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Porter Armstrong stepped off the metal ladder onto the platform of the newly restored, white water tower soaring over the resurrected town of Sweetness, Georgia. "Town" was a generous description of the expanse of stark land beneath himfields of bare red clay stretched as far as the eye could see, hemmed by stands of stunted hardwood trees that still bore the ravages of the tornado that had obliterated the small mountain town a decade ago.
Porter had happily united with his older brothers, Marcus and Kendall, in their efforts to rebuild Sweetness. With an army of strong men, they'd made great strides in clearing debris and establishing the basis for the recycling industry they hoped would provide an economic foundation for the fledgling town. One too-tall, too-perfect pine tree in the distance was actually a camouflaged cell tower erected by a communications company turned partner, eager to get in on the ground floor of the green experiment.
The project of which the brothers were most proud the newly paved road containing recycled asphaltwas a neat black ribbon leading from the horizon into what had been established as the town center. Granted, downtown Sweetness was more of a vision than a reality since it currently consisted of a dining hall and the boarding-house that had been built in preparation for impending visitors. But the brothers were optimistic.
Or, according to some, crazy.
Colonel Molly Maclntyre at the diner was one such person. She ruled the men and their dining hall with an iron fist, and did not cotton to the idea of, in her words, "a bunch of flibbertigibbet females" taking over the town.
Porter shrugged out of his work shirt and folded it over the railing to enjoy a rare cool June breeze. The summer heat had been brutal already, with the temperature and humidity sure to get worse before getting better. He pulled a bandanna from his jeans pocket and wiped the sweat dripping down his neck as he scanned the horizon, hoping for a glimpse of movementanything that might indicate a response from the ad Kendall had placed in the newspaper. The ad had run in a northern town hit particularly hard by the economic downturn, and had stated their need for "one hundred women looking for a fresh start." Kendall had reasoned women were more likely to come and stay if accompanied by friends and if they relocated from a good distance. Women in nearby Atlanta, his brother had insisted, would be too likely to hightail it back home when the going got rough.
Whatever. It wasn't as if Northern women were any different from Southern ones.
The ad had hit the newspaper in Broadway, Michigan, a week ago, and Porter had climbed the water tower several times a day in the hopes of spotting a car or moving van headed their way.
Their eldest brother, Marcus, who had grudgingly agreed to the plan to import women, belly laughed every time Porter returned to their office and gave a thumbs-down. Porter dreaded going back to face his gloating big brother again. Marcus was convinced no eligible woman in her right mind would come to their remote mountain town despite the lure of lots of strapping, single Southern men.
For his part, women who weren't in their right mind were just the kind of women Porter was hoping would answer their ad. Reckless, ripe and ready for the picking. He hadn't bedded a woman in
He cursed under his breath as he unclipped a pair of binoculars from his belt. If he couldn't remember when he'd last had a woman's legs wrapped around him, it had been way too long.
Porter adjusted the lenses to bring the distant landscape into focus, zeroing in on the brand-spanking-new road. Due to cost and labor, the brothers had decided to wait to add yellow striping until enough cars arrived to warrant two-way traffic control. For now, the most frequent travelers of the roadrabbits, skunks, opossums and armadillosdidn't seem to mind the omission.
Porter skimmed the view for any signs of human life. In the old days, the water tower had been a lookout for lightning fires and other natural disasters. The metal box on the side of the tank held tornado sirens. By a bizarre twist of fate, the tower from which the mammoth tornado had been spotted to allow an alarm to be sounded had been the only structure spared in the ensuing destruction. Tornadoes at this altitude were rare, and this one had been monstrous. Every resident had survived, but every man-made thing in the storm's path had been leveled. To the tiny town already dying a slow economic death, it had been the fatal blow.
His brothers hadn't been in town when it happened, but Porter had been home on leave from the Army and vividly remembered climbing out of a root cellar after the twister had passed. Ground-level pictures and television footage couldn't quite capture the utter obliteration of homes, schools, businesses, churches. Only aerial photographs of the flattened debris showed the enormity of the loss. Those gut-wrenching pictures were branded on Porter's braintheir own homestead and all its contents had simply vanished from its concrete footer. Hauntingly, the black metal mailbox left standing at the end of the driveway was the only proof the Armstrongs had ever lived on that spot.
His mother had cried for weeks over her missing wedding ring. Even after their father had passed away, she'd worn the gold filigree band every day, but had taken it off moments before the storm hit to do chores. Porter had scoured their property with a metal detector for days before relenting that the ring, like all their other worldly possessions and those of their neighbors, had been lost to the four winds.
When the Armstrong brothers had returned to Sweetness a few months ago, the decaying main road had been overtaken by weeds and fallen trees. Animals had taken up residence in the piles of splintered wood and crumbled brick where houses and businesses had once stood. Porter had taken one look at the remnants of the town, choked with thick kudzu vines, and had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before them.
If either of his two brothers had balked at that moment, he would've gone with them. Kendall had taken in the wasteland before them in heavy silence; but characteristically, Marcus had simply jammed his hands on his hips and said, "Let's get to work, boys."
What lay ahead had been countless hours of back-breaking work for them and the men they'd recruited, most of whom had served with Marcus in the Marines, with Kendall in the Air Force, and with him in the Army. In the beginning, they had all been too tired by the end of the day to think about the fact that their beds were empty. But now
Porter spotted movement in the distance and jerked the binoculars back to focus. At the sight of heat rising from the dark asphalt in an undulating haze, his heart jumped to his throata vehicle was approaching
a large vehicle. Porter squinted, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. When realization struck, he almost dropped the binoculars.
It wasn't a large vehicle
it was several vehicles approaching. No
A bumper-to-bumper caravan was headed straight for Sweetness! And from the looks of the arms and heads and long hair lolling out of convertibles and rolled-down windows, the cars were jam-packed with women. Hot, eager, willing women!
Porter slapped his thigh and whooped with joy. He waved his arms, knowing the chances of anyone noticing him at this distance were slim at best. But the ad had workedhe couldn't wait to tell Marcus! He rushed toward the ladder, returning the binoculars to his belt while fumbling for his cell phone. With one hand he began to scramble down the tall, narrow ladder, using the other hand to speed-dial his brother, half-wishing he could be there in person to see the look on Marcus's face.
Porter suddenly realized he'd forgotten his shirt and in his hesitation, his foot slipped off a rung. The weight of his body broke his one-handed grip. His gut clenched in realization of just how far a fall off the tower ladder would be. He flailed in midair for a few seconds before conceding defeat and tucking into a roll to help absorb the certain and nasty impact.
As he plummeted through the air, Porter released a strangled curse. Just his rotten luck that carloads of women were finally here
and he'd be lying at the bottom of the water tower with a broken neck.
The flat-back landing jarred every bone in Porter's body and drove the air out of his lungs. He lay there for a few seconds and waited for the initial pain to subside before daring to breathe. When he had no choice but to drag air into his body, he registered gratefully that his lungs hadn't been punctured. He only hoped the rest of his internal organs had fared so well. The sweet tang of wild grass and the musty scent of soil filled his nostrils. His ears buzzed with more than the noise of the insects in the weeds around him.
He opened his eyes gingerly and saw the water tower looming over him at a seemingly impossible height. The fact that he was alive was a small miracle.
At the sound of his name, he blinked, then realized the distant voice was coming from his cell phone lying near his head.
Porter twisted to reach the phone, but when pain lit up his lower left leg, he shouted in agony. "Porter?"
He made another attempt, gritting his teeth against his body's rebellion, and finally closed his fingers around the phone. He brought it to his ear. "Yeah, I'm here."
Porter winced again, contrite. "I was on the water tower."
"And.I have good news and bad news."
Marcus's sigh crackled like static over the phone. "Give me the good news."
"There's a caravan of women headed into town."
"If that's the good news," Marcus said sourly, "I don't think I want to hear the bad news."
"The bad news is I fell off the water tower and I think I broke my leg."
Porter held the phone away from his ear to spare himself the litany of curses his brother unleashed. When Marcus quieted, Porter put the phone back to his mouth. "Are you going to come get me, or do I have to crawl back to town?"
"Are you bleeding?"
Porter lifted his head and scanned his dust-covered body. "I don't think so."
"For all the good you'll do me now, I might as well let you lie there," Marcus growled, then let loose another string of expletives. "I'll get Kendall. We'll be there as soon as we can." Then he disconnected the call.
Porter laid his head back in the deep grass. Marcus was rightthey were already short-handed. If his leg was broken, he'd be laid up for at least a few weeks, a liability to his brothers.
And damn, women were coming! Just when there was a good reason to be up and moving around, he'd be relegated to bed.and not for fun.
He pushed himself to a sitting position and eased up the leg of his work-worn jeans. He was relieved not to see bones protruding, but the persistent, shooting pain from his ankle confirmed the injury was more than a bruise. Gritting his teeth against the ache, he inched himself backward to lean against a sapling and swat at gnats until he heard the rumble of two four-wheelers heading toward him.
Kendall came into view first, his face a mask of concern. Marcus followed a few yards behind, his mouth pulled down in annoyance. Porter waved to get their attention. They pulled to a stop a few yards away. For all his irritation, Marcus was the first one off his ride, and the first to reach Porter.
"You okay, little brother?"
"Peachy," Porter said through clenched teeth.
Marcus glanced up at the water tower, then back to Porter. "Damn fool. Did you think you could fly?"
Anger flashed through Porter's chest. "Yeah, Marcus, I did a swan dive off the platform."
"We know it was an accident," Kendall soothed, crouching to inspect Porter's leg.
"Doesn't matter whether it was on purpose or not," Marcus grumbled. "Outcome is the sameyou're probably out of commission for the whole damn summer!"
"Why don't we wait to see what a doctor says?" Kendall suggested.
"What doctor?" Marcus said with a snort. "One of us will have to take him to Atlanta. As if we didn't have enough to do today."
"Maybe we should call for an airlift," Kendall suggested.
"It's not that serious," Porter protested. "Marcus, if you'll let one of the workers drive me to Atlanta, I'll find an emergency room and be back before you know it."
Marcus gave a noncommittal grunt.
Kendall strode back to the four-wheeler and opened the storage compartment. "I brought a neoprene wrap from the first-aid station, but it's going to be a bumpy ride on the way down." He knelt to fasten the wrap around Porter's ankle, boot and all, then waved for Marcus to get on the other side. When they heaved him to his feet, the flood of pain took Porter's breath away, covering his face with a sheen of sweat.
"Think about something else," Kendall urged.
Porter tried to smile. "I'm thinking
all the women.waiting.in town."
"Marcus mentioned you saw some cars headed this way."
"Dozens of cars," Porter said, exhaling loudly. "All carrying
hot, young women. We'll get down the moun-tain.just in time.to say hello."
"You're going to make a hell of an impression," Marcus offered. "No one's going to want a busted-up man to take care of."
"I beg to differ," Porter said, setting his jaw against the pain. "Women will be
to take care of me. In fact.that was my plan.all along."
Marcus handed him a small stick. "Here, bite down on this."
"For the pain?"
"No, so you'll stop talking."
Porter tried to laugh, but getting settled on the four-wheeler was more painful than he'd anticipated. Ditto for the trip down, although Kendall tried to take it easy.
By the time they rolled into the center of town, Porter was ready to be horizontaland drugged. But the sight of cars of all makes and models pulling to a stop in front of the boardinghouse and diner and all along the narrow paved road sent a shot of adrenaline coursing through his veins. Blondes
it was a veritable smorgasbord of female deliciousness.
Countless feminine faces peered at them question-ingly through windshields and open windows. And from their four-wheelers, the Armstrong brothers peered back. Apparently the workers had noticed the caravan of cars passing by because a rickety supply truck chugged up behind them, with men packed in the back like cattle. The tension in the air was palpable, as if both groups knew the importance of this moment, each side sizing up the other.