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Tibby Mack smiled to herself as she loaded the last of the homemade baskets, each of them filled with bright spring blooms, into the back of her aged station wagon. She could almost feel her grandmother's presence. Hanging May baskets on the front doorknobs of all the Yaqui Springs residents was a yearly event Lara Mack had lovingly observed. Though Gram had been gone nearly a year, Tibby knew that May Day always made the the kindly old lady smile.
Running late as usual, Tibby slammed the tailgate and hurried into the store to shed her gardening gloves. If no one caught her distributing baskets and stopped to chat, she might get back to open the store and coffee bar on time. Although she'd promised to feed Ariel Pulaski's Afghan hounds for a few days, and they had to be worked in before she drove Mabel Sparks to the airport
"Uh-oh. Looks like I didn't move fast enough." Clutching the Closed sign, Tibby tossed her thick braid over one shoulder as she watched a car leave the main highway and speed toward the general store. A racy sports car. She frowned. No one she knew drove anything remotely that upscale. Had it been a local, she would've given him a key, and trusted him to leave a list of what he took. As it was a stranger, she had no choice but to leave fast or chance letting the fragile blossoms wilt.
Flipping the sign to read Closed, she sprinted toward her vehicle.
The approaching stranger squealed his midnight blue Jaguar to a halt in front of Tibby and hopped out almost before the full-throated growl of the engine quit.
She froze, her breath trapped in her throat. The world tilted crazily. Not a stranger. Cole O'Donnell. Someone she'd steeled herself to see at Yale's funeraland then he hadn't shown up. After she'd spent days foolishly worrying that she wouldn't recognize him. Tibby would have known his thick acorn brown hair and beachboy tan at ten times the distance. But why was he here now? She automatically smoothed her wrinkled skirt and grappled for composure.
"Well, hello," he drawled, flashing a smile that warmed his gray eyes. "It's a thirsty drive from the coast. I'm dying for a cup of coffee." He glanced expectantly from the still-swinging Closed sign to the woman's lush goldenrod hair. "Things have changed in Yaqui Springs. I'd heard Mrs. Mack passed away. She ran the store as far back as I can remember. Are you the new owner?" Cole didn't think the attractive blonde was the new owner's wife. He noticed that her left hand was bare of rings.
Hurt that he didn't recognize her, Tibby slipped on a pair of sunglasses. Yet it shouldn't surprise her that he didn't. Their last meetingthe spring she'd finally found the courage to invite him to the Date Festival in Indiohe'd been an older man of almost twenty to her sixteen. Oh, he'd looked at her, but he hadn't really seen her when he carelessly turned her down. It embarrassed her now to think how often she'd haunted his grandfather's place, waiting for snippets of news about Cole. If Yale ever guessed what prompted her many visits, he'd never let on. That grand old gentleman had taught her bookkeeping skills, which allowed her to run the store during her grandmother's long illness and after. He'd also taken her golfing to keep her spirits up.
Now Yale, too, was gone. A fact that didn't seem to bother the man standing before her, flaunting his sexy, easy smile.
"You're a little late for your grandfather's funeral," Tibby said coolly. "We buried him six weeks ago."
The accusation cut through Cole like a hot knife. His mother, Anna, hadn't seen fit to let him know. Until he'd returned from Italy to a backlog of mail, he'd remained unaware he'd lost the person he loved most in the world. At first he'd been too shaken to even deal with the inheritance. Then one day about a month ago he'd received a note from the Yaqui Springs recreational committee, along with a petition asking that he build a golf course on his grandfather's land. His land now.
Owning his own golf course was Cole's "someday" dream. Gramps had taught him to play the game and love it. What better tribute to the old man's memory?
Who was this woman? Cole shaded his eyes against the sun. And if the set of her shoulders and the twist of her lips were any indication, she didn't like him.
"Hey, wait," he called as she climbed into a wood-sided station wagon and prepared to leave. "Have we met?"
"Blue moons ago, whiz kid. I'm Tibby Mack." Slamming her door, she pushed the key into the ignition and gave it a twist. Tibby thanked her lucky stars that for once the wagon started without a sputter. "I hate to run, but I'm delivering May baskets to the residents. Then I have Pulaski's dogs to feed and Mabel Sparks to take to the airport. Afraid you'll have to get your caffeine fix elsewhere."
Tibby Mack. Lara Mack's granddaughter? Cole's jaw nearly hit the asphalt. That skinny kid who wore pigtails and had braces on her teeth? Maybe the moss green eyes were familiar, but now they appeared in a whole different package. He hadn't seen her forwhat?at least ten years. The summer he'd been a college sophomore. Hot stuff. Nineteen going on thirty. His friends had spent their spring break in Palm Springs. Gramps had wanted him to come to Yaqui Springsand after all, Yale had paid for his education. If memory served Cole, his vacation hadn't turned out half-bad. He'd met and fallen for a tennis instructor working the resort at Bogey Wells.
Cole stared after the disappearing car. "Well, whaddaya know." Though he hadn't been back since, he'd spent most previous summers in Yaqui Springs. He remembered the year Tibby Mack had come to live with her grandmother. The kid had looked so lost and forlorn. Because Cole understood loneliness, he'd taken her fishing and given her rides on his mopeduntil she'd gotten one of her own.
Cole checked his watch. The store sign said she opened at eight. Was business so good she could take off on a whim? Not by the look of the big empty parking lot. It was all pretty much as Cole remembered, except for a new building Gramps must've put up. Even that needed a coat of paint. If Tibby's eye was on progress, it didn't show. Maybe she'd become the type to flit around living off inherited money because it was her duelike his mother, he thought bitterly. Old news, Cole reminded himself. No longer affecting him. Nor did anything about Tibby affect him.
Cole jerked his thoughts back to the mission that had brought him hereJoe Toliver's letter. It'd come at the right time. Tired of traveling, he'd been giving serious thought to settling down and starting a family of his own. He even had a lady in mind. Cicely Brock, an actress. They got along well. Plus, when the two of them walked into a room, men stepped all over their tongues. A guy could do a lot worse.
Cole wasn't going to let one rude woman deter his plans. He'd survey his grandfather's property, then visit the committee who'd asked him here. Those old boys just might have themselves a first-class golf course.
By the time Tibby had finished delivering her fiftieth May basket, she'd nearly ground the enamel off her molars. If one more person brought up Cole O'Donnell's name, she thought she'd scream. First of all, she didn't see how anyone could forgive him for skipping his grandfather's funeral, let alone roll out a red carpet for the man.
"Yoo-hoo, Tibby!" Henrietta Feeny came out onto her porch to collect the May basket hanging from her doorknob. "Tibby dear, have you heard the news?"
"What news, Henrietta?" Tibby fidgeted on the bottom step. She was afraid she knew exactly what Henrietta would say.
"Yale's grandson is back in town."
"Do tell. Amazing how fast bad news travels," Tibby muttered.
"Bad? But he's so handsome, dear." The plump woman preened a bit. "Why, if I were thirty years younger."
"Yes? And what about Fred?" Tibby knew that Henrietta and Fred had been married forty years. They still walked hand in hand when they came into the store.
"Oh, you know what I mean."
"No, Henrietta, I don't. Am I the only one who cares that Cole didn't show up to pay his respects to his grandfather?"
"He couldn't help it. The dear boy's been working out of the country. Tibby, you have dirt on your dress. Will you have time to change before you open the store?"
"Change?" Tibby blinked. Her mind stalled on the information about Cole. How on earth did Henrietta know where he'd been? Was there a full moon or something? Her friends were acting very strange. Absently Tibby scrubbed at the spots on her skirt. "It's honest dirt, as Gram used to say. I'll put on a smock at the store. No one'll notice."
"Tibby, about those smocks. They were all right for Lara. But they make you look frumpy."
"Frumpy? Thanks a lot, and happy May Day, Henrietta. I wish I could stay for more hot fashion tips, but I've got a very full schedule today."
"You shouldn't do so much, Tibby. I'll take Mabel into Palm Springs and get her to the airport."
Tibby had almost reached the street, but the remark gave her pause. Henrietta's eyes were so bad she had trouble telling red peppers from green; she certainly couldn't identify traffic lights. And she probably hadn't driven in five years. Farfetched though it sounded, Cole O'Donnell had apparently cast a spell on the women of Yaqui Springs. Some of the women, Tibby corrected. She saw through him.
"I'm not doing too much, Henrietta," Tibby said more gently, worried that the woman might truly take it upon herself to drive Mabel to the airport. "Maybe you should go in out of the sun. Drink a cup of chamomile tea." Tibby checked over her shoulder after starting her car. Was Henrietta exhibiting some form of mild dementia? Ginkgo encouraged blood circulation to the brain. She made a mental note to bring her friend a supply at the earliest opportunity.
Before Tibby finished delivering the remaining baskets, she decided half the town needed ginkgo. Either that, or she needed the spring tonic. Men and women alike bubbled excitedly over Cole's sudden appearance.
Tibby drove past the O'Donnell house on her way back to the store. She craned her neck and saw Cole surveying the property. At the funeral, she recalled, his mother had mentioned that he'd inherited virtually everything. Tibby's stomach tumbled. Was he planning to sell Yale's place?
To whom? she wondered. Since his land bordered hers, any sale concerned Tibby. If only she could swing buying twenty or so acres. Yaqui Springs expanded every yearit'd be nice to have space between the store and any new dwellings. Except for the nearby bird sanctuary and the state park, the smattering of retirement communities dotting the shores of the Salton Sea were loosely zoned. A few oldtimers like her grandmother and Yale had built permanent homes; most others lived in mobiles or prefab homes that had sprung up willy-nilly.
Tibby parked and got out. She didn't understand how Cole could sell and never lay eyes on Yaqui Springs again. Everything that mattered to her was right here. Unlocking the door, she flipped the Closed sign around to read Open.
She stood there for a minute and drew in a deep breath. Thyme, rosemary and ripe oranges blended with the lemon oil Grandmother Mack had taught her to use lovingly on the old wood counters. To some the store with its many additions might look like a hodgepodge. To Tibby it was homeand had been since shortly after her tenth birthday, the spring her missionary parents died in a Brazilian mud slide. She loved every nook and cranny of the rambling house and the store. Both were solid structures. Safe.
Happy as she'd once been in Brazil, fond memories were overshadowed by the frightening pain of loss. People lived to a ripe old age in Yaqui Springs. As Tibby ran water for the coffee, she took comfort in that thought.
A group of coffee-bar regulars, townsmen who stopped to sample her special blend and her cardamon or poppy-seed rolls before they went to play golf at Bogey Wells, arrived before the coffee finished perking. They seemed unusually ebullientCole O'Donnell again?but Tibby was too busy catching up on her work to eavesdrop. Besides, the point of her newly installed tea-and-coffee bar was to run itself. Ideally people filled their own cups and bussed the tables afterward. She made fresh rolls and sandwiches daily, placing them in a refrigerated case for easy access. She'd installed a small microwave in the alcove for her patrons' convenience. If she was busy in the office, pharmacy or beauty shop, folks were more or less left on the honor system. Lara Mack had operated on trust, and Tibby saw no reason to change.
Midway through the morning, after the men had gone, she busily wrapped tomato-and-sprout sandwiches for the lunch bunch. Justine Banks, Yaqui Springs's resident artist, strolled in, passing through to what was once the store's sunporch. Last year Tibby had made it a pharmacy of sorts. She carried Band-Aids, ointments and a number of simple holistic remedies.
"My hay fever's acting up," Justine called. "That elder-flower tea worked wonders. And Pete asked me to pick up another bottle of purple-sage mouthwash."
"Really?" Tibby poked her head around the corner. "I thought you said he wouldn't give up his commercial brand."
Justine winked. "I said he didn't want to give it up. There's a difference. To convince a man, you have to work things around to where it appears to be his idea. Remember that advice, Tibby. Someday when you get married, you'll find it useful."
"Married?" Tibby wrinkled her nose. "Me? When would I find time for a husband? That's supposing a candidate just dropped out of the sky." Tibby stilled, recalling a time she'd dreamed of marrying Cole O'Donnell.