in and of itself was a surprise, because Sutter had always had a sixth sense where Paige was concerned. A sixth sense that had been honed by self-preservation since his return to Rust Creek Falls a few months earlier.
Looking at her now, she took his breath away. It wasn't just that she was beautiful, but the way she stoodwith her spine stiff and her chin upshe looked like a warrior ready to take on the entire population of Rust Creek Falls, or at least those who were assembled in town hall tonight. She was wearing a soft pink peasant-style blouse over a raspberry-colored skirt. Her long, dark brown hair hung straight down to the middle of her back, and her dark chocolate-colored eyes were focused and intense.
He braced himself for her attack. He didn't care what Master Sergeant Riddell or anyone else in Rust Creek Falls thought about himexcept insofar as it might impact Collin's hopes of winning the electionbut he'd never stopped caring about Paige and he hated knowing that she was disappointed in him.
"Can we focus on what's relevant here?" she said to the crowd. She didn't yellin fact, she raised her voice just enough to be heard. And as she continued to speak, her volume dropped further, forcing others to stop talking in order to hear what she was saying. "First, and most important, is the fact that it is Collin Traub who is running for office, not Sutter.
"Second, regardless of whether any of us agree with statements that Sutter made with respect to his brother's decision to reenlist five years ago, those statements were his opinion, it was five years ago, and we need to focus on the issues that are relevant to Rust Creek Falls in the present and the candidates who are actually running in this election."
She paused a moment to take a breath and to give everyone a minute to think about what she'd said before she continued. "But even if it was Sutter instead of Collin who was running for mayor, he would get my vote because he's the type of man who's willing to stand up for what he believes, regardless of popular opinion or what anyone else might think. That is a man of conviction, and that is the kind of man who gets things done, and what Rust Creek Falls needs right now is someone who can get things done.
"Thankfully, that is a trait he shares with his brother Collin. And that is why Collin Traub is the type of man we need in charge of our town during this difficult time.
"With all due respect, Master Sergeant Riddell, the army isn't coming here to rebuild our town. And I think you would agree that our servicemen and women have more important things to do. That leaves it up to us, the citizens of Rust Creek Falls, to figure out the best way to get things doneand the best person to help us do so. I think that person is Collin Traub."
Then she picked up her jacket and calmly turned to walk down the aisle between the folding chairs and out the door.
"Thank you again for your time tonight"
Thelma McGee was speaking again, but Sutter didn't hang around to listen to what the moderator said. He needed to see Paige. He wasn't entirely sure why, he just knew that he did.
He slipped out through a side door and raced around to the front of the building. Paige couldn't have had more than a two-minute head start on him, but she seemed to have vanished into thin air. He scanned the dimly lit street and finally spotted her when she neared a lamppost at the end of the block.
She paused at the corner of North Main Street and as he drew nearer, he saw the reluctance on her face. She looked as if she'd rather bolt than wait, but she held her ground until he reached her side. Then she turned east up Cedar Street, obviously wanting to be out of sight of town hall when the crowd dispersed.
He didn't blame her for not wanting to be seen with him. They'd both grown up in this town where almost everyone knew everyone else, and it was safe to assume that most of the residents knew at least some of Sutter and Paige's history together.
"I just wanted to thank you," he said when he fell into step beside her.
"I didn't do it for you," she told him.
"Why did you do it?"
"Because Nate's been running an underhanded campaign since Collin threw his hat into the ring, but dragging a war veteran into this debate solely to discredit your brother " She trailed off, shaking her head. "That's a new low, even for Nate."
"Are you sure he set it up?"
"I saw him talking to the master sergeant before the debate," she confided. "I have absolutely no doubt that he planted him in the audience to stir up trouble."
"Well, I don't think the tactic was nearly as successful as he'd hoped, not after your little speech."
She shrugged. "I was there because I want to be an informed voter. My personal bias aside, I wanted to hear what the candidates had to say, how they responded to questions. Everything I saw and heard tonight confirmed my belief that Collin is the best mayoral candidate, and I wanted to make sure that people left the hall talking about himnot you."
"Well, I appreciate what you said, anyway," he told her. "I know it couldn't have been easy to speak up in my defenseeven if it was for my brotherafter everything."
Sutter's words echoed in Paige's mind, making her wonder if that was really how he thought about the fact that he'd broken her heart and shattered her hopes and dreams. Had their relationship been so meaningless, and their breakup so inconsequential to him, that he could just categorize those events as "everything"?
She looked up at him, amazed and annoyed that even after five years a simple glance was enough to make her heart pound. Of course, he probably had that effect on a lot of women. At six feet two inches, with the solid, muscular build of a real cowboy, he turned heads no matter where he went. The thick, light brown hair, deep blue eyes and quick smile kept those heads turned in his direction. She deliberately tore her gaze away.
It infuriated her that after five years, her heart was still aching from his callous dismissal, while he seemed completely unaffected. But there was no way she was going to ask for clarification. Instead she only said, "It was a long time ago."
"Was it?" he challenged, his voice quieter now and tinged with a hint of sadness.
Or maybe she was only hearing what she wanted to hear.
"I'll admit, there are days when it seems like our relationship was in a different lifetime," he told her. "And there are other days when I would swear it was only yesterday. When I can close my eyes and see you right in front of me, reach out as if to touch the softness of your skin, breathe in and catch the scent of your perfume."
She wouldn't let the soft seduction of his words or his voice sway her. "I think you've been breathing in something that's not legal in this state without a prescription."
"Ouchthat was harsh."
"What kind of response did you expect?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe I just wanted to know that you think about me sometimes, too."
"I don't. Because it wasn't yesterdayit was five years ago, and I have too much going on in my life right now to think about what used to be or might have been."
But her words were a lie. The truth was, she didn't just think about Sutter sometimes. She thought about him far too often. It didn't seem to matter that he'd been gone for five years, because her heart had never quite healed. And even after all that time, whenever she saw himwhich, thankfully, hadn't been very often before the horrible flood had brought him back to Rust Creek Fallsit felt like ripping the scab off of the wound.
And yet when a stranger who didn't even know him started attacking his character, Paige couldn't seem to help herself from flying to his defense. Because regardless of what had happened between them, she knew that deep inside Sutter was a good man. The man she'd once loved more than anything.
"So tell me what's going on in your life," he said now.
She turned to look at him. "Why?"
"Because I want to know."
"Well, I've been teaching my fifth-grade class in my living room because we don't have a school anymorewhich is one of the reasons I'm so invested in the outcome of this election. We need to get the new school built because our kids deserve better than what we've been able to do for them so far."
"Fifth grade?" Sutter frowned. "I think Dallas's eldest is in fifth grade."
She nodded. "Ryder's in my class."
"He's had a rough go of it since his mother walked out."
"It hasn't been easy on any of the boys." She felt herself softening in response to his obvious concern about his nephew, just a little, and steeled herself against it. "But when one person walks out of a relationship, it's inevitable that someone else is going to be hurt."