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Maya Farlow told herself there was a perfectly good explanation for the mayor of Fool's Gold to have a picture of a man's naked butt on her computer screen. At least she really hoped there was. She'd always liked Mayor Marsha and didn't want to find out something more than a little icky about the woman who was now her boss.
Mayor Marsha sighed heavily and pointed to the screen. "You're not going to believe this," she said, and tapped a key. The picture moved as the video played and the audio started up.
"The contest closes on Friday at noon. Text your guess to this number."
Maya stared at the computer. When the picture stopped again, she studied the phone number onscreen, the seventy-something female host frozen midgesture and the picture of the naked butt behind her. The naked, male butt, Maya corrected mentally, not sure the gender mattered as much as the nakedness.
"Okay," Maya said slowly, knowing that she would be expected to say something else. Possibly something, you know, intelligent. But honestly, she couldn't think of what that could be. How on earth was she supposed to make an old lady in a tracksuit talking about a naked butt contest make sense? Of course, that was a much happier concern than finding out Mayor Marsha watched porn.
Mayor Marsha pushed a couple of buttons on her computer and the image disappeared. "You can see the problem we're having with Eddie and Gladys's cable access show."
"Too many naked butts?" Maya asked before she could help herself. Stating the obvious was never helpful, but what on earth else was there to say?
Mayor Marsha Tilson was California's longest serving mayor. She looked exactly as she had twelve years ago when Maya had been a nervous sixteen-year-old, moving to a strange little town and hoping to fit in. The mayor still wore classically tailored suits and elegant pearls. Her white hair had been swept up in a tidy chignon. As a teenager, Maya hadn't known what to make of the mayor. Today, she thought the other woman was someone to be admired. Mayor Marsha ran her town with a firm but fair hand. Even more important to Maya, the mayor had offered her a job right when Maya had known she had to make a change in her life.
So here she was, the shiny new communications director for Fool's Gold, California. And the old lady with the naked butt contest was apparently now her problem.
"Eddie and Gladys have always been colorful," Mayor Marsha said with a sigh. "I admire their zest for life."
"And interest in younger men," Maya murmured.
"You have no idea. Their cable access show is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike, but we've been getting some emails and phone calls about some of the content."
"You need me to rein them in."
"I'm not sure if that's possible, but yes. We don't want to have to deal with the FCC. I know two of the commissioners and I don't want to be fielding calls from friends in high places, so to speak." The older woman shuddered. "Or explain what on earth is going on in this town."
After seeing a clip of the show, Maya would have guessed there was nothing anyone could say for the rest of the day that would surprise her more than a woman pushing eighty showing a naked butt on television and inviting viewers to text in their guess on which famous local celebrity it might be. Maya would have been wrong. Mayor Marsha personally knowing an FCC commissioner or two beat naked butts hands down.
So to speak.
She made a few more notes on her tablet. "Okay. I'll talk to Eddie and Gladys and explain about the indecency restrictions for broadcast shows."
She had a good idea what the requirements were but would have to look up the specifics. She had a feeling the TV duo were not the types to be intimidated by vague rumblings of FCC rules. She would have to go into the discussion armed.
"You are getting thrown in the deep end, aren't you?" Mayor Marsha smiled at her. "This is only your second day. I hope you're not regretting your decision to take the job."
"I'm not," Maya assured her. "I love a good challenge."
"Then consider yourself blessed." The mayor glanced at her notepad. "Next up we need to discuss our new video campaign. The city council wants a two-pronged approach. The first set of videos will be about our town slogan. Fool's Gold: A destination for romance. The second set will be in support of general tourism."
They'd discussed the new campaign at Maya's interview. "I have a lot of ideas for both," she said eagerly.
"Good. We're still coming up with more ways to use the videos. They'll be put on the town's website, of course. But we'll also want them to be used for commercials. Both on the internet and television."
Maya nodded as she typed on her tablet. "So thirty-second spots for sure, with additional cuts of the material in one- and two-minute lengths? The message varying, depending on the target audience?"
"I'll leave the technical aspects of it to you, Maya. Also, any ideas you have for increasing viewership of the videos would be appreciated. The city council is a dynamic group, but we're not tech savvy. You're going to have to lead the way on that."
She had some contacts, she thought. Not anyone at the FCC, but friends in advertising who would be happy to brainstorm ideas. It would be easy to edit material so that it appealed to different interests. Focus on the outdoor activities the town had to offer on ESPN and sports websites. Show family-friendly things to do on cable channels more traditionally watched by women, with links on websites that appealed to women with children.
While this kind of work was different from what she was used to, she was excited by the possibilities. Her previous job, at a local TV station in Los Angeles, had become too comfortable. And her attempts to get hired by the network had failed, leaving her at loose ends. The job offer in Fool's Gold had come along at exactly the right time.
"You're going to need some help," Mayor Marsha told her. "There's simply too much work for one person. Especially if we want the videos done by the end of summer."
Maya nodded in agreement. "I'd prefer to do the editing myself. There's an art to it." And trusting someone else with her content would be difficult. "But I could use someone to help preproduction and during the shoots."
"Yes. Plus an on-air talent person. Is that what it's called? Or is host a better word?"
Maya felt a minor twinge. After all, in a perfect world, she would be hosting the videos. But the truth was, the camera didn't love her. It liked her well enough, but not so much with the love. And in the business that was any kind of recorded media, passion was required. Which meant they needed someone who dazzled on-screen.
"Someone local?" she asked, thinking of all the sports celebrities in the area. Plus, she knew that action movie superstar Jonny Blaze had just bought a ranch outside of town. If she could get him, that would be a coup.
"I had someone else in mind," Mayor Marsha said.
As if on cue, the mayor's assistant knocked on the door and then stepped into the room. "He's here. Should I send him in?"
"Please do, Bailey," Mayor Marsha told her.
Maya glanced up, curious as to whom the mayor would consider for such an important job. There was a lot on the line for the town and Mayor Marsha always put Fool's Gold first. If he
Maybe it was a trick of the light, Maya thought frantically as her eyes focused. Or a mistake. Because the tall, broad-shouldered, slightly scruffy guy walking toward them looked alarmingly familiar.
She took in the too-long curly hair, the three-day beard and the oversize, well-worn backpack slung over one shoulder. As if he'd just stepped off a pontoon plane direct from the Amazon forest. Or out of one of her dreams.
Delany Mitchell. Del.
The same Del who had stolen her virginity and her eighteen-year-old heart and had promised to love her forever. The Del who had wanted to marry her.
The Del she'd walked out on because she'd been too young and too scared to take a chance on believing that she was the least bit lovable.
His jeans were so worn they looked as soft as a baby's blanket. His white shirt hung loose, the long sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was that irresistible combination of disheveled and confident. The ultimate in sex appeal.
How could he be back in town? Why hadn't she known? And was it too late to bolt from the room?
Mayor Marsha smiled with pleasure, then rose. She crossed to the man and held out her arms. Del stepped into her embrace, hugged her, then kissed her cheek.
"You haven't changed at all," he said by way of greeting.
"And you've changed quite a bit. You're successful and famous now, Delany. It's good to have you back."
Maya stood, not sure what she was supposed to do or say. Back as in back? No way, no how. She would have heard. Elaine would have warned her. All living, breathing, handsome proof to the contrary, she thought.
Ten years later, Del still looked good. Better than good.
She found herself fighting old feelingsboth emotional and physical. She felt breathless and foolish and was grateful neither of them was looking at her. She had a second to get herself under control.
She'd been so young back then, she thought wistfully. So in love and so afraid. Sadly, fear had won out and she'd ended things with Del in a horrible way. Maybe now she would finally get the chance to explain and apologize. Assuming he was interested in either.
The mayor stepped back and motioned to her. "I think you remember Maya Farlow. Didn't the two of you used to see each other?"
Del turned to glance at her. His expression was an ode to mild curiosity and nothing else. "We dated," he said, dismissing their intense, passionate relationship with casual disregard. "Hello, Maya. It's been a long time."
"Del. Nice to see you."
The words sounded normal enough, she told herself. He wouldn't guess that her heart was pounding and her stomach had flopped over so many times she feared it would never be right again.
Was it that he didn't remember the past, or had he truly put it all behind him? Was she just an old girlfriend he barely recalled? She would have thought that was impossible, and she would have been wrong.
He looked good, she thought, taking in what was new and what was exactly as it had been. His features were sharper, more honed. His body bigger. He'd filled out. Grown up. There was a confidence to his gaze. She'd fallen in love with a twenty-year-old, but before her was the adult male version.
The puzzle pieces fell into place. Her meeting and discussion with the mayor. What was expected of her as far as promoting the town. The need for a well-known person to host the videos.
Her lips formed the word No even as her brain held in the sound. She turned to Mayor Marsha.
"You want us to work together?"
The older woman smiled and took her seat at the conference table, then motioned for Del to sit, as well.
"Yes. Del's back in town for a couple of months."
"Just for the rest of the summer." He settled in a chair that seemed too small for him. His grin was as easy as his posture. "You guilted me into helping."
Mayor Marsha's blue eyes twinkled with amusement. "I might have done what needed doing to get you to agree," she admitted. She turned to Maya. "Del has experience with filming. He's made some videos himself."
He shrugged. "Nothing that special, but I do know my way around a camera."
"As does Maya. I would like the two of you to collaborate on the project."
Maya told herself to keep breathing. That later, when she was alone, she would scream or keen or throw something. Right now, she had to remain calm and act like a professional. She had a brand-new job she very much wanted to keep. She loved Fool's Gold, and since moving back to town, she'd felt more content than she could remember ever feeling before. She didn't want that to change.
She could handle Del being back. Obviously he was 100 percent over her. Which was a good thing. She was over him, too. Way over. So over as to almost not remembering him. Del who?
"Sounds like fun," she said with a smile. "Let's set up a meeting to brainstorm what has to be done."
She was smooth, Del thought, watching Maya from across the small conference table. Professional. She'd stayed friends with his mother, so he heard about her every now and then. How she'd been promoted to senior producer at the local news station in Los Angeles, and how she wanted to get to a network position. Showing up in Fool's Gold was an unexpected left turn in her career path.
Just as unanticipated had been the call from Mayor Marsha, inviting him to be a part of the town's new publicity project. She'd phoned about fifteen minutes after he'd already decided he was coming home for the summer. The woman had mad skills.
"How about tomorrow?" Maya asked. "Why don't you call me in the morning and we'll set up a day and time?"
"Works for me."
She gave him her cell number.
Mayor Marsha's desk phone beeped.
"Excuse me," the mayor said. "I need to take this call. I'll leave you two to work out the details."
They all rose. Del and Maya walked into the hallway. Once there, he half expected her to bolt, but she surprised him by pausing.
"When was the last time you were back?" she asked.
"It's been a couple of years. You?"
"I came home to visit Zane and Chase a couple of months ago and never left."
Her brothers, he thought. Technically her stepbrothers, but he knew they were the only family she had. While he'd grown up in a loud, close-knit, crazy family, Maya hadn't had anyone but an indifferent mother. She'd made her own way in the world. Something he'd respected about her, until that trait had turned around and bit him on the ass.
"You're a long way from Hollywood," he said.
"You're a long way from the Himalayas."
"So neither of us belongs here."
"Yet here we are." She smiled. "It's good to see you, Del."
He thought the words, but didn't say them. Because it was good, damn her. And he didn't want it to be. Maya was born trouble. At least she had been for him. Not that he would make that mistake again. He'd trusted her with everything he had and she'd thrown it back in his face. Lesson learned.
He nodded at her, then swung his backpack over his shoulder. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Her smile faltered for a second before returning. "Yes, you will."
He watched her go. When she was out of sight, he thought about going after her. Not that there was anything to say. Their last conversation, a decade ago, had made everything clear.
He told himself the past was the past. That he'd moved on and was long over her. He'd gone his way and she'd gone hers. Everything had worked out for the best.
He walked out of City Hall and toward the lakefront. There was a continuity to the town, he thought as he looked around and saw tourists and residents coexisting. City workers were changing the banners, taking down those celebrating the Dog Days of Summer Festival and hanging the ones proclaiming the Maa-zib Festival. This time last year, they'd been doing the same thing. And the year before and a year from now. While there were a handful of recent businesses opening, truth was the heart of the town never changed.
Brew-haha might be a new place to get coffee, but he knew that when he walked inside he would be greeted, very possibly by name. There would be a bulletin board advertising everything from dogwalking services to upcoming civic meetings. That while some of the friends he'd had in high school had moved on, most of them had stayed. Nearly all the girls he'd kissed as a kid were still around. Most of them married. This was their home and where they felt they belonged. Their kids would grow up to go to the same elementary school, middle and high school. Their kids would play in Pyrite Park and go to the same festivals. Here, life had a rhythm.