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Monday, December 1, 2008
Wyatt McCall jammed his rented Hummer into Park in front of the Casale Remodeling offices. He stepped out of the vehicle and slammed the door. The sound was followed closely by the less forceful door-closing of his ever-present personal assistant's assistant, Cassie. On the other side of the H2, his public-relations director, Louisa, exited the rear passenger seat. "You might want to wait outside," he told the two women.
"No way," Cassie said, hugging her lightweight suit jacket around her. "You could need us."
"What, as witnesses to a murder?" he replied as he yanked open the front door. A large evergreen wreath adorned with a copper-colored wire mesh ribbon slapped against the glass inset and copper ribbons adorned with jingle bells jangled wildly as they bumped against the wooden door.
This building had been a small appliance store way back when he'd been a boy in Brody's Crossing. Now the walls, the flooring and the door looked different. More classy and modern. Efficient, not fussy. Toni had put her stamp on everything.
Including him. But that was very old news.
"Um, maybe you should wait just a minute to compose yourself," Louisa suggested.
"No way. I like my bad attitude." He pulled back his leather jacket to slip his Oakleys into the collar of his sweater. After looking around to get his bearings, he followed the hallway past an empty conference room to what appeared to be Toni's office.
"Hello, Wyatt," she said before he could get after her for ratting him out to a reporter about his youthful transgression. His last one in a long history of acts of misbehavior in Brody's Crossing.
She sat behind a modern design wood desk, her hands folded in front of her. By choice he'd only seen her a few times in the past fifteen years, on his rare visits to town, and always from a distance. She still took his breath away. Today she wore a royal-blue sweater and who-knew-whatbelow. Jeans orchinos?A skirt that showed off her incredible legs? Or maybe tall black boots.
Her expression conveyed calm and serenitythe exact opposite of what he was feeling, now that he'd gotten his breath back. He wanted to ruffle her sleek blond hair. Pull her out of that big office chair and
"I'm very sorry for what happened," Toni said. "When I spoke to that reporter, I only meant to give him background."
"Well, you did that," Wyatt said, stepping into the room. "Background that made me look like an irresponsible juvenile delinquent."
"Wyatt, in all fairness, you were irresponsible and a troublemaker."
He shrugged. "A minor infraction that you turned into a major incident." It was damned irritating that she'd revealed to the national magazine reporter, who was doing a story on Wyatt's newly formed foundation for at-risk kids, that he'd skipped town fifteen years ago, before finishing his municipal sentence for painting the water tower purple and gold. Once the story came out, questions from others in the media and even some business associates had elevated the old incident from a triviality into a potential problem.
How could a very successful manalbeit a former troublemakerserve as a role model for potential juvenile delinquents when he'd been so irresponsible that he hadn't even completed his court-imposed sentence? He couldn't! He had to make this right so he could be a positive influence on those kids. He was one of the only people around who had both the money and the background to make a real difference.
His people had worked with the city officials to come up with a PR solution: Wyatt would come back to Brody's Crossing for some community service, to make amends for leaving the sentence unfinished, and he'd get photos and a new story on the importance of making things right. And personally he'd get to put his past misbehavior behind him. To make it right for himself, not just the town or the media.
Although at the moment, he could barely remember why he'd thought coming back to town was a good idea. Not with Toni Casale sitting in front of him, looking all serene and grown-up.
"You're not being very fair," she said.
"I'm not feeling very fair. As a matter of fact, I'm kind of angry." Angry at himself, for spending his youth as a prankster, and at her, for being mayor of the town in which they'd grown up. And at the situation, which was both their faults. He might have painted their school colors on the tower, but she'd leaked the news that he'd left town before it was completely boring-white again. Everyone in Brody's Crossing knew he'd left for Stanford fifteen years ago, white paint still under his nails, but only she had brought up the subject in an interview. Maybe, deep down inside, she was still mad at him for leaving so suddenly.
"I told you I'm sorry."
"Are you sorry as the mayor or as my former girlfriend?"
She drew in a deep breath. "Both, I suppose. Maybe because we used to be friends and I know what it feels like to be disappointed."
He narrowed his eyes and suppressed a comeback. She had a point, one that he didn't want to explore at the moment. Her reasonable attitude and reminders of the past took the wind out of his sails. "Whatever your intentions, the point is that I'm back in town to finish my 'sentence' and we all have to make the best of it."
"With all due respect," Toni said, pushing out of her chair, "I'm not the one who has to do anything."
She wore a straight chino skirt, not as short as he'd hoped, with brown boots that looked more conservative than the stiletto-heeled black ones he'd envisioned. She hadn't gained weight in the past fifteen years. Not that he'd wanted her to, of course, but if she were sporting humongous saddlebags or if she'd started dressing like the construction workers she employed, he'd have had an easier time living in the same town with her for the next couple of weeks.
"You have to put up with me. It's hard to believe, but I can be hard to get along with. Just ask" he turned, looking over his shoulder "Louisa and Cassie."
He stepped aside and Toni peered around him. "Hello."
"Cassie McMann is my assistant's assistant and Louisa Palmer is my public-relations director."
"Hi," Cassie said, grimacing that characteristic funny smile of hers.
"Nice to meet you," Louisa said in her best PR voice.
Toni rounded the desk, grabbed Wyatt's arm and pulled him into the hallway. The fact that she'd gotten him alone almost made up for the defiant sparkle in her eyes. She dropped his bicep like a hot potato. "You brought your people to help you finish your sentence?" she asked in a raspy whisper.
"They're not here to help me do any actual work. I can handle that. They're here to keep me out of trouble with seemingly well-intentioned former friends. And the media."
"Would those be the friends you abruptly left when you moved away? The friends you conveniently forgot to contact once you made it big?"
That sounded a bit personal. "I didn't forget the town." He'd sent checks to some of his parents' favorite causes. And maybe a few to make up for his youthful indiscretions. His foundation, based in California, would eventually work nationally to help kids who had gone astray and had no one else to pull them back from the edge. Bored kids, smart kids with too much time on their hands, frustrated kids. Kids from bad homesor good homes where they weren't understood. The causes of their problems weren't as important to him as the result.
Some people might think he was just one more rich guy doing something to make himself look good, but this work hit a lot closer to home than most folks realized. He, more than most, understood the importance of channeling all that energy, resentment and anger into positive pursuits rather than lashing out at the most convenient target.
In his case, that damned water tower where he and Toni used to go to make out.
"You might not have forgotten that you grew up here, but you seemed to forget the people in the town," she said. "Your friends, in case you've forgotten."
"I didn't think that certain friends were interested in ever speaking to me again." He and Toni had had some outstanding arguments and equally fantastic makeup sex. Except for that last time, when there'd been no makeup anything.
Toni rolled her eyes. "Come on, Wyatt. Bring your entourage and come over to city hall. I've arranged a meeting with the new chief of police and the city manager sowecango over the details of your 'sentence,' as you put it. You're lucky the city went along with your ideas about publicly making amends. They certainly didn't have to legally, since the incident happened fifteen years ago." She started back to her office.
Wyatt wasn't about to let that comment about an entourage go unchallenged. He put a hand on her arm, halting her. "Cassie and Louisa are employees, not an entourage."
Toni shook off his light grip as if she didn't want him to touch her. "I'm sure they're perfectly lovely women. I simply didn't realize what dealing with such a famous entrepreneur would entail." She walked to her desk and grabbed a big ring of keys. "Most people who come to visit don't bring their staff."
"I only brought two people," he said, then realized he sounded too defensive. "I'm still on the board of directors for my former business and I've got a foundation to get running."
"Believe me, I know. I've heard nothing but inquiries on the famous billionaire bachelor Wyatt McCall. I'm surprised you didn't bring bodyguards."
Cassie had suggested that very thing, but Wyatt didn't need them in Brody's Crossing. He wasn't exactly making news, he wasn't one of those "bad boys" who attracted paparazzi, and besides, staying in and around Brody's Crossing wasn't easy due to the lack of motel rooms. But he needed to get this task done so that the follow-up story would reflect well on his foundation.
"Being famous sure beats being infamous," he said.
"In your case," Toni said, looking back over her shoulder as she grabbed her own brown leather jacket on the way out the door, "I'm not sure there's a difference. At least, not here in Brody's Crossing."
"You'll know soon enough. I'm going to be on my best behavior." Despite the way Toni looked in that modest skirt and that beckoning blue sweater. She'd always had a figure made for sweaters. And short skirts.
"I sure hope so," she said. "For all our sakes, please just do the work to finish your sentence and get back to the West Coast."
"That's the plan, isn't it?" he said as he settled his sunglasses in place and followed her out the door. Of course, when had he ever followed someone else's plan?
The statute of limitations had run out long ago on the crime of painting the water tower purple and gold, but the memories of most people in town were vivid, Wyatt learned as he walked down the sidewalk along Main Street.
"Wyatt! Good to see you back. You stay out of trouble, now, you hear?" Rodney Bell called out from across the street.
"Wyatt, you devil. What are you up to now?" Bobbi Jean Maxwell asked with a big grin as she parked her car in front of the bank on the corner.
"Wyatt, what devilment do you have planned this time?" First National's president, George Russell, called out from the bank's entrance, chuckling and waving as Wyatt, Toni, Cassie and Louisa walked past. Good thing the citizens of Brody's Crossing only knew about a few of his misdeeds. The tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
They crossed Main Street and headed to the city administration building on the opposite corner. Hopefully, this meeting would be quick. He'd get his sentence and get this ordeal over with. He had no intention of doing anything to give the citizens of Brody's Crossing any new fodder for gossip. He was a changed man, an adult.
Well, most of the time, anyway.
He got his assignment from a rather apologetic city manager. Decorate the community center lawn for the holidays, using some existing decorations. In return, in Wyatt's honor, city officials were moving the annual chili dinner to the same weekend as the parade. They wanted him to make a few comments and attend the dinner, and then he was free to go back to California.
The new police chiefDaniel Montoya, according to the name tag and introductionsaid very little. After all, this wasn't a police matter. This wasn't even a court matter any longer. As long as he didn't get into any more trouble, Wyatt and the police chief wouldn't have any reason to see each other except over a bowl of chili next weekend.
"That should give you some good opportunities for PR photos," Toni told Louisa, then looked at him as if it were his idea to play up his return to town. Hell, if it hadn't been for Toni blabbing to the reporter, no one would have known about the time long ago that he'd publicly shown his school spirit.
He agreed to the community center project, smiled and shook hands, then stalked back to the H2. He'd decorate the community center as it had never been decorated before. He'd show Toni Casale that he could be a model citizen, even when technically he didn't need to do a single thing.
"Buckle up," he told Cassie and Louisa as he pulled out of the parking space, heading around the block and back south toward their home for the next week or so.
"Do you have directions?" Cassie asked, glancing at the GPS installed in the H2.
"I know where we're going without satellite assistance," he told her. After all, he'd lived here for eighteen years. Although some new businesses had opened recently, most of the structures were the same, he noticed as they drove east on Main Street, just a couple of blocks from downtown.
Wyatt could have stayed with his parents, but since Cassie and Louisa were here also, he'd opted for the renovated Sweet Dreams Motel. The place looked much better now than he'd remembered from his youth, he thought as he pulled into the newly asphalted lot.
His parents had always referred to the place as "that rattrap" and made disparaging remarks about the people who stayed there. Transients and riffraff, they'd said. To Wyatt, the folks had looked more like hourly workers and poor visitors. Once, he'd ridden his bicycle over to see who was really there. He'd accidentally seen the former chief of police come out of one of the rooms, followed by a woman who wasn't his wife.
That had started Wyatt's brushes with the law. The old chief of police had never forgotten the nosy kid from the wealthiest family in town. The new chief, Montoya, seemed like an upstanding guy who wanted no part of the limelight. Smart man.