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Alicia Randall burst into her editor's office. "I have my next story!"
Nina Halleck, executive editor of Feminine Power magazine, looked up from her desk and laughed. "Please, come in."
Alicia smirked. "Sorry, Nina, but you're not going to believe this. There's a small town in Georgia that imported women for their men."
Nina squinted. "Mail order brides?"
"More like bringing the entire catalog to town for the men to browse," Alicia said dryly.
Nina pursed her mouth. "Okay, that's a spin on matchmaking. What's the name of the town?"
Alicia settled a hip on the edge of Nina's desk, distantly registering the Manhattan skyline view. "The place is called Sweetness. Isn't that great? I can't make this stuff up."
"Was there a shortage of women in this Sweetness?"
"Apparently, it was an abandoned mountain town that was being rebuilt, and there were no women. So a year ago the town leadersall mentook out an ad in a newspaper in the town of Broadway, Michigan for" she looked at her notes "single women with a pioneering spirit, offering free room and board, and lots of single, Southern men."
"Why Broadway, Michigan?"
"From what I can gather, Broadway was hit particularly hard by the downturn in the economy. I guess they thought women there would be desperate to relocate."
"Did anyone respond?"
"Yes a large group of women went down, a hundred or so." "And?"
"And" Alicia leaned forward. "I want to go down there and see what's going on. It could be my next topic for the Undercover Feminist column."
Nina set down her pen. "Do you think they're doing something illegal?"
"Not necessarily. But doesn't it assault your sensibilities to think of a group of Neanderthals advertising for women to come and service them?"
"Do the Neanderthals have a name?"
Alicia checked her notes again. "Armstrong
Marcus, Kendall and Porter Armstrongbrothers. Apparently they grew up in Sweetness. About ten years ago, an F-5 tornado blew the town off the map."
Nina grimaced. "Loss of life?"
"None. It was called the Sweetness Miracle. "
"I think I remember when that happened. I was writing copy for TV news." Nina glanced upward, as if she were searching her memory banks. "No one was killed, but every building and home was destroyed and maybe a water tower survived? Something like that."
"Hmm. So these Armstrong brothers are restoring their hometown?"
"According to the town website, they have a federal grant to rebuild based on a green initiativerecycling, alternative energy, tree-hugger stuff."
"It's a great cover," Alicia agreed. "Especially if they're starting their own commune."
"So what do you have in mind for a story?"
"I want to do an expose of this chauvinistic matchmaking experiment of theirs."
"By going undercover? As what?"
"What else? A woman with a pioneering spirit looking for a single, Southern man."
Nina released a laugh. "You, on a manhunt?
Alicia, when was the last time you even had a boyfriend?"
Alicia narrowed her eyes. "I wrote an entire feature on why that B-word should be stricken from every woman's vocabulary."
"I remember," Nina said. "Sorryold habits die hard. Besides, when I called Henry my manfriend, he said it made him feel like a butler." She tilted her head. "But you digress what administration was in power when you last had a man in your life?"
Alicia frowned. "I don't need a man in my life, and I don't want a man in my life."
"My point exactlyso how do you propose to pass yourself off as a woman on the prowl?"
"I took acting classes in college," Alicia said with a shrug. "Besides, anything for a good story, right?"
"If there is a story. The Armstrong brothers didn't exactly coerce those women into moving there, did they?" "Not that I can tell."
"So it's a free country. Maybe they have the right idea, bringing men and women together to build a community from scratch."
It was Nina's job to play the devil's advocate, Alicia conceded. "Tell you whatI have a few weeks of vacation coming, and my mother has been after me to visit her since she moved to Atlanta. Why don't I head down and check out this place while I'm there?"
"When did your mother move to Atlanta?" "Six months ago with her new boyfriend um, Bo."
"Bo? That's his real name?"
Her boss considered her with shrewd eyes. "Alicia, are you sure this idea isn't to satisfy some sort of personal vendetta to prove men and women can't be happy together?"
Alicia scoffed. "The divorce rate in this country already proves that. Whatever I find in Sweetness will merely be anecdotal. Come on, I have a gut feeling that something will come of this. Will you authorize the expenses?"
Nina gave a rueful laugh. "Okay, it's your vacation." Then Nina took off her glasses and leaned back in her chair. "Alicia the magazine has been approached about making your column a syndicated blog."
Surprise and happiness shot through Alicia. "That's great news!"
"Yes, it is," Nina agreed with a smile. "Congratulations. I wasn't supposed to say anything yet, but if this trip you're planning turns up something interesting, it might be the right material for a blog series.
It could be your first piece, a way to pull in readers right up front and develop a following."
Alicia nodded. "Maybe I can get some of the women from Broadway to tell their personal stories anonymously, of course."
"I like it," Nina agreed. "It has broad appeal and a human factorI think readers will go for it." Then she gestured to Alicia's dark razor-cut hair, Nanette Lepore pantsuit and Stuart Weitzman pumps. "You're going to have to take it down a notch if you're going undercover in a mountain town, don't you think?"
Alicia gave a dismissive wave. "I've been camping before." "When?"
"When I was nine, my dad and his secondno, third wife took me to the Met to camp overnight."
"It was a special programthe museum set up tents in the atrium."
"Oh, yeah, that's exactly the same as living in a mountain town."
Alicia laughed. "Nina, I know this place will be different than my condo on the Upper East Side, but it's not completely primitiveI've read they have wi-fi and cell phone service."
"And spas and Starbucks?"
"I can acclimate."
Nina smiled. "This assignment is suddenly starting to sound more interesting. And who knowsmaybe you'll find a big, strapping guy and live H.E.A."
Alicia squinted. "H.E.A.?"
"Happily ever after."
She gave her boss and friend a pointed look. "That's funny and pretty much contradicts everything this magazine stands for." She pushed off the desk. "I'll call you when I get there."
Brimming with excitement, Alicia left Nina's office and strode back through the noisy bullpen to her own office, with a smaller but equally nice slice of skyline view. The haze of summer hung over the cityit was a good time to get out of the brutal heat. The South would be steamy, but a change from the sizzling asphalt. Her mother had assured her a sweet magnolia-scented breeze blew round the clock.
She booked a flight to Atlanta and a hotel room in the area where her mother lived, then picked up her cell phone and dialed her mother's number. Candace didn't answershe was probably out on Bo's fishing boat, Alicia thought with an eye-rollso she left a voice message telling her mother when she'd be arriving.
She glanced over her emails, grimacing at a "save the date" message from her father for his fall wedding to socialite Miranda Kitt, Mrs. Robert Randall number six. She wondered why he even bothered with a ceremony anymore, but each of his young wives had wanted the pomp and circumstance.
Alicia heaved a sigh. Her parents' behavior had moved beyond humiliating years ago. It was almost comforting in its familiarity, and in some ways, she appreciated that they hadn't given her unrealistic expectations of romance like most women her age. The time her peers in college, grad school and her early career had spent trying to find a mate, Alicia had spent working odd jobs, honing her skills and furthering her network. As a result, at thirty-one, she was the youngest staff writer in the forty-year history of the heavy-hitting Feminine Power magazine, and making a name for herself with exposes in her Undercover Feminist column.
To date, she'd taken on the system by going undercover to reveal job applicant and interview inequities, discrimination in the health care system and academic tenure programs, plus gender service inequalities in everything from car repair to dry cleaning. The Undercover Feminist column had spawned a couple of investigations by national news networks, garnering lots of coverage for the magazine. If the town leaders of Sweetness, Georgia, had initiated a mass matchmaking trend that was detrimental to women, she intended to get the word out.
Alicia paged through the rest of her emails, then brought up a browser screen and typed in the website address for Sweetness, Georgia, The Greenest Place on Earth.
She moved from screen to screen, on the hunt for tidbits she could use once she arrived. The fledgling town featured a boardinghouse, a clinic with a helipad, a school, a General Store, diner, bank and hair salon. A business of recycling tires and other materials into indestructible mulch had proved to be lucrative, as had the windmill farm and produce from an expansive organic garden.
A lost and found warehouse of items recovered after the tornado had its own social networking page for former residents to stay in touch. A restored covered bridge was being touted as a tourist destination. A scientist had built a laboratory to study the medicinal effects of a mountain vine called kudzu. And the town was having a Homecoming weekend in a month to welcome back anyone who had ever lived there.
On the About page was a photo of the three Armstrong brothers standing outside, dressed in dirty work clothes. Theirs was a strong gene pool, Alicia acknowledged with grudging approval, all of them as big as trees and rather attractive in a rugged sort of way.
The youngest looking onePorter Armstrong, according to the title underneath the photowas obviously the personality of the three, grinning at the camera. The one standing in the middleKendall Armstronglooked approachable, if less gregarious. The oldest looking oneMarcus Armstronglooked the least pleased to have his picture taken. From his body language, she could tell he was the natural leader of the group, yet he seemed to hold himself apart a loner. She could relate.
Those eyes Alicia's stomach tightened. Marcus Armstrong had the most intense stare of any man she'd ever seen.
What would it be like to gaze into those eyes while sharing a pillow? Desire stabbed her low and deep. She shook off the sensation with a little laughNina's teasing was getting to her.
But those eyes.
She picked up the phone and dialed the Research Department. "Neil, this is Alicia. I need a full background report on a Marcus Armstrong, currently residing in the town of Sweetness, Georgia. M-A-R-C-U-S ."