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This was her favorite kind of Haven Point evening.
McKenzie Shaw locked the front door of her shop, Point Made Flowers and Gifts. The day had been long and hectic, filled with customers and orders, which was wonderful, but also plenty of unavoidable mayoral business.
She was tired and wanted to stretch out on the terrace or her beloved swing, with her feet up and something cool at her elbow. The image beckoned but the sweetness of the view in front of her made her pause.
"Hold on," she said to Paprika, her cinnamon standard poodle. The dog gave her a long-suffering look but settled next to the bench in front of the store.
McKenzie sat and reached a hand down to pet Rika's curly hair. A few sailboats cut through the stunning blue waters of Lake Haven, silvery and bright in the fading light, with the rugged, snowcapped mountains as a backdrop.
She didn't stop nearly often enough to soak in the beautiful view or enjoy the June evening air, tart and clean from the mighty fir and pines growing in abundance around the lake.
A tourist couple walked past holding hands and eating gelato cones from Carmela's, their hair back-lit into golden halos by the setting sun. From a short distance away, she could hear children laughing and shrieking as they played on the beach at the city park and the alluring scent of grilling steak somewhere close by made her stomach grumble.
She loved every season here on the lake but the magnificent Haven Point summers were her favoriteespecially lazy summer evenings filled with long shadows and spectacular sunsets.
Kayaking on the lake, watching children swim out to the floating docks, seeing old-timers in ancient boats casting gossamer lines out across the water. It was all part of the magic of Haven Point's short summer season.
The town heavily depended on the influx of tourists during the summer, though it didn't come close to the crowds enjoyed by the larger city to the north, Shelter Springsespecially since the Haven Point Inn burned down just before Christmas and had yet to be rebuilt.
Shelter Springs had more available lodging, more restaurants, more shoppingas well as more problems with parking, traffic congestion and crime, she reminded herself.
"Evening, Mayor," Mike Bailey called, waving as he rumbled past the store in the gorgeous old blue '57 Chevy pickup he'd restored.
She waved back, then nodded to Luis Robles, locking up his insurance agency across the street.
A soft, warm feeling of contentment seeped through her. This was her town. These were her people. She was part of it, just like the Redemption Mountains across the lake. She had fought to earn that sense of belonging since the day she showed up, a lost, grieving, bewildered girl.
She had worked hard to earn the respect of her friends and neighbors. The chance to serve as the mayor had never been something she sought but she had accepted the challenge willingly. It wasn't about power or influencenot that one could find much of either in a small town like Haven Point. She simply wanted to do anything she could to make a difference in her community. She wanted to think she was serving with honor and dignity, but she was fully aware there were plenty in town who might disagree.
Her stomach growled, louder this time. That steak smelled as if it was charred to perfection. Too bad she didn't know who was grilling it or she might just stop by to say hello. McKenzie was briefly tempted to stop in at Serrano's or even grab a gelato of her own at Carmela'sstracciatella, her particular favoritebut she decided she would be better off taking Rika home.
"Come on, girl. Let's go."
The dog jumped to her feet, all eager, lanky grace, and McKenzie gripped the leash and headed off.
She lived not quite a mile from her shop downtown and she and Rika both looked forward all day to this evening walk along the trail that circled the lake.
As she walked, she waved at people walking, biking, driving, even boating past when the shoreline came into view. It was quite a workout for her arm but she didn't mind. Each wave was another reminder that this was her town and she loved it.
"Let's grill some chicken when we get home," she said aloud to Rika, whose tongue lolled out with appropriate enthusiasm.
Talking to her dog again. Not a good sign but she decided it was too beautiful an evening to worry about her decided lack of any social life to speak of. Town council meetings absolutely didn't count.
Her warm mood lasted until a few houses from her own, when an older gentleman out clipping the tall hedge in front of his trim brick home whirled to face her, almost as if he had been lying in wait for herprobably exactly what he had been doing.
"I need a word with you, missy."
Her stomach dropped. Darwin Twitchellthe bane of her existence and the three previous mayors before her.
"Mr. Twitchell. How are you this lovely evening?"
"Terrible," he growled. He wore a perpetual frown, much like his English bulldog, Petunia, who adored him. Of the two, Petunia clearly had the more appealing personality.
"I'm sorry to hear that," she answered, trying to be polite.
"Oh, I doubt that. I really do."
She tried so hard to be nice to Darwin. It was almost a point of honor with her, but he was one of those perpetually unhappy people who twisted everything around and made it so difficult to be kind.
As both a natural-born and determined optimist, she struggled every time she had dealings with the manwhich was at least two or three times a week when he came to her with some kind of beef about the city.
A Korean War combat vet, Darwin had recently become a widower. In the months since, he had become even more sour, if possible. Though arthritis gnarled his fingers and he relied on a cane for balance and support, he still somehow managed to keep his yard and house exquisite, without a stray leaf or overgrown branch.
She considered it one of life's great mysteries that a man who seemed to be a festering pile of frustration could expend so much effort and energy into making his property into a restful oasis of blooms and trailing vines and sturdy, beautifully placed trees.
A mystery she would try to puzzle out another day, she told herself. She had a chicken breast to grillafter she dealt with whatever stick he had up his hindquarters today. Dealing with irate citizens was part of her description as mayor, like it or not.
"How can I make things better for you this evening?" she asked politely.
"How long have you had your name on the door at the mayor's office in city hall?" he demanded.
"Six months, Mr. Twitchell." Six difficult, stress-filled months. Why, again, had she ever thought this whole mayoral gig was a good idea? Oh, yes. Because she loved this town. Perhaps not every single inhabitant, though.
"Six months." Darwin scowled. Or maybe he was beaming with happiness and glee. It was hard to tell, since all his facial expressions looked the same. "And how long have I been warning you about that bridge over the Hell's Fury?"
The expression was a scowl, then. Not really a surprise.
She forced a smile. "Just about every week for the past six months, Mr. Twitchell."
"I don't know why I waste my breath. You obviously don't care, since you haven't done a damn thing about it since you've been in office."
She tried not to let that sting, especially considering all the things she had accomplished in six short months. He was a lifelong resident of this town, one of her constituents, and she owed it to him to try to address his concern. As much as she wanted to hug his adorably grumpy-faced dog and walk away.
"The public works director is aware of the problem. We've talked to the state about it. It's on the list. We're waiting on a couple of grants and appropriations to come through. When that happens, it will be at the top of our list, I promise you."
"When will that be?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you exactly. As I'm sure you're aware, it costs a great deal of money for that kind of project. Right now the city cupboard is a little bare for a major infrastructure repair."
"If this were Shelter Springs, we would have had a dozen new bridges by now. My nephew, the mayor, would never let things go this long."
She had heard the same argument plenty of times over the past six months. According to Darwin, Mayor Martin of Shelter Springs could walk the entire length of Lake Haven without getting the cuffs of his tailored slacks damp.
"Now, Mr. Twitchell, we have our challenges, yes. But the people of Shelter Springs have their own."
She would like at least one of their problemsmore tax revenue than they knew what to do with.
Instead, her downtown was dead and most of the available property had been tied up for years by one man.
Just the thought of him made her grind her back teeth and grip Rika's leash a little more tightly.
"You'd better do something about that bridge or there's going to be trouble, mark my words," Darwin grunted.
"I appreciate the advice, Mr. Twitchell," she lied.
"And another thing. Garbage collection. That darn truck knocked over my can again for the third week in a row! Does that fool driver even know how to operate the thing?"
Apparently the mayor, by virtue of the office, was responsible for every single thing that went on within the city limits. Garbage collection was run by the county, as Mr. Twitchell fully knew.
"It might have something to do with the slope at the end of your driveway. It's a little tricky to set the can down just so."
"I don't know why we ever had to switch over to those stupid automated trucks. Who can even pull those big cans out to the street, unless they're a superhero or something? More trouble than it's worth, you ask me."
Who would ever be dim enough to ask Darwin Twitchell anything, unless he or she wanted to spend the rest of the day listening to his lengthy litany of complaints?
She drew in a deep breath, focusing on the scent of pine and lake instead of acrimony. Darwin was an object of pity. He had little to do but sit around and stew about everything wrong in his world, both globally and locally. The challenge of righting a tipped-over can probably represented all the things he could no longer do because of his age and physical limitations.
McKenzie forced a smile, trying her best to inject a little genuine compassion in it. "Next time the truck tips over your can when it's done taking your garbage, please leave it. I'll be happy to pick it up for you and roll it back to the house."
He harrumphed at that and she knew he would never consider leaving his can tipped over all day, waiting until she could get to it. He was so particular, he raked the gravel out on his parking strip if anybody so much as left a bike tire trail through it.
"Just find a damn garbage truck driver who knows what the Sam Hill he's doing. That's all I ask. Nobody cares anymore about doing a good job. They're all so busy on their computers, sending out nekked pictures of their whatsit."
She almost laughed aloudwhy didn't anybody send her nekked pictures of their whatsit?but she managed to contain it. "I'll talk to the county public works supervisor and ask him to remind the garbage collectors to be a little more careful."
"You do that. And take care of that bridge, too!"
He gripped his cane and made a sharp gesture to Petunia, who had the effrontery to be fraternizing with the enemyor at least the enemy's cinnamon poodlethen shuffled back up his driveway with the dog trotting behind him.
She sighed and continued on her way. She wouldn't let one cranky old man ruin her enjoyment of this beautiful summer evening.
When she reached her lakeside house, however, she forgot all about Darwin and his perpetual complaints when she discovered a luxury SUV with California plates in the driveway of the house next to hers, with boat trailer and gleaming wooden boat attached.
Apparently someone had rented the Sloane house.
Normally she would be excited about new neighbors but in this case, she knew the tenants would only be temporary. Since moving to Shelter Springs, Carole Sloane-Hall had been renting out the house she received as a settlement in her divorce for a furnished vacation rental. Sometimes people stayed for a week or two, sometimes only a few days.
It was a lovely home, probably one of the most luxurious lakefront rentals within the city limits. Though not large, it had huge windows overlooking the lake, a wide flagstone terrace and a semiprivate boat dockwhich, unfortunately, was shared between McKenzie's own property and Carole's rental house.
She wouldn't let it spoil her evening, she told herself. Usually the renters were very nice people, quiet and polite. She generally tried to act as friendly and welcoming as possible.
It wouldn't bother her at all except the two properties had virtually an open backyard because both needed access to the shared dock, with only some landscaping between the houses that ended several yards from the high water mark. Sometimes she found the lack of privacy a little disconcerting, with strangers temporarily living next door, but Carole assured her she planned to put the house on the market at the end of the summer. With everything else McKenzie had to worry about, she had relegated the vacation rental situation next door to a distant corner of her brain.
New neighbors or not, though, she still adored her own house. She had purchased it two years earlier and still felt a little rush of excitement when she unlocked the front door and walked over the threshold.
Over those two years, she had worked hard to make it her own, sprucing it up with new paint, taking down a few walls and adding one in a better spot. The biggest expense had been for the renovated master bath, which now contained a huge claw-foot tub, and the new kitchen with warm travertine countertops and the intricately tiled backsplash she had done herself.
This was hers and she loved every inch of it, almost more than she loved her little store downtown.