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Ellie Donahue grinned at the comment her robust friend, Sunny, had thrown out. "Let's not get crazy, Sunny. Besides, who really needs a man? This early in the morning you just need another cup of coffee." She poured her friend another cup. "This one's on me."
Her last comment was directed to both Sunny and Lydia. Lydia was a sixtyish silver-haired woman and the owner of the Red Rose Cafe
' where Ellie was filling in, waiting tables during the breakfast rush.
Lydia chortled. "No, it's on me. And Ellie, honey, she's right. We all need a man. This town could use a whole lot of men, seeing as how we pretty much don't have any."
Ellie opened her mouth, and Rosellen January, who ran the drug store and was close to six feet tall, held up her hand. "Don't even mention Brady or Caleb or Mister Fipps, Ellie. You know what Lydia means. I want a man who's willing to talk to me, who'll still be in my bed when the morning comes and who's under ninety-five years of age. Red Rose doesn't have anyone like that anymore. The young men leave as soon as they can get out and support themselves, and the few that stay are too unmotivated and lazy to do anything, much less be good providers and husbands."
Ellie shrugged and sat down at the table next to her friends. "Red Rose is still home."
"Yes, but our home is dying," Joyce Hives said softly, playing with the tail of her light brown braid.
"Rural small-town Illinois has its charms, but in this case, we're getting so small that soon there won't be anything left of us. We've dropped to less than three thousand people and falling. The population marker at the edge of town could be changed every six months and it still wouldn't be right."
"That's right. If I don't get some business over at the dairy shop soon, my profits are going to dry up completely and I'm going to have to close the doors. And if I don't get a man in my bed, I'm going to dry up and disappear. Don't you ever feel that way, Ellie?" Sunny frowned at her coffee cup.
Ellie was glad that she'd never had the tendency to blush. She knew what Sunny was talking about. At twenty-nine, she'd heard plenty about the kind of heat that was supposed to be generated between a man and a woman, but her early experiences in life must have put her on the wrong track. Her mother had given birth to seven babies within ten years, all before her twenty-ninth birthday and all difficult pregnancies and births. A frail and nervous woman, Luann Donahue's childbirth and mothering experiences had left her worn out before she'd even lived, and Ellie's own experiences with men, few as they were, had been awful. There had been her father, who had never taken any interest in his children. He had been positively cruel to his wife until the day he died when Ellie was nine. There had also been Gunther Thurlo, who had purported to be Ellie's friend when she was nineteen, but who had tried to rip her dress and had called her names when she wouldn't sleep with him. And three years later, there had been Avery Johns, who had wanted her only to take care of his four motherless children, to give him even more children, and who had run out and proposed to another woman the day after Ellie had told him no. In her world, relationships with men always turned out wrong, no matter how promising they looked at first glance.
Two of her sisters, Lana and Ronnie, had stayed in Red Rose, married young and were already divorced, while their husbands moved on. Her other four sisters, Allie, the twins Becca and Judy, and Suze had gone away to college and never returned. None of them seemed to have much interest in marriage. So Ellie was positive the kind of stuff Sunny was referring to was only appealing on the big screen. Men and marriage didn't offer anything she wanted badly enough to go through the hell she'd seen her mother and sisters go through, and she was just glad that she could support herself.
"But I do want Red Rose to survive," she said gently, ignoring Sunny's question.
"Well, it won't if we can't bring in new blood,"
Lydia warned. "We're all hurting, every business in town. Like it or not, Ellie, Red Rose needs men. The kind of men that can rejuvenate and repopulate our town."
"So what do we do?" Ellie heard herself ask the question with a definite sense of déja
' vu. This conversation had been repeated before, but before things had not been this serious. She knew Sunny and Lydia were right. The economy of Red Rose had taken a hit in the past couple of years. The town wasn't just suffering from a shortage of men. Half the small group of kids who had graduated from Red Rose High just a month ago had already wandered north to Chicago looking for the things that Red Rose could no longer provide. In a town of less than three thousand, with no industry, there just wasn't anything to keep an ambitious young man here. For every four women there was only one man, and a significant number of the men were either very old or too young to leave.
"We could have a big party and hope that some of the guys from neighboring towns show up and stay," Delia Sable, a young and pretty blue-eyed blonde who worked at Chesney's Floral volunteered.
"Did that," Lydia answered. "They ate our food and drank a lot of beer, but in the end they went home."
"We could build something that would attract attention to Red Rose and bring in tourists," Joyce Hives said.
Ellie smiled sadly. "We did that, too, remember?" She almost shuddered to think of the hideous statue sitting at the edge of the highway on the far side of town.
"We need something more solid," Sunny declared.
"We need someone who knows what men want and who has the money and the clout to bring them here," Lydia agreed. "What we need is a business consultant."
"Well, yes, that does make sense, I suppose," Ellie said.
"You know, Parker Monroe is a consultant. Helps businesses match up with new markets," Sunny said slowly, staring pointedly at Ellie. "I read that in a special 'People Who Make the City Work' section of the Chicago Tribune."
Ellie suddenly felt her breath sticking in her throat. She had a very bad feeling about where this conversation was headed. "I hardly think Parker is going to come back to Red Rose," she said. "It's been eleven years since he left town, and he didn't leave smiling."
"He might come back for a visit if it was put to him in the right way," Lydia mused. "You knew him pretty well once, didn't you?"
Excerpted from The Pied Piper's Bride by Myrna Mackenzie Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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