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This mall sucks!
The spray-painted scrawl across the whimsical pueblo-style exterior of Starlight Desert Mall hit Sylvie Stark like a poison dart. Starlight Desert was her second home, the store owners and employees practically family.
Now the area looked like the aftermath of a frat party. Trash bags from the Dumpster had been torn open, their contents strewn about, and festoons of toilet paper dangled from the thorny mesquite trees and soiled the silver sage hedges.
The timing couldn't have been worse. In an hour, the mall's owner, Marshall McCann, would arrive to make Sylvie the new general managerher dream almost since she started working here at age fourteen.
Currently second-in-command, Sylvie was the obvious choice to replace Mary Beth Curlew, the former GM, who'd left abruptly two weeks ago to care for her ailing mother in Michigan.
Mary Beth did tend to take credit for Sylvie's work, but she'd surely recommended Sylvie to Fletcher, Marshall's younger son, the McCann Development liaison to the mall.
Still, Sylvie felt uneasy. Marshall was the decisionmaker and he hadn't been to the mall since before his wife, Starr, passed away from cancer three years ago. The mall had been Starr's baby.
Sylvie had a complicated relationship with the McCanns. Her mother, Desiree, had been best friends with Starr and when Sylvie moved in with her grandparents due to Desiree's travel schedule when she was seven, Starr had treated her like family.
Now Sylvie feared Marshall still thought of her as the teenage assistant who served muffins at mall meetings or the little girl sitting quietly at the noisy McCann holiday dinners.
That was why she'd included her work history and accomplishments in the update she'd preparedto assure Marshall that the mall was in capable hands.
Now this vandalism threatened her moment. It felt as though she were about to host a foreign dignitary with a pile of dirty laundry on the porch. Worse, it might make Marshall believe the slight down-tick in profits meant more than it did.
Just as Sylvie grabbed her cell phone to call the head of security, Randolph emerged from the mall, shoulder to shoulder with Betty, the maintenance manager, loaded with paint gear.
"We're on it," Randolph told Sylvie when they got close.
"Graffiti-buster primer," Betty said grimly, hefting one of the three paint cans. The other two were gold and turquoise, the two colors the ugly scrawl had been sprayed over.
Most malls were blah beige boxes. Starlight Desert was a feast for the eyesa colorful take on an ancient Hohokam village, with rounded corners, wooden posts and decorative ladders, its walls painted gold, turquoise, salmon and purple, all cozily tucked into the parklike area of shade trees and desert landscaping also owned by McCann Development.
"Marshall is due soon, so just a quick coat for now," Sylvie said.
Betty nodded and set to work. Two of her crew had spread out to gather the trash, determined as soldiers. Sylvie's heart lifted at the sight. Everyone who worked here was as devoted to the mall's well-being as she was.
"Who would do such a thing? Is this a post-Halloween prank?" she asked Randolph.
"It was either those Goth kids I gave hell for banging into your mom's kiosk or those delinquents from that art group."
"The art kids love it here." Sylvie had convinced Mary Beth to lease a hard-to-rent space to Free Arts, which taught art to kids from drug rehab programs or foster homes. They had to earn the privilege of coming. "At least it's not gang tags."
"Just you wait," Randolph said. "That's coming."
"Hold on. You're sounding like Councilman Collins." A modest increase in home foreclosures and petty crime in the area had Reggie Collins politicking in the press about the need for urban renewal funds and more police patrols.
Everyone loved Starlight Desert, the homey heart of Phoenix's oldest suburb. If there were problems, Sylvie was determined Starlight Desert would be part of the solution.
"This wouldn't have happened if I had more guards," Randolph said. "Leo's nephew needs a job, you know. We could hire him at least."
"Let's just be more watchful for now." Randolph took his job very seriously, which Sylvie appreciated, though she had to rein him in from time to time. If he had his way, he'd ground every teenager who walked in the place.
With ten-year-old twin daughters, the man was terrified of puberty.
"You'll mention it to Marshall? About the new locks and about replacing the golf carts?" Randolph pushed.
"Let's get our revenues up first." She had a plan for that to show Marshall, too. "If you've got this handled, I'll go set up for my meeting." She patted her laptop, which held the presentation she'd run through at home until she'd nearly memorized it.
"You'll do great," Randolph said. "You're sure dressed like a boss." He nodded at her outfit with a wistful smile. Recently divorced, Randolph had a bit of a crush on Sylvie they both wisely ignored. "Is that from Margo's?"
"Yes." She'd spent too much on the white silk shirt and navy suit, but Sylvie supported mall shops whenever she could. She felt sweat trickle down her rib cage. It was nerves, not heat. Summer had released its death grip on Phoenix and the early November air was pleasant, the sun gentle.
Randolph held the mall door for her and Sylvie stepped inside. Home. The feeling never failed to cheer her.
She paused to breathe in the aroma of flowers and fruit from Heaven Scents, the lotion shop, and pick up light jazz on the loudspeaker. In a couple of weeks the smells would be cinnamon, clove, peppermint and pine and the music would be Christmas songs.
The prospect made Sylvie's heart swell with joy. The holidays here were so festive, so full of promise and surprise, of people wanting to show their love in tangible ways. To her, Starlight Desert was a lot like Christmas.
Maybe it was weird to love a mall, but Sylvie and Starlight Desert had history. Her happiest memories with Desiree and her grandparents were here. She even had the same birthday as the malla sign if she'd ever heard it.
"Want a ride to the stairs?" Randolph asked.
"Just to the bakery to pick up my order, please." She climbed into Randolph's security cart, happy not to scurry the length of the mall in her new pumps and the itchy lace-topped stockings Margo had talked her into instead of her usual sensible panty hose.
They rolled past the pet store and Sylvie craned her neck for a good-luck look at the puppies in the window. They were Cavalier King Charles spaniels and cute as buttons. She'd given them all reindeer names in honor of her favorite season.
Randolph hit the brakes, and Sylvie was rocked forward and back. "Want to pick one out? Jed would give you a good price. He needs the room for the rescued dogs."
"I can't have a pet," she said, watching her favorite, Dasher, tumble over the one she'd named Rudolph for his very pink nose. "I'm here twelve hours a day. He'd be alone too much."
"That's the point, Sylvie. You deserve more of a life. A dog, a husband, kids." His kind eyes looked her over.
"I've got plenty of time for all that." She was only twenty-nine. She waved her hand at the distant prospect of a family. Frankly, since Steve left for Seattle three months ago, she'd been glad to reclaim her free time. Their breakup had been amicable and she'd visited him in Seattle. The sex had been nice, but relationships needed too much nurturing. That was tough enough when you lived in the same city but nearly impossible long-distance. The truth was she didn't have space in her life for anything serious just yet.
"Don't wait too long. That's all I'm saying. Marriage is a wonderful thing. I wish I'd appreciated the good times when I had them."
"Did the girls' visit go better this time?"
"Yeah, thanks to you. We played that board game all weekend."
The twins had been bored during their previous visit to Randolph's new bachelor apartment, so Sylvie had given them the game as something they could all do together. "It was Toy Town's top seller, so I thought it might work."
"You always take care of us."
"Just doing my job, Randolph," she said. "We're all in the Starlight Desert family. You can let me off here." She bounded away before he could get mushier. Or, worse, romantic.
Breathing in the sweet and yeasty smells of Sunni's Bakery, she bopped into the kitchen for her order of the award-winning cranberry-nut scones she knew Marshall liked, then dashed up the stairs to the mall offices.
Once she had her PowerPoint presentation set up, Sylvie left the refreshments for Cyndi, the GM's assistant and receptionist, to arrange, and dashed out to check on the cleanup effort.
When she got there, she could barely see where the new paint had been added and the crew was prying off the last of the toilet paper from the sage bushes.
Spotting a few streamers at the top of a mesquite tree, Sylvie braced a ladder against the trunk and climbed up to retrieve them.
The damned paper was just out of reach. She stretched higher, but fell partly into the scratchy branches. Yikes. Her heart racing, she lifted a leg to balance herself.
Thank God there was no one below her to get flashed.
"Can I help?"
The voice came from beneath her. Sylvie cringed, then twisted to see who might have glimpsed her panties. Chase McCann, Marshall's older son and Sylvie's first crush, grinned up at her from the bottom of the ladder. What the hell? The man did investment deals all over the U.S. and Europe and was rarely in town.
"Chase? What are you doing here?"
"Helping you, looks like." Humor danced in his dark eyes, so he'd definitely seen. Damn.
He braced the ladder, forcing her to climb down into his arms, while he looked her over, not the least apologetic that he'd perused her underwear.
"You hurt yourself?" he asked, checking her out in that amused older brother way he'd always had with her.
Except that one night.
That one fizzled-out fire of a night.
Her twenty-first birthday and she'd intended to lose her virginity to him until he figured out what she was doing and backed away as if she were contagious or radioactive or both.
"Not at all. I'm perfectly fine." The backs of her hands stung from scrapes and she'd snagged her jacket, but no way would she admit that.
"You've got leaves." Chase reached over and tugged mesquite twigs from her curls.
"Thanks." She stepped back, needing distance from the man and to retrieve the tatters of her dignity.
"You're all dressed up." He shaped his hands in a body curve, not sexual at all, but his golden-mocha eyes held her tight. He had a way of really looking, as if he knew her well and was damned glad about it. Chase was a charmer, for sure.
He looked good in trendy jeans and a black microfiber shirt that molded itself to his chest. He clearly squeezed gym time into his jet-setting party schedule. Mary Beth kept Sylvie updated on his exploits through Fletcher.
"I've got a meeting." She looked at her watch. Uh-oh. She had to get upstairs.
"I'll get that." He nodded up at the fluttering toilet paper she'd been unable to grab. "You can head in. Dad's already there."
"He is? Damn. Thanks." She spun on her heels and ran. She was halfway down the mall before she realized Chase had never answered her question: Why was he here?
From the top of the ladder, Chase watched Sylvie take off, blond curls bouncing, backside firm in that tight skirt. Hardly any jiggle to it. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
Distracted, he nearly took a tumble himself. Focus, bro.
He grabbed the fluttering toilet paper and lowered himself to the ground.
The stockings had been a surprise. He'd have pegged Sylvie as a bare-legs girlpractical, simple and easy.
She did need help, Fletcher was right about that. Why the hell was she out here doing yard work in a suit?
She seemed worried and looked exhausted, probably from juggling two demanding jobs.
According to Fletcher, she was eager to join her boyfriend in Seattle, so Chase taking over the GM job would be a relief to her. Funny, but Sylvie didn't strike him as someone who would arrange her life around a guy, but people changed, he guessed.
She was still a wound-up coil of energy, for sure, with a spark in her green eyes and a plan cooking every second. She still had that steady serenity about her that he'd loved. She made him want to slow down and just pay attention.
Even flustered, falling into a tree, flashing the world her underthings, she'd remained her solid self. Ah, Sylvie. He had to smile. She always made him smile.
He needed it, too. Chase's focus in Phoenix was getting his new project off the ground, but his father and brother were in a tug-of-war over the fate of the mall, and Fletcher had asked Chase to bring his dealmaker eye to the situation.
If his family needed him, Chase was there, regardless of the personal land mines he'd have to dodge.
Bailing Sylvie out was a nice bonus.
Chase handed the ladder off to a worker and tossed the paper in the trash on his way into the mall.
He stepped inside and was hit with sick dread, reminded instantly of the months he'd run the mall once his mother became too weak to make the drive. He'd been barely there, a ghost, going through the motions, his attention on his failing mother. The mall was her joy.
It was named after her because she was the light of their father's lifeall their lives, really. Starr had smoothed Marshall's rough edges and oiled the friction between the two brothers, building a decent family out of the four of them. After she died, they'd fallen apart, bumped heads, scraped words, grieving in their separate ways.
If emotions ruled, they couldn't sell this place fast enough to suit Chase. But he did business based on facts, not feelings. So Chase would gather the data, drill down to the bottom line, then lay out the case for either keeping the mall or selling it based on what he found.
Which likely wouldn't resolve the issue. Fletcher was as stubborn as their father, whom they called the General. Marshall would never sell away his wife's dream while Fletcher was convinced that selling was the only way to go.
Chase took the stairs to the mall offices, where his father stood in the doorway to the meeting, munching on a pastry, a china cup puny in his big hand.
"You're holding up the show, son," he boomed, his voice as big as his presence. Marshall McCann took up a lot of space. He motioned Chase inside.
Sylvie looked startled to see him. "You're sitting in? Oh. Okay." She bit her lower lip, a move Chase felt below the belt. Sylvie had the most kissable mouth he'd ever tasted, before or since that ill-advised night.
"Grab him a chair, would you, hon?" his father said to Sylvie. "And some of this good coffee, too."