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"We're way behind schedule," Marcus Armstrong announced.
"That's ridiculous," Porter Armstrong said, smacking his hand on the desk between them. "We're way ahead of schedule!"
Kendall Armstrong looked back and forth between his older brother and his younger brother and gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to jump in, like always, to mediate between his stubborn siblings. Serious-minded Marcus had a tendency to be overly cautious, and the more reckless Porter had a predisposition for leaping before he lookedliterally. His younger brother had only recently rid himself of the casts on his broken leg and broken arm that had kept him hobbled for the whole summer and most of the fall. With the holidays behind them and a new year begun, everyone was feeling the pressure of the one year plus change that remained on the federal deadline to prove their green experiment of rebuilding the mountain town of Sweetness, Georgia, would work.
The brothers had started from nothingworse than nothing, really. Ten years ago an F5 tornado had flattened their small hometown, sparing human life, but obliterating businesses and homes. The devastation had been the death knell for the tiny town already dwindling in population and economic prosperity. The town council had elected not to reorganize; residents had relocated. When the Armstrongs had arrived a year ago, the roads into Sweetness were choked and overgrown, the land consumed with kudzu vines and littered remains of buildings, vehicles and trees shorn by the twister. Wild animals roamed freely among the rubble. It was as if the outside world had forgotten about Sweetness.
Now, including the two hundred and fifty or so workers the men employed, the hundred or so women who'd come en masse from Broadway, Michigan, in response to an ad the brothers had placed in a local newspaper, looking for women who wanted a fresh start, their children and miscellaneous relatives who had since followed, and various professionals and trade experts who'd come to help them shape the town, the population of Sweetness had grown to Kendall turned his head to look at the latest number written on the chalkboard by the door536.
"Ahead of schedule?" Marcus said to Porter. "What calendar are you looking at?"
"The same one you're looking at," Porter said, jerking his thumb toward the giant calendar that papered the walls of the office.
They suddenly stopped and looked over at Kendall, who sat in a chair across the room.
"Aren't you going to weigh in?" Marcus asked.
"You're just going to sit there?" Porter said.
Kendall pursed his mouth and nodded. "That's right." He scooted his seat back against the wall, then made a rolling motion with his hands. "Go ahead, have at each other. Settle this like real men. Porter hasn't been in a cast for a while."
Marcus frowned. "You don't have to be sarcastic."
Porter scowled. "Yeah, it doesn't suit you, brother."
Anger sparked in Kendall's stomach, sending him to his feet. "Really? Because it feels pretty damn good! I'm tired of constantly trying to wrestle you both back to middle ground. You're wearing me out. I have half a mind to leave this place and never come back!"
He stopped, surprised but relieved that he'd voiced the thought that had been hovering in the back of his mind for months now. His brothers gaped at him.
"Leave?" Marcus said, sounding alarmed.
"You can't leave," Porter said, his eyes wide. "Not now, not when everything is going so well."
Kendall gave a little laughhis brother could afford to be cavalier since he'd fallen in love with the town physician, Dr. Nikki Salinger. "Everything is going well for you, Porter. You have Nikki and you've started building your own home. You have a reason to stay here." He stopped, before he said too much. Before he revealed the cause of his increasing restlessness.
But from the way the expressions on his brothers' faces changed, he knew he'd tipped his hand.
"This is about Amy Bradshaw," Marcus said.
Porter sighed. "Kendall, why don't you just call Amy and ask her to come back home?"
Kendall fisted his hands. "How many times do I have to tell you? She told me to leave her alone. She doesn't want to have anything to do with me." He exhaled, shaking his head. "I was able to put her out of my mind when I was in the Air Force, but coming back here dredged things up again." He stopped, embarrassed, expecting one of his brothers to step in to rib him.
But they didn't. They just looked at him with such pity, he couldn't bear it. He was pathetic, he conceded. Amy Bradshaw had left Sweetness over twelve years ago, before the tornado had struck. He'd come home from the Air Force to attend her aunt's funeral, and Amy had expected to leave with him. But he wasn't ready to get married. When he'd suggested she stay in Sweetness for a while to give herself time to grieve her aunt's passing, she'd turned cold. Her parting words were branded in his brain.
You think I'm going to sit in this podunk town and wait for you? Forget it. Goodbye, Kendall. And don't ever try to contact me.
She'd left. Climbed into her beater Chevy and drove away without looking back.
He hadn't known where she was for the longest time. She'd left a few distant relatives in Sweetness, but none of them had been close to Amy or forthcoming about where she'd moved, if they'd known. He'd almost gone mad with worry until a buddy in the Air Force with superior computer skills had tapped into some kind of national database and traced her social security number.
"Broadway, Michigan," the man had announced. "Want her address and particulars?"
Kendall had passed. He hadn't wanted to violate Amy's privacy. And he really didn't want to know if she was living with someone, or perhaps even married and hadn't changed her name. It was enough to know where she'd landed, that she had found a new place to call home. But he'd thought of her every day for the past twelve years.
And when Marcus had charged him with attracting one hundred single women to Sweetness to help them grow the town, he'd reasoned that Broadway, Michigan, had seemed as good a place as any. The economy was depressed, and the unemployment rate was high. It seemed likely that women in a cold climate would find the Southern sun appealing.
And yes, he'd hoped that Amy would see the ad and answer the call to come home to Sweetness.
Come home to him.
But she hadn't. As luck would have it, Amy and Nikki Salinger had been friends in Broadway. Amy hadn't told Nikki that she'd grown up in Sweetness, but the women had stayed in touch after Nikki had relocated and subsequently decided to stay. Nikki had inadvertently exposed Kendall's strategic placement of the ad when she'd mentioned Amy's name to Porter who had, in turn, confronted Kendall and outed him to Marcus.
Now that his brothers knew why he'd picked that particular town for the ad, Kendall's humiliation was complete.
"It's been a long time," Porter said quietly. "Maybe Amy's changed her mind about you contacting her."
Kendall's temper flared. "Porter, I did contact her! I put a damn ad in the newspaper, didn't I?"
Porter pressed his lips together. "Maybe she's waiting for something more personal. Like a phone call"
Marcus grunted. "Since Amy still hasn't told Nikki about her ties to Sweetness, that kind of proves the woman has no intention of ever setting foot here again, doesn't it?"
Kendall's heart bottomed out.
Porter reached over and boxed Marcus's ear.
Marcus pulled back, then looked contrite. "I'm just saying."
"Ignore him," Porter said to Kendall. "He'll get his someday. Look, I know you said you didn't want to know anything about Amy, but Nikki said"
Kendall held up his hands. "I don't want to know, Porter, unless Amy tells me herself. I don't need details to obsess over. And I'm not going to stalk her."
"Right," Marcus said drily. "Placing an ad in her local newspaper isn't stalkerish at all."
Porter glared at him. "Shut up already!"
Marcus jammed his hands on his hips. "It needs to be said. I'm sorry, Kendall, but you had your chance with Amy and you blew it. You need to move on with your life. Can we get back to work, please?"
Porter's face reddened in anger, but Kendall held up his hand, then dropped into the chair and sighed. The truth was a bitter pill to swallow. "Marcus is right. I need to let go of this thing with Amy." He looked up, grateful at that moment to have his brothers around. Then he straightened his shoulders. "We have a town to build. What's next?"
"Next," Marcus said without missing a beat, "is having our ducks in a row when the representative from the Department of Energy shows up to file a progress report. The guy's name is Richardson."
"Do we know when to expect him?" Kendall asked, trying to force his mind to the matter at hand.
"You should expect him sometime over the next couple of weeks," Marcus said.
Kendall blinked. "Since when did I get voted spokesman?"
Marcus looked at Porter, then raised his hand. "I vote for Kendall to be our spokesman to the D.O.E. rep."
Porter raised his hand. "Ditto."
Marcus turned back to Kendall. "You're in."
Kendall frowned, but knew when he was outnumbered. "I assume this will involve some sort of presentation?"
"And a tour," Marcus said. "Plus lots of schmoozing to make sure we don't lose our grant for being behind schedule."
"We're in good shape," Porter insisted with a sense of casual confidence that Kendall envied. "Our downtown is growing every day. The clinic received Rural Health Clinic certification, the helipad is done, we have a school, a General Store and a post office."
"The post office is inside the General Store," Marcus added.
"For now," Porter countered.
"The most important thing is we got our zip code," Kendall said. Since the tiny post office had opened, he'd checked every day for a letter from Amy. So farnothing.
"Right," Porter said. "Demand for our recycled mulch is growing, the windmill farm is generating power for the town, the community garden is supplying seasonal produce for the dining hall."
Marcus winced. "We'll be in trouble if the representative eats at the dining hall."
Porter nodded. Colonel Molly McIntyre ran a tight ship, but the cuisine wasn't exactly cruise-worthy.
"Maybe we can distract Molly with the Lost and Found webpage, then ask someone else to step in for the day," Kendall suggested.
Porter snapped his fingers. "The D.O.E. rep should see the town's new website. All of our progress is recorded there, with photos."
Kendall nodded, glad to have his mind diverted from.well, there he went again, thinking of Amy. He gave himself a mental shake. "Okay, I'll prepare a presentation. Meanwhile, what's next on our plate?"
"The residents are asking for a church," Porter remarked. "A lot of couples are pairing up."
"But we don't even have a minister," Marcus countered.
"Because we don't have a church," Porter said.
Marcus arched an eyebrow. "Are you planning to walk down the aisle soon?"
Porter blanched. "N-no. Nikki and I haven't gotten.that far."
Kendall bit back a smile at his little brother's sudden nervousness. He had no doubt Porter was head over heels for the doctor, but everyone including Porterhad assumed he'd be a bachelor forever. He was still easing into the idea of being half of a couple.
"For now then," Marcus said pointedly, "we can continue to hold services in the dining hall or in the great room of the boardinghouse. I think we need to shift our focus to rebuilding Evermore Bridge over Timber Creek." Marcus walked over to an aerial map and pointed to a large green section of land.
"This land is within the city limits, but it's cut off from everything else. I think we should relocate the recycling center we're planning to build to this parcel, away from town because of potential noise levels. A new bridge will make this farmland accessible for other projects, too. I received a proposal this week from a scientist who's looking into new uses for kudzu."
Porter snorted. "That vile weed has a use?"
The Japanese vine had been introduced to the state of Georgia as ground cover along the inter-states, but had taken on a life of its own, spreading via seed and runners, consuming anything that didn't move. Virulent and aggressive, kudzu was widely considered a nuisance.
"This man thinks it produces a chemical that can treat Alzheimer's."
Kendall wiped his hand over his mouth. There were some moments when the brothers couldn't believe the ramifications of this undertakingthis green experiment was so much bigger than just rebuilding their mountain hometown. "What is he asking for?"
"He has his own grant for a laboratory and staff. He's asking for a half-acre of land for his lab, and twenty-five acres of kudzu."
"Hell, let's give him fifty acres of the stuff," Porter said.
"Okay, this one's yours." Marcus handed him a printed email, then turned back to the map. "I say we rezone this entire parcel for commercial use," Marcus said, "but we have to provide access to it.
That's why I think we need to move the bridge up on our priority list."
"Kendall can build us a new bridge," Porter said.
At his brother's reference to his civil engineering degree, Kendall made a rueful noise. "But I can't design one. We need a structural engineer for that."
Porter held up his finger. "I"
"Got it covered," Marcus cut in, giving Porter a look that said he 'd take care of finding a structural engineer. He glanced at Kendall. "That will free you up to get ready for the D.O.E. rep."
Kendall nodded. "I trust your judgment. We're going to need some crackerjack contractors, too, guys who know how to pour concrete in cold temperatures."
"Understood," Marcus said, then he clapped Porter on the back. "While Kendall and I build a bridge, you can get started on a church if you want."
Porter pursed his mouth. "I think you're right we should hold off for now. I think I'll go scout out the parcel across the creek."
Marcus smiled. "Thought you might."
Porter left and Kendall stood, then reached for his laptop. "Guess I'll head to the media room and get started on that presentation."
Marcus nodded. "Sounds good."
Kendall reached the door, then turned back. "Marcus, about earlier."
"Yeah, sorry about that, man."
"No you're rightI need to move on. Thanks for the wake-up call."
"Sure thing," Marcus said, then picked up his phone. "Speaking of calls, I need to make some."
"Right. See you later." Kendall grabbed a jacket, then turned and walked out of the office trailer toward the center of town. The temperature was bracingly cool, just what he needed at the moment to clear his head.
As he approached the crop of buildings that made up the new downtown area, he realized they had much to be proud of. School was letting out, and the sound of children's laughter hung in the air. Pedestrians bustled around and a couple of cars rolled down Main Street. Soon they would have to start thinking about installing a stoplight.
Sweetness had been revived. If he squinted, the scene reminded him of the way the town looked when he was young. Then he sighed. There was only one thing missing.