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By Laura Simcox, Danielle Poiesz, Kate Fall
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Laura Simcox
All rights reserved.
Ever since Marcus Weaver had gotten his driver's license, he'd slowed down his shitty car and bounced a penny off the town-limits sign for good luck. Today, he didn't need any luck, but he had been looking forward to flinging that penny again for years since he'd left. He pulled over, took off his expensive sunglasses, and stared at the wooden sign that tilted to the right on crooked legs. The paint was peeling, but the words were still readable:
Welcome to Celebration, NY.
Where every day is something to celebrate!
So familiar, yet strange at the same time. He'd heard that's what homecomings were like. But the churning feeling in his stomach? That was unexpected. He let out a slow breath and gripped the steering wheel. It was ironic to be returning in a car that was shittier than the one he'd had in high school, but if that was the only thing wrong in his life, he'd take it.
"You let her idle too long, and she'll stall out. Get a move on."
Marcus jumped at the sound of his uncle's voice, and he glanced toward the passenger seat. Herman Weaver squinted back at Marcus through puffy eyes. The old man let out a phlegmy, layered cough. "Whatcha waiting for, huh? A parade in your honor?"
Marcus snorted. "Hardly. But I'm pretty sure almost anybody in town will be happier to see me than you are." He slipped a hand in his suit pocket and pulled out a penny. When he rolled down the window, a gust of cold November air rushed into the car, and he stuck his arm out and threw. The penny missed the sign by an inch. Shit.
Herman grunted. "All right. Just move it along. I don't wanna be late for the meeting."
Leaning out the window, Marcus squinted at the sign across the road: For Sale. It was dwarfed by the flat, grassy expanse stretching for several acres behind it. The space was perfect. He smiled. "That the land you're selling me?"
"Yep. Hate to get rid of it, though." He scratched his gaunt cheek. "We ain't got time to get out and tromp all over a muddy field today. Now, c'mon. Let's go."
"Fine." Marcus rolled up the window, carefully shifting Herman's ancient car into first gear. He winced, bracing himself for a shuddering jerk. It happened quickly, this time accompanied by an ominous crunch. And then slam! The vehicle lurched forward.
"Son of a bitch." Herman threw his knobby, thin hands against the glove compartment and turned with a glare. "Shoulda let me drive. I know how to handle my own car."
Marcus laughed. "No way in hell. You damn near took out an entire family at the airport, Herman."
"Those fools were running all over the street like Ping-Pong balls." Herman scraped the side of his hand under his grizzled chin. "I don't like taking my vehicle into Syracuse with all them crazy drivers. This car's for my real-estate business. You just oughta be glad I came to get you."
But Marcus wasn't particularly glad. If he'd known that Herman was going to show up in a weird-ass rust bucket covered in peeling Astroturf with a molting chicken on the roof, he would have waited another day for the car-rental place at the airport to straighten out his reservation. He didn't have an extra day in town now, though, and this meeting in Celebration could make or break his future business. He stepped on the gas.
After cresting another hill and avoiding a couple of icy patches of pavement, he drove into the outskirts of town, the streets lined with small, two-story houses. As he came closer to the business district, his stomach jumped again, pissing him off. There was no reason to be nervous; he was here simply to present a plan. A plan to help the failing town — and it was foolproof. But that was just it — Celebration wasn't filled with fools, just people who needed jobs. He could hand them those jobs on a very attractive platter. That much he knew was true.
Herman let out a wheezing breath. "Speed up, dammit. The dip in this intersection don't like my car." He reached for the gearshift. "Push in the clutch."
"There's a school bus coming, Herman." Marcus pushed the man's hand away. "I'm not running a stop sign. Just relax." He eased the car to a halt at the crossroads and waited for the bus to pass. Several kids stared out the window and pointed at the chicken car. One of them gave the finger. Nice. Marcus chuckled and put the car in gear. It shuddered, groaned, and then promptly died.
"Well, hell. Now you've done it." Herman flapped his arms in a huff and fumbled with his seat belt. "Get out and push, Toothpick. I'm driving."
"Don't call me that." Marcus rubbed his forehead. "This is really not how I envisioned coming back to town." When he'd left at age seventeen, he'd been restless and itching to prove to himself that he could rise above his less-than-ideal upbringing, and he'd done it. But now he was about to come back as the guy pushing the butt-end of a chicken mobile? He sighed.
"Yeah, well. Too bad." Herman eyeballed Marcus's new tailored suit. "But it don't matter how you come back. I think you've got an uphill battle in Celebration."
"Why?" Marcus's fingers froze on the door handle. "I told you not to say —"
"Calm down, Toothpick. I ain't stupid. The town council and the mayor don't know anything beyond that I'm bringing in an investor to look over the town. And I'll tell you what. The minute I told them that they started treating me with some real respect. 'Bout time, too." He grunted. "Come open this door. It's stuck."
Marcus stepped out. He walked around the car and wrenched open the passenger door, leaning in. "Did you say anything about the Megamart?"
Herman clambered out. "Nope. I'll leave that piece of unwelcome news for you to dump on 'em."
"Unwelcome? Plenty of small towns build Megamarts. When I was a location scout, I helped negotiate a dozen of them in towns just like this all across the Midwest."
"Then why are ya so worried, Toothpick? Huh?"
Marcus smoothed his tie. "I'm not. And stop calling me Toothpick, old man. I'm not a skinny kid anymore."
"You've got some nerve." Herman wagged a finger and walked to the driver side. "Don't forget — I'm doin' you a favor by selling you that land." He got in and slammed the door.
"So you've reminded me over and over," Marcus muttered.
It was a pain in the ass dealing with Herman, but Marcus had to have that land. It was the only available property that would work — a large, undeveloped field right near the interstate. Flat land with plenty of room for parking, and big-box stores needed a lot of that. And if he didn't get it, he couldn't build his own Megamart. And if he couldn't build his own Megamart, he'd be screwed.
When he'd approached Megamart corporate about building his own store, he was well aware of company policy. It dictated that new franchise owners had to be personally connected to the towns where Megamarts opened up. Something about giving it that downhome kind of feel to hook customers. For Marcus that was only one place — Celebration. And it was in prime position for some fresh blood: economically depressed, plenty of workforce, and no competition for miles. No Walmart, Target, or Kmart. Hell, there was barely a grocery store in Celebration. The Pick 'n Shop was a typical small-town grocery — no match for the variety and low prices a Megamart could provide.
He'd promised himself a franchise, and he'd told himself that by the time he was thirty, he'd have invested, saved, and scraped together enough money to do it. And he had — with a small cushion to spare. That was the funny thing about wanting something so much — when the time arises to grab at it, only a coward hesitates. Marcus had never been a coward.
He smiled to himself and splayed his hands on the car bumper. Just above his fingers, on the trunk in crooked stick-on letters were the words "Weaver Realty. Your nesting expert." He glanced up at the scary chicken in a nest held onto the roof by rusted bailing wire. It swayed in the breeze, and the chicken nodded as if to say "Damn right, Marcus." Creepy, but somehow encouraging.
"I'm ready!" he yelled to his uncle, digging his new wing tips into the gravel road.
With a giant grunt, Marcus pushed as hard as he could. The car rolled across the intersection, past more houses and onto Main Street. Down the road he could see a few people milling around the sidewalk in front of city hall. Shit. He didn't want to make his grand entrance like this, running behind a car that looked as if it belonged in horror movie about a killer clown. Panting, he thumped a fist on the bumper. "Start it up!"
He heard the engine turn over once. Twice. And then it caught with a roar, shortly followed by an insane chicken cackle that he could only guess was the horn. By now city hall was a block away, and Marcus grimaced, ducking his head as he ran to the passenger side of the car. But just as he reached for the door handle, Herman sped up, mouthing something that looked like, "I can't stop."
Marcus stumbled to a halt and bent over, gasping. Damn, his trench coat was in the car still, and it was freezing out. But it was just as well. He'd been dreading riding into town in that car since the moment he'd laid eyes on it. Straightening, he took a couple of deep breaths and shaded his eyes. The chicken car swerved down Main Street, bumped over a curb, turned the corner, and stopped with a jerk halfway into an alley.
He shook his head and pulled his suit collar up before stepping up on the cracked sidewalk that ran in a large rectangle around the town commons. The brown grass covering the park crunched under his feet and dead leaves blew past, gathering at the base of the sagging gazebo. He grinned, wondered if kids still huddled down on the benches that ringed the inside and sneaked smokes after school. He'd been nabbed more than once, hauled out of there by whatever nearby adults took it upon themselves to discipline delinquent teenagers.
The last time he'd been caught, Jim Parliament had put the fear of God into him. The man had hustled Marcus down the commons and across Independence Street to Parliament Bakery, where he'd grabbed a pack of menthols from the plant manager and told Marcus to smoke what was left. Right then. There had been twelve cigarettes in that pack, and Marcus had blown chunks all over the place. It was the last time he'd ever lit up.
He paused next to a park bench and looked down the block toward the very spot where the puke fest had happened, right in front of Parliament Bakery. The three-story sandstone factory building was shuttered now and stood like a behemoth shrine to failure with a large For Sale sign on the front doors. It was a shame that it had closed and that Celebration was suffering because of it. The hallmarks of unemployment were everywhere.
All along Main Street behind him, empty buildings were plastered with yellowing rent signs. The same was true for Enterprise Street, which he faced now where the green paint on the old-fashioned streetlights was chipped and peeling. Outmoded Thanksgiving decorations hung limp at the top of the poles. The tinsel turkey on the pole nearest him had broken free of its strapping and dangled upside down by one leg. This town had never been much to speak of, but damn. Even the decorations had given up.
Celebration had nothing to celebrate. Until today. Marcus allowed himself a small smile, even as he shivered in the cold air. Who would have ever thought that the skinny teenager who swept floors at MacNamara's drugstore would return fifteen years later to turn the town upside down? Or as current circumstances dictated, right side up.
It wasn't as if he was really coming home, since he'd only lived here during his high school years. But as far as Megamart corporate was concerned, Celebration was his hometown. And he remembered this close-knit community well enough to know that some of the locals wouldn't embrace change easily, despite the fact that most of them needed jobs. They needed him. Marcus took a deep breath and blew it out in a cloud of steam.
As he stepped off a curb to jaywalk across Enterprise Street, a black sedan pulled up to the curb in front of city hall, blocking his path. The horn tooted once, and the people wandering the sidewalk converged on the car, cheering and clapping. He stopped in the middle of the street. What the hell? Who got that kind of welcome for a town-hall meeting? Scanning the crowd for a familiar face, he spotted Alberta Fields, his old English teacher. Perfect. He jogged across the street and stood behind her.
"Excuse me, ma'am. Would you mind telling me what's going on?"
When she jerked her head up to look at him, he couldn't hide a smile. She still wore those round, black-framed glasses, which perfectly magnified her round eyes. Owl-berta is what the kids had called her behind her back. But he hadn't.
She blinked at him for a moment and then recognition dawned. "Good Lord! Marcus? Marcus Weaver?"
He nodded, still smiling.
"Well, I'll be." Alberta wrapped plump arms around his torso and squeezed. "You aren't a beanpole anymore, young man. In fact, you're solid as a rock." She squeezed his biceps and laughed. "You here for Thanksgiving?"
Marcus grinned. "I'm here on business. I'm here to invest in Celebration."
"You are?" She frowned for a moment and then her eyes lit up. "Ohhh. I get it now. That was sneaky of Herman not to tell us that the 'financier' he'd found is his own nephew." Alberta inclined her head. "But good. I'm on the town council now, don't you know. Are you presenting something at the meeting today?"
"Uh, no. I thought I'd just sit in on this one. I'm seeing the mayor later this afternoon."
"Very good. So you're having a big turkey dinner with your uncle tomorrow?" She glanced toward the black car.
Thanksgiving with Herman? Marcus suppressed an eye roll. "My plans aren't firm yet, Mrs. Fields."
Alberta nodded, but her attention was on the car again. A big smile creased her face. "Excuse me." She pushed her way through the crowd.
Just as Marcus started to follow her, Herman appeared at his elbow.
"You left your fancy coat in my vehicle," Herman said with a wheeze.
"Just a second." Marcus craned his neck, looking for a big man with sandy hair. He wanted to talk to Brian Callahan before the meeting. Callahan had been the mayor for over thirty years, and Marcus remembered him as being a pretty tough nut to crack. But he didn't see him among the people crowded around the car.
"Herman, what the hell is going on? Who's in that car ...a celebrity?"
Herman cackled. "Ain't no celebrities in Celebration. Go get your coat. Besides, I need you to help me push the car again," Herman muttered. "That old biddy Alberta threatened to call a tow truck on me, so I've gotta park again."
"It is blocking an alley, Herman." Marcus moved away from him, intent on slipping into city hall before the meeting started. Maybe the mayor was in his office.
Herman grabbed his arm. "Oh, hell. I own both buildings on either side of that alley. If anyone's got a right to complain about a car parked there, it's me. And I ain't complaining."
Marcus looked down the block. The buildings were just like most of the others — empty, with For Rent signs. One of them had junk piled in the window.
Marcus gritted his teeth. "You should really move it. Just give me a minute." He shrugged off Herman's hand and turned to go, but now he was stuck right in the middle of the crowd. He watched as the black car pulled away and in its place stood a woman. A beautiful woman in a red coat and a red hat. Petite and blonde, and she was still as a statue.
For a long moment he watched her as she stood in the street, the briefest hint of a smile on her lips, staring after the car. Then she stepped forward, her gloved hands outstretched, and she began to shake people's hands. A small silver bracelet on her wrist caught the light as she turned from one person to the other. She leaned close to a middle-aged woman, who whispered something in her ear. And then she threw her head back with a throaty laugh. That laugh revealed a world he wanted to step right into. It was confident, sexy. He didn't have a clue who she was or why she was getting rock-star treatment, but he meant to find out. Clearing his throat, he maneuvered his way to the curb and stuck out his hand as she got closer.
Excerpted from Ivy Entwined by Laura Simcox, Danielle Poiesz, Kate Fall. Copyright © 2013 Laura Simcox. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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