Benson, California, represents all that Tess Cole doesn't want. So she intends to keep her business trip there brief. Too bad her idea to quickly change the mayor's mind about some planning issues dissolves the moment she recognizes him! That one night with Slaid Jacobs remains a personal favorite for Tessand for him, too, it seems.
Even though he's gorgeous and hot, it's clear to Tess that the single dad wants a commitmentsomething she avoids. It's also clear Slaid is bent on convincing her they can build a future out of their passionate past. And that's a very tempting offer
About the Author
Claire McEwen is an award-winning author whose strong heroes and heroines take emotional journeys to find their happily-ever-afters. She loves writing stories set in quirky small towns and romantic western settings. Claire lives by the ocean in Northern California with her family and a scruffy, mischievous terrier. When not dreaming up new stories, she enjoys gardening, hiking and wandering on the beach. A life-long bookworm, she always has her kindle close by!
Read an Excerpt
The high desert air nipped her skin with icy teeth. Tess hunched her shoulders and used her free hand to haul her collar up higher, but the frigid wind worked its way between the seams of her coat, stealing her warmth inch by inch. Clutching her phone, she paced the sidewalk, raising her voice as the wind tried to whip it away. "Ed, just because my friend moved out to this backwoods cow town, that doesn't make me qualified for this!"
"We've been over this, Tess. You already know the area." Ed's voice was calm, and she pictured her boss, comfortable and snug in his San Francisco office, probably sipping excellent coffee. She'd had to endure vile convenience-store slop on the drive down, and she was pretty sure there wasn't an espresso to be found in Benson, California.
"I've been here once'" She could swear the formidable peaks of the Sierra Nevada were glaring at her. She still couldn't believe her best friend had left San Francisco behind for this.
"Come on, where is the Tess Cole I know and love? The one who enjoys a good challenge?"
"You mean the one who doesn't want to spend the next month in a town whose population wouldn't even fill our conference room?" Tess looked around at the white clapboard buildings, weathered by the fierce gusts that made this area so perfect for the wind farm she'd been sent here to sell. Down the street she saw a few ancient brick storefronts. It would be picturesque if Tess were a fan of the Wild West. She'd never cared much for history.
"Tess, did you call me just to complain? We've been having this same conversation for weeks. It's not going to be easy convincing that town to accept a wind farm, and you're the best community-relations person we've got. Anyway, don't you have a meeting with the mayor soon?" Ed didn't often get angry, but she could tell he was frustrated now.
Tess took a deep breath of the icy air, then another, calming herself. Silently counting to ten, she watched a semitruck trundle past, headed down Highway 395 toward Los Angeles. For a split second she imagined flagging down the driver and begging a ride to Southern California. She'd readily leave Ed and his windmills far behind for some sunshine, shopping and fine dining. That was her world. Not snow-topped mountains, cattle and a wind farm no one wanted.
But she also didn't want to get fired. If she ever left Ed's public relations firm, it would be on her own terms. "You're right, Ed. I'd better get started."
She made her voice contrite, but in her mind's eye she gave him a kick in the shin. It felt good.
"You can do this. Sell them on this wind project. The sooner you do, the sooner you can come home." Ed hung up and Tess listened to the silence a moment, his absence still her closest link to home.
Shoving her phone into her coat pocket, Tess stretched, cramped after the long drive from San Francisco. She looked around, coming to terms with her exile. Benson was located on the edge of a huge flat valley that seemed to come in two forms, brown pasture and brown desert. It would all be incredibly boring except for one thing. Just beyond the town, the abrupt peaks of the Sierra Nevada jutted straight up. Their jagged cliffs seemed to roll on endlessly, one granite slab piled behind another. It was only October, but there was already snow on the mountaintops.
It was pretty if you liked your nature freezing and intimidating. Tess had never given nature much thought, but walking up Main Street, she decided that this was definitely not her kind of nature. If she had to pick a favorite, it would be tropical, with beaches and fruity drinks.
Benson town hall towered over all the other buildings, built of granite cut from the surrounding mountains. Luckily, Tess found a restroom just beyond the creaky double doors. She stood in front of the mirror, inventorying the damage to her carefully assembled look.
The mirror's vintage glass provided only a wavy reflection, but one thing was clearshe was a mess. Her long blond hair, once slicked into a neat chignon, was now poking out in every direction. Her mascara had fragmented into ebony dust. And her pink cheeks and cold-reddened nose completed the havoc wreaked by the Benson wind.
Tess reached into her leather tote for her voluminous makeup bag. The sight of the colorful tubes and jars lifted her spirits a fraction. The Benson climate might challenge her skills, but she had no doubt she'd soon figure out the right products for the harsh conditions.
Her hair back in place, her face perfected once again, Tess plucked a piece of lint from her suit jacket and pulled the skirt down. It hadn't looked nearly this short in San Francisco, but something about this historic granite building made her outfit choice seem frivolous. It would have been better, and a whole lot warmer, to wear a pantsuit. No regrets, she reminded herself. No regrets, ever.
Briefcase in hand, she left the restroom and stepped lightly up the stairs into the marble-floored reception area. A wholesome-looking young woman sat at the desk, and her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Tess.
"I have an appointment with the mayor," Tess informed her. "Please tell him that Tess Cole is here." She kept her voice firm and polite, no trailing questions at the end of her sentences. It was best to take charge up front.
"Um yes, I'll get him right away." Her old wooden chair screeched on the marble floor as the young woman stood up. She clumped down a hallway to the right of the desk. Tess watched as the girl poked her head through the third doorway on the left, and then returned, self-consciously straightening the hem of her dress. "Go ahead, Ms. Cole," she told Tess, and sat down at her desk again to shuffle papers.
Tess walked down the hall toward the open door of the mayor's office. As she drew closer, she heard a deep, clear voice saying, "Gus, we have always closed down Main Street for the holiday parade." Tess paused outside the door, annoyance creeping in. If he was expecting her, why was he on the phone? The voice was momentarily silent, as its owner, presumably Benson's mayor, listened to someone on the other end of the line. "I would disagree," the masculine voice continued. "I think the parade is good for business, and if I remember correctly, your shop is always packed on parade day. Are you sure this doesn't have something to do with the fact that we asked Wyatt Silver to be the grand marshal this year?"
Gus? Wyatt Silver? These were names straight out of some old Western. What had she gotten herself into? She felt ridiculous standing in the hallway like this. He might be the mayor of the middle of nowhere, but courtesy was courtesy. Tess took a few quiet steps backward, cleared her throat and then stepped heavily, clicking her heels on the floor.
She heard the mayor say, "Gus, I'll need to call you back," just as she'd hoped. She knocked lightly and moved into the open doorway, plastering a confident smile on her face. Then she stopped, momentarily stunned.
The man sitting with cowboy-booted feet crossed on the desk was gorgeous. His light brown hair was cut short, almost military in style, and exposed his features, none of them perfect, but all together creating masculine beauty. Below his dark gray eyes was the outline of strong cheekbones, his skin clean-shaven and tanned. His nose was just slightly crooked, as if he'd broken it at some point.
Something about him looked familiarshe could swear she'd seen him before. Or did he just resemble a celebrity? Either way, she could think about it later. Right now she had to make a good first impression.
She stuck out her hand and strode toward the desk. "Mayor Jacobs, I'm Tess Cole, public relations consultant." As he stood slowly and reached for her hand, she realized he was staring, the surprise on his face turning into a slow smile that creased the weathered lines at the corners of his intense eyes. In that instant he shook her hand, it was clear that he recognized her, too. But from where?
His hand was huge and enveloped hersthere was something familiar in that, as well. It could be just because Tess had a thing for big guys. And Mayor Jacobs was big. His six-foot-something frame towered over her five-eight. She was having a hard time not staring at his broad chest and his thick muscled arms under his sleeves. She'd never much cared for men in flannel and plaid, but Mayor Jacobs could probably change her mind about that.
What was wrong with her? She'd worked with all kinds of handsome men and always kept her cool. Maybe it was the way he was smiling so broadly now, his wide mouth open in a grin that revealed a single dimple in his cheek and even, white teeth.
"Why are you here?"
His abrupt question brought her back to earthit was such a strange way to start a conversation. "I believe I explained that when I made this appointment? My firm is representing an alternative energy development company called Renewable Reliance."
"I remember. But I meant, why are you here?"
Now she was totally confused. Did they speak a different language in Benson? What was this cowboy talking about? "I'm sorry I'm not following " She kept her voice neutral.
"You don't remember me, do you?"
Tess froze. She was at a disadvantage. Something she absolutely hated. She scanned her brain for some situation where she might have met the mayor before. Then it hit her, and tension turned to relief. "Oh, yes! It was when Samantha married Jack, right?" The mayor looked puzzled, so she tried again. "Samantha Rylant? She married Jack Baron about six months ago. She's a good friend and they live in Benson. We must have met at their wedding."
The mayor gave a short laugh, studying her face with an expression of disbelief on his own. "I know them pretty well. But I was out of town for that happy occasion. I " He paused as if catching himself. "I'm sorry, why don't you have a seat." He indicated the chair opposite his desk and she sat down reluctantly. He sat down as well, moving with surprising grace for such a big man. He leaned back and regarded her bemusedly over the vast mahogany expanse. "I guess I would have hoped our previous meeting was a little more memorable for you."
Now she really was at a loss. "I'm really not "
"Phoenix, Arizona? The Fairway Resort?"
She'd been there, as a guest speaker at a convention a couple years ago. "Oh, were you attending the PR conference?"
"No, I wasn't." He watched her carefully.
"Then where did we." The realization hit her in the stomach and chest, and her heart started pounding. This couldn't really be happening. Tess kept her work life and personal life separatecompletely separateuntil now. A one-night stand. She'd had a one-night stand with the mayor of Benson.
Recollections of that one night trickled in and she felt her face warm. Memories of his huge hands roaming her body, the way he'd felt surrounding her, inside of her. How had she not recognized him? She felt hot for the first time since she'd arrived in Benson. She was blushingand she never blushed.
She tilted her chin up. No way was she letting him know she was this rattled. The smile she gave him was one she'd practiced for a long timeslow, confident and just a bit seductive. "You know, it is coming back to me now."
"You left." He steepled his fingers and looked at her over them. "You walked out before dawn. I never got your name."
"It's simpler that way."
His expression darkened. "Simpler for you."
Tess looked up at the old stamped-tin ceiling. If there was some kind of patron saint for sinners like her, she could really use some intervention right now. This was way too uncomfortable, and certainly not the first impression she'd hoped to make.
She stood. "Mayor Jacobs."
"Slaid." His eyes were deep and dark and troubled. "Or did you forget my name, too?"
She had. Though in her defense, they'd been drinking whiskey neata lot of it. She might not remember his name, but she remembered the headache she'd had when she'd crept out of his room after he'd fallen asleep. After the most amazing sex she'd ever had. The mayor of Benson might have been a one-night stand, but the raging chemistry between them had meant there'd been no boundaries, no embarrassment, just an insane heat. That night had haunted her, had become the standard by which she judged the men she slept with since. None of them had ever measured up. How had she not recognized him?
Her hands went to her burning cheeks. "Slaid, I apologize if my memory is faulty. It was a while ago."
"Two years," he said.
"Okay. Two years." He obviously had a great memory, and Tess didn't want to think about what else he might be remembering. "It's very strange to meet you again in this way."
"Yes," he agreed. He was standing now as well, one hand fiddling with a pen he'd picked up, betraying that he, too, was uncomfortable.
This situation was a disaster. But there was a silver lining. This could be her ticket out of Benson. "I'll tell you what. I'm going to call my boss and we'll put a different consultant on this job, so it doesn't have to be awkward for you. Okay?" She started backing away, wondering how she would explain this situation to Ed. By laying out the mortifying truth, probably. He wouldn't replace her for any other reason. Her past relationship with Benson's mayor would jeopardize their success herethat much was clear.
"No." Slaid's voice was firm.
"No?" Tess echoed. How could he not see how messy this would be?
"It's not okay with me. Of course you can go, but be sure to mention to your boss that if he puts anyone else on this project, I won't be cooperative."
"But that makes no sense." Tess was practically pleading. The last thing she wanted was to try to work with a man she'd slept with. A man who was making her feel so unsettled right now that she could barely think.
"It makes sense to me and I'm the mayor. Any PR consultant working for an energy firm will need a decent relationship with me to get their job done, and I don't want a replacement. You're the consultant I want to work with."
Tess stared at him in horror and growing concern. "Why?"
His voice softened. "Don't you ever think about that night?"
He wanted sex. How disappointingly predictable. Although somewhat tempting She forced her voice to be steady and cool. "Just so you know, I don't mix up my personal and professional lives.
"Seems as though in this situation you already have." His voice was soft but his jaw was set. He wasn't backing down, that was clear.
"I'm not responsible for this bizarre coincidence, Mayor Jacobs."
He didn't answer, just raised an accusatory eyebrow. The jerk. It wasn't as though she'd taken advantage of him. He'd been an extremely enthusiastic participant that night. "If you insist that I stay, it's a hundred percent professional between us. Is that very clear?"
Mayor Slaid Jacobs laughed, but it was a bleak sound. "Clear as day. We're adults. And if you're here to discuss energy development, we'll likely have a rocky road ahead. It won't be a problem to keep things professional."
"What do you mean, 'a rocky road ahead'?" Tess was angry now. "This is exactly why we need to get someone else on this job, Mayor Jacobs. You don't know anything about the project, yet you're already making assumptions that we'll be on opposite sides."
"People constantly show up here trying to get their hands on our resources. In the eighteen hundreds the prospectors came for the gold. In the twentieth century Los Angeles took most of our water. Nowadays everyone's after the minerals in our hills and the gas underneath. So what are you after?"
"You mean, what is Renewable Reliance interested in? They're investigating windenergy production in this area. And, as I've experienced since arriving in Benson, you definitely have enough wind."
"Yes we do. And it's not for sale."