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Ian Foster came in from the barn, went automatically to his office, sat down at his desk and began to go through the mail.
A promotional offer for direct T V. Imbeciles—didn't they know he already had it? He tossed the flyer into the wastepaper basket. Next was a bill. He frowned, then put it in the "bills" folder and picked up the last envelope.
It was addressed to Foster Brothers, Inc., and the return address was Internal Revenue Service. He opened it with interest. Maybe the corporation he and his brothers had formed was getting a tax refund. They couldn't possibly owe more money—Ian had calculated the numbers too carefully, checking and double-checking.
He read it, and frustration rose from the pit of his stomach and emerged as a shout loud enough to rattle the paper clips on his desk. Man, why now? This was the last thing they needed. He slumped in his chair, put his head on his desk and held his breath.
"You dead? If you are, nod so I can start CPR."
Ian leaped up from his desk to confront his brother Daniel. "Of course I'm not dead."
"Do you feel faint?"
"Do I look like I feel faint? What the hell's wrong with you?"
Daniel's expression informed Ian that Daniel was thinking. Maddening trait of Daniel's—thinking before he spoke. "I'm on the way back from the barn where I've been inspecting your sheep," he said in that reasonable tone that drove Ian crazy, "and I hear a cry of pain from my brother, so I run into the house, find him collapsed at his desk, so I assume heart attack, and my first thought is to save his life. It's a natural reaction, Ian." His bedside manner also drove Ian crazy.
"For a cardiologist, maybe."
"Okay," Daniel said, "so what happened?"
Ian simply handed over the letter.
Daniel's smile faded. "Ah, the corporation's being audited. So what? You haven't lied or cheated or…"
Ian glared at him. "Of course not." He motioned his brother toward a leather-covered armchair. Why he bothered, he didn't know. Daniel knew he could sit down. "Auditors probe," he said. "Maybe they'll probe into why we formed the corporation, into who we are. If they find out who we are, and I'm sure the IRS has CIA-type information systems, then we're done for."
"Why would the IRS care about our past as long as we're paying our taxes?"
"Not the IRS, Serenity Valley," Ian moaned.
"You think the IRS would tell the neighbors?"
"You never know," Ian said, narrowing his eyes. "The auditor might be a local. He tells his wife, she tells her sister, who tells the preacher's wife, who tells the preacher…You know what it's like around here."
"Whoa," Daniel said. "You're thinking way too far ahead."
"I like being ready for the worst."
"Still," Daniel said, "if there's nothing wrong with the return and the documentation is in order, nothing will attract their attention. You have everything on disk, right? The books? The return?"
Ian cleared his throat. "The return itself looks professional."
"What are you telling me?"
"Well…" He had to confess. "I never quite got the hang of that accounting software." He pulled a clothbound volume out of his side drawer. "Here are our books." Then he produced his spreadsheet. Handwritten.
Daniel paled. "Geez, Ian. Where's your abacus?"
Feeling hurt, Ian displayed a handheld calculator.
"How did you get through business school?"
"I don't know. By being charming?"
"No," Daniel said, sounding resigned, "by coming up with the right answers in your own primitive way. But hey, it doesn't matter. You're overreacting. If there's nothing wrong with our numbers, why would they—"
"What if some little thing is wrong? If they get interested in us…"
Ian's worry wasn't financial, but personal. Of course the Foster Corporation, Inc. return was accurate—it would have been accurate down to the last penny if the government didn't insist on rounding off the numbers. He had a much more important reason to want to panic, and Daniel knew perfectly well what it was.
Putting it bluntly—he didn't know how to put things any other way—the Fosters weren't Fosters, or even brothers. They'd met in a juvenile correction facility, had bonded because of their mutual goal—to leave their pasts behind and get ahead in the world by working hard. And most of all by supporting one another, understanding that they each had a separate, very different career goal, and sacrificing whatever it took to make sure that each of them reached that goal.
They'd done it. Managed to get Daniel through veterinary school, and now he was Serenity Valley's most respected vet—its only vet, actually, but highly thought of. Sent Mike to culinary school, and now Mike's Diner was raking in the money—and the rave reviews for Mike's culinary skills. Respect was what it took to make it in this closed-in valley where everybody knew everybody else and newcomers were subjected to intense scrutiny.
Ian's degree was in animal husbandry, and after deciding that Daniel and Mike were hopeless with money, he got a second degree in business and took on the responsibility for their financial security. Now he could ruin them. It was a lot to think about.
Daniel gazed at him thoughtfully. "You might want to turn this audit over to someone else," he said.
"You think I can't handle it?" Ian's pride was involved here. As the youngest of the brothers, he had to prove that he could take care of them as well as they'd taken care of him. They'd put him in charge of the family financial affairs. If they ever decided they couldn't trust him, he'd have to opt out of the family, change his name and start all over.
Yes, he needed to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, because he'd lived through a few of them already. He tuned in to what Daniel was saying.
"You can't handle it tactfully," Daniel said, less than tactfully. "For example, 'none of your business' might not be the best thing to say to the auditor."
Daniel was right. That was exactly what Ian would have said if the auditor had cornered him. Neither tact nor subtlety was in his skill set. "Who should I turn it over to?" he said.
Daniel thought for a moment. "Tansy Appletree's the only tax accountant in the valley," he said. "Hire her."
"No way," Ian growled.
Because she's too short to have any brains, and besides, she's way too energetic. "Well, because…" Daniel was waiting, with that irritatingly patient look on his face.
"Because she's also the mayor of Holman, her father is our state senator, her brother is planning to run for governor, so I don't trust her, either," Ian blurted out. "If she suspected anything, she'd spill it. And she'll be looking for things, too." He got up and began to pace. "Everybody in the valley is curious about us, especially about me, because I haven't gotten 'involved,' as they like to say, in the community."
"So get involved, Ian."
Ian didn't want to be involved with anybody but Daniel and Mike and their ever-expanding families. "That's not what we're talking about."
"In a way it is. You're saying you don't trust them. Tansy's a great person, and she's been an excellent mayor. She and Lilah and Allie are friends, and besides, unlike others I could mention—" the look Daniel gave him was so intense, Ian felt pinned down "—she uses the most up-to-date software. In fact, Lilah and Allie call her their 'redheaded geek.' So why not give her a chance?"
Lilah was Daniel's wife. Mike and Allie had set a wedding date. Ian had learned to trust the women because his brothers clearly did, but it hadn't been easy. Still, he'd make a better impression if he presented the auditor with professional-looking records to back up the return, so he guessed he should listen up. He ground his teeth. "I'll think about it."
"How long do you have to think?" Ian glanced at the letter. "Not very long." Daniel got up. "Now that we've solved that," he said cheerfully, "I'll get back to your sheep."
And about time, Ian thought. Unless Daniel irritated the sheep. If he did, their fleece would lose both quality and quantity, and—He gave up that worst-case scenario. He was clearly going over the edge.
Accompanied by her administrative assistant, the town clerk, and the three Holman selectmen—select-persons—Mayor Tansy Appletree stood in front of Hol-man's historic Town Hall and launched into her pitch. "We've finished the main room, we have electricity and plumbing—and we're out of money. We've bled the pockets of Holman down to the last penny. But I have an idea that would raise at least enough to paint the outside."
"A government grant?" one of the selectpersons said hopefully.
"We have one in the works, but it will be months before it comes through. And we need to paint. No, I'm thinking of a Winter Holiday Festival. Doesn't that sound like a lot of fun?"
She was greeted with blank stares. "Here's how I see it," she said, trying not to sound as enthusiastic as she had before, since she'd apparently scared them. "Come inside with me."
They trailed silently after her, through the tall, creaky front doors and into the main room of the Hall. Once upon a time, it had echoed with the sounds of music and dancing as well as the monotonous drone of town meetings. The mayor and the town clerk had had their offices here. They held out when the telephone service came to Holman—what did they need with a telephone when people could just walk in?—but when electricity came in the 1940s, they moved into a room in the public library, the first building to be wired. Since then, the hall had fallen into a state of disrepair. Even when it was put on the National Register of Historic Places, former city officials had looked the other way, horrified at the expense of restoring it to its former glory. But not Tansy. Town Hall had been her first priority when she'd been elected mayor. It was coming along, but not fast enough.
She waved her arms around to encompass the huge space. "Look how big it is," she said. "We could invite the best-known craftspeople in Vermont—not just Serenity Valley—to set up their booths…" She paused to make outlines of imaginary booths. "No charge, but we'd ask for ten percent of their gross sales to go to Town Hall."
That got a murmur out of them. She'd call it progress. "We'll decorate for the holidays. A huge tree, garlands, candles. The room will be festive, and if we hang enough wreaths and lights outside, that will hide the fact that it looks horrid and will continue to look horrid—" she fixed a stern gaze on them "—until we paint."
They still seemed dubious, which Tansy took to mean they were thinking it over.
"We could sell food, too," her assistant, Amy Win-free, said shyly. "Mulled cider would be good and it would make the room smell lovely."
"What a wonderful idea," Tansy congratulated her. "Cider, wedges of apple pie, ginger cookies—gingerbread! All at reasonable prices, of course. Maybe some of you know someone who'd like to donate the cookies…"
One of the three selectpersons was a female, Martha Latham. She stared daggers at her male colleagues until they cleared their throats, coughed or scraped their boots on the ground, and at last, one of them said, "Aggie's gingerbread is sort of famous around here. I imagine she'd make a couple of pans."
Martha breathed out an exasperated sigh and pinned him down with one of her accusatory "chauvinist pig" glares.
"I'd help her, of course," the man said hastily. "Turn on the oven, add something to something else."
"Ay-uh," the other one of them spoke up. "Polly would get a kick out of contributing some apple pies." He looked down his nose at both Aggie's husband and Martha. "And I can't help, because Polly won't let anybody into her kitchen."
"Thank you all," Tansy said earnestly, hoping to avoid an argument among the selectmen—or "persons," she reminded herself. "Now, besides food, we have to have top-notch people exhibiting and hopefully selling their work."
To her surprise, her captive audience warmed to this idea, coming up with crafts and the names of the craftspeople—including woodworkers, knitters, crochet-ers, quilters, a group of rug-hookers who delighted in calling themselves The Hookers, and makers of holiday tree ornaments. Tansy was writing as fast as she could on a legal pad she'd kept clutched under her arm in case the selectpersons segued from shock and rejection to cooperation.
She'd gotten them on her side. That's what a politician was, right? A persuader. But she'd made a vow to persuade only toward the best results for all concerned, the same vow her father had made, the same vow she knew her brother had made when he threw his hat into the ring of candidates for the governor of Vermont.
The Winter Holiday Festival would be good for the valley. It would bring the careers of the many Vermont crafters into the limelight. She paused in her reflection to think about press coverage in the newspapers.
It was a good project. An honorable project. And she'd see it through to its satisfying conclusion: Town Hall, freshly painted.
Ian was outside with his sheep, feeling gloomy. The sheep were fine—high-quality merinos, the first breed the British settlers brought to Vermont, carefully chosen, carefully bred, religiously taken care of by Daniel—they didn't have a worry in the world. If only he had it as good as his sheep.
He petted a hogget, a half-grown lamb, to make himself feel better. Last thing in the world he wanted to do was hand this audit over to a woman. Okay, so he sounded sexist, but he wasn't. He just didn't trust women, not really, and he felt that way for good reason. They were undependable. At least some of the ones he had known had been. What if he turned his books over to Tansy Appletree, and she found something she could hold over him in those carefully penned numbers? What if she just left town right in the middle of shaping up his books?
The hogget, who'd ducked her head under Ian's hand to help him pet her in just the right places, said, "Baaa."
"Baaa, humbug?" he asked her. "I'm stupid to mistrust Tansy Appletree? You women. You all stick together." He looked down at her. "Come on, little girl, time to go inside and play with your cousins."
With a few deep breaths and some mental chest-pounding, he pulled himself together. He had to do it. The audit would be over and done with by the time he figured out how to load the software, after he'd figured out which software he needed, which he'd have to do before he loaded it and figured out how to use it—it made him tired just thinking about it.
Posted April 27, 2010
In Serenity Valley, Ian Foster and the human race are barely on talking terms. In fact his preference is not to speak with anyone except the sheep on the ranch and to a lesser degree his brother Daniel. However, he has no choice but to discuss with an accountant his business books as he has an IRS audit scheduled.
He hires Tansy Appletree to clean up, organize and prepare his records. She is attracted to the misanthrope because she believes his gruff exterior hides a vulnerable heart. He grumpily considers her Miss Sunshine though he conceals he likes her energy and enthusiasm. When she asks him to participate in a winter carnival she is helping organize, he wants to say yes but tells her no; an answer she refuses to accept as she sees how nurturing he is with Daniel's foster child.
The immovable object meets the irresistible force as the accountant and the rancher collide head on in a terrific contemporary romance with the IRS serving as matchmaker. The battle lines are drawn with Ian's heart being the front as readers will enjoy this fun gender war.
Posted April 11, 2011
No text was provided for this review.