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Sweet Child Of Mine
By Jean Brashear
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Michael, your father just wants to know that you'll have someone of your own. We worry about you being alone. He needs the peace of mind."
"I'm not alone, Mom. I have plenty of friends." Michael Longstreet leaned back in his chair, boots propped up on the desk, and squeezed his eyes shut. Telephone cradled on one shoulder, he stared out his law office window. The quiet of Prosperino's Main Street in early February was something he normally looked forward to, but this year was anything but normal.
His town was in trouble. His father's heart was giving out. His mother, usually so relentless in her need to meddle in his life, had turned frail overnight.
"And I had someone," he continued to make his case. "I had Elaine."
"I know." Her voice fell. "I can't help thinking that if we'd given our blessing to your marriage, she and the baby would still be alive."
No, Mom. That's not on your shoulders. That blame is all mine. "Mom, don't -"
"It's just that he worries about you."
"I know." It was an old record, the grooves worn thin. "But there's no reason to worry. My life is fine. I've got my work and my duties as mayor -" He glanced at his watch and shoved to his feet. Rory Sinclair, the FBI expert investigating the contamination of the Hopechest Ranch well, had asked for a meeting that would begin in half an hour.
"Mom, I've got to go. I'm sorry. There's a meeting about Hopechest. I'll stop by and see Dad in the morning, all right?"
"Michael, will the town's water be all right?" She sounded old, all of a sudden. Tremulous in a way that worried him.
"Sure it will," he said, with a confidence he couldn't back up with facts. It was his main task lately, projecting assurance so that people wouldn't panic. "The FBI is on the case and they're getting close, they tell me. We'll know soon what made so many people sick." He stood up, ran his fingers through his hair and wondered when he'd ever get a good night's sleep again. "Listen, Mom, I've got to go now, but don't you worry. I can't magically produce a wife to make Dad happy, but I'll talk to him again, make sure he sees that I'm just fine. I'll figure out a way to ease his mind." And he would, just as he'd always done his duty by his family.
With one notable exception.
He listened to his mother for another few moments, made sure that she was steadier before he said goodbye. Then he glanced at his watch again, grabbed his jacket and strode out the door.
Mayor Longstreet was on the job.
Something was wrong with Suzanne Jorgenson.
That evening Michael frowned, watching the slender, dark-haired social worker standing so quietly at the podium. The emergency city council meeting was jammed with anxious citizens, all talking at once.
A voice lifted above the rest. "Michael, how do we know this DM - uh -"
"DMBE," he supplied. He'd only heard of the substance an hour ago himself.
"Whatever," the man in the second row shouted.
"My wife's pregnant and we've got three other kids. What makes you think the contaminated water is only at Hopechest Ranch?"
Michael leaned closer to his microphone, praying for the right words. The air was thick with fear. A full-blown panic wasn't far off.
"The only people who've gotten sick have been either kids who live at Hopechest or townspeople who work there."
"Why would anybody want to poison a ranch full of kids?" someone asked.
"Those kids are troublemakers. Even their parents don't want them," said a disgruntled voice.
Finally Michael saw a spark in Suzanne's deep violet eyes. Her long hair swung as she turned quickly to pin the speaker with a glare. "Just because it's been forty years since you had kids around, Homer Wentworth, doesn't mean you have no responsibility to help those less fortunate."
Michael tried not to gloat. Old Wentworth wanted to raise the drawbridge around his property and ignore the rest of the world - until his taxes were impacted.
He'd picked the wrong person to spar with. Suzanne Jorgenson was passionate about one thing beyond anything else: troubled children. In the months since she'd come to Prosperino, he'd seen the ravenhaired beauty standing at the podium in city council chambers many times - usually chewing him out for all the shortcomings of the city he ran, full of suggestions for ways to better the lives of Prosperino's neglected children. She would work herself into the ground to give them the love and support she firmly believed should be every child's God-given right.
Michael was accustomed to the crackle in the air from her boundless well of energy, her St. George-against-the-dragon flair. He would even admit to enjoying baiting her simply to see the sparks flare from those bottomless eyes. There was very little that was restful about the social worker whose primary responsibility was the unwed mothers at Emily's House. Hopechest Ranch had not been the same since her arrival a year ago.
But no one was peaceful in Prosperino now - not with the threat of a contaminated water supply hanging over them. And tonight was a night for pulling together, not butting heads.
He tapped his gavel for order and leaned toward his microphone. "Homer, I want to assure you and all the citizens of Prosperino that every possible avenue is being explored to protect the safety of the citizens. The city wells are being monitored -"
"Some folks think it's best to leave town, Mayor." This from an elderly lady near the back.
Excerpted from Sweet Child Of Mine by Jean Brashear Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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