Read an Excerpt
For a few days now the same man, clad in snug denim and a T-shirt that caressed impressive biceps, had spent precisely thirty minutes in the back booth at Wharton's, lounging against the red vinyl as if he owned the place, and studying Sarah as if he found her to be the most fascinating creature on the planet. No man had looked at her like that since she'd first crossed paths with her ex-husband back in college. And even before the divorce, it had been a couple of years since Walter had regarded her with that degree of interest. It was unnerving.
Of course, a lot about her life these days was unnerving. With a whole lot of support from her two best friends, Annie Sullivan Townsend and Raylene Hammond, Sarah had finally gotten up the gumption to divorce Walter and—equally important—his entire controlling, uptight family. She'd fought to win custody of her two kids, Tommy and Libby.
And, mostly in the interest of getting out of the house and doing something, she'd taken a part-time job waiting on tables at Wharton's, where just about everyone in Serenity congregated at one time or another during the week. It might not be making use of her degree in elementary education, but it was surprisingly satisfying. She'd discovered she had a knack for getting people to open up, a necessity in a restaurant that prided itself on being the hotbed of local gossip.
No one, however, seemed to have any idea of who the mysterious man in that back booth might be. Sarah had asked.
Just now, she'd even asked the man himself point-blank if he was new in town, here to stay or just passing through. He responded with a slow, sexy, dimpled grin that had unexpectedly sent her recently comatose libido into overdrive.
"I suppose I could be persuaded to stay if the right offer came along," he said in a low voice that hummed across her senses. "You offerin', sugar?"
Sarah was so taken aback by the flirtatious question, she scurried straight off to the kitchen to place his order. It was one thing to chat up old man Watson from the feed and grain, or the town mayor, whom she'd known since she was in diapers. It was quite another to have a man with dreamy eyes and a voice that could lure a woman straight to bed act almost as if he wanted to take her…well, straight to bed.
Which, of course, he didn't. She knew that. Hadn't she heard often enough about all her flaws—her weight, her disorganization, her lack of mothering skills—from her ex-husband? In retaliation for her decision to file for divorce before he had a chance to, Walter had made it his personal mission in life to see that she had not one shred of self-esteem left by the time they ended their marriage. Worse, even knowing that he was just being his ornery old self, she'd been so low that she'd taken every mean-spirited word to heart.
In the past few months, she'd worked hard to get herself back into shape. Annie had been her personal trainer at The Corner Spa, and Sarah had finally knocked off most of the weight she'd gained during two pregnancies. She had another ten pounds she'd like to sweat off, but if it didn't happen, well, she could live with that, too. Despite her success, though, she sometimes still saw herself through Walter's eyes, which annoyed the daylights out of her friends. It irked her, too, but the stream of a few years of nonstop criticism was embedded so deep, it was almost impossible to shake.
"Grace, you need to take that burger and fries to table nine," she told the owner of the old-fashioned soda fountain. The down-home cooking continued to bring in business even now that the pharmacy side of the operation was taking a hit from some of the bigger discount pharmacies in the region. In Sarah's opinion it was friendly service and gossip that had kept it afloat.
Grace Wharton eyed her curiously. "Why would you suddenly want to turn a man who looks like that and tips like a city slicker over to me?"
"Just do it, please," Sarah pleaded, not wanting to admit he made her nervous.
Grace's eyes narrowed. "Did he say something to offend you? If he did, I'll throw him out of here on his backside, attractive though that backside might be."
Sarah turned pink with embarrassment. "No, he was just joking around, that's all. You know, flirting the way some guys do. I should be used to it."
Grace observed her thoughtfully. "Seems to me you could use a sweet-talkin' stranger to put a little color back into your cheeks."
"I most definitely do not need a man," Sarah declared emphatically. "I just got rid of the one I had."
"Good riddance is what I say," Grace declared. "The way I hear it, all he ever did was tear you down. Now you need a fella to perk you back up. I'd think a little sweet talk would be music to your ears."
It was an oft-repeated refrain. In the month she'd been working at Wharton's, Grace had not only offered that opinion on an almost daily basis, she'd suited action to words and trotted out half the single men in town for Sarah's inspection. For all Sarah knew, this man could be the latest.
"Do you know him?" she inquired suspiciously. "The man in booth nine? Did you drive over to Columbia or Sumter or someplace and recruit him to sit in here and stroke my ego?"
Grace looked genuinely appalled by the suggestion. "Absolutely not! As if I would do such a thing. I never saw him before he turned up in here a couple of days ago," she said with obvious frustration. "He's not registered over at the Serenity Inn, either. I checked."
"Could be he's staying with friends or family," Sarah speculated.
"Might be, but it's no one who comes in here regularlike," Grace insisted. "Besides, if he were someone's guest, wouldn't they be sittin' right there with him? He's obviously on his own."
"What about Mary Vaughn?" Sarah asked. "Not only does she usually lock on to any new single man in the entire region, but she'd know if he looked at real estate."
"Sadly, since she got back together with Sonny, they take their lunch hours together…at home, if you know what I mean," Grace said with a grin. "Those two act like they're honeymooning all over again. Can't say I see much of either one of them. When she does come in for coffee, she's always in a rush. She gets out of here before I can get a word out of her."
"Well, someone must know who he is," Sarah said with frustration. "I asked him directly if he was new in town, and he didn't give me a straight answer." Her cheeks burned at the memory of his teasing.
Grace regarded her with amusement. "For someone who claims not to be interested in the man, you sure are determined to figure this out," she said as she picked up the plate with the burger and fries, then added another couple of meals to a tray. "You sure you don't want to take this out there yourself?"
Sarah shook her head. "You do it. I'll take more coffee to the mayor and his buddies, maybe see if I can tempt them into putting a little ice cream on that peach pie you baked this morning."
"I declare those men are going to gain ten pounds by the end of the month, the way you talk them into having dessert every day." She shook a finger under Sarah's nose. "I don't want their wives in here grumbling at me, you hear. And George Ulster has diabetes, so don't be trying to talk him into pie and such."
Sarah grinned. "George always gets sugar-free ice cream. Howard Lewis is a widower, so nobody's going to come in here complaining about his weight, and Fred Watson's skinny as a scarecrow. It's all good, Grace."
Grace gave her a sorrowful look. "Why you'd want to hang around those old geezers when there's a certifiable hunk in here is beyond me, but there's no accounting for taste," she said, nudging the door with her ample hip and heading out of the kitchen with the three meals balanced on a tray as if it weighed next to nothing. With her round face, pink cheeks, greying hair, granny glasses perched on the end of her nose and the red uniform she'd unwisely chosen to match the decor, she looked a bit like Mrs. Claus.
Sarah picked up pots of decaf and regular coffee and followed in her wake, careful not to glance toward booth nine. Something told her that a pair of sea-green eyes would be watching her, and that they'd fill with knowing amusement when Grace arrived with his lunch.
Fortunately, Wharton's was too busy for her to spend much time worrying about what he thought. She didn't even glance in his direction.
But when he rose and started toward the door, she knew it with every fiber of her being. And when he stopped just behind her and drawled, "See you tomorrow, sugar," she juggled the tray she was carrying and nearly upended two tuna-melt specials onto the black-and-white tiled floor. Bright color once again flooded her cheeks.
Before she could flee to the kitchen, he was gone, leaving her flustered and irritated in just about equal proportions.
"I don't know why he rattles me so badly," Sarah said that evening as she, Raylene and Annie sipped margaritas on the back patio at her small bungalow. She'd settled there with Tommy and Libby when it had become obvious that her marriage was all but over. It was the perfect May evening in South Carolina, warm but without the oppressive humidity that would soon set in.
She'd fled to Serenity from Alabama for a break, originally intending to go back all fixed up to suit Walter's idea of the perfect wife. It hadn't taken long to realize that she'd be wasting her time trying to meet his high standards. Thank heaven her parents had had the foresight to keep this house even after they'd moved to a new retirement home on the gulf coast of Texas, apparently guessing long before she did that her marriage was doomed.
"Have either of you seen him or heard anything about him?" she asked her friends.
"Well, you know I haven't," Raylene said wryly.
Ever since she'd moved back to Serenity to escape her abusive husband in Charleston, Raylene had rarely left the house. Sarah had given her a safe haven, and in return Raylene looked after the house and babysat Tommy and Libby on occasion when the regular sitter had time off. It had been the perfect solution for both of them, though Sarah was starting to wonder just how healthy it was for Raylene to continue hiding out and pretending her problems didn't exist.
"About that," Annie began, only to draw a quelling look from Raylene that stopped whatever she'd been about to say.
Trying to broker peace, to say nothing of getting back to her own concern, Sarah said, "Focus, ladies. Who is this man? What's he doing in Serenity?"
Annie gave her an amused look. "I'm with Grace. You're showing a lot of curiosity for someone who's supposedly not interested."
Sarah scowled at her. "Well, what if he's a stalker or, even more likely, what if he's spying for Walter? I wouldn't put it past my ex to send some guy over here to try to get me all tied up in knots so I'll do something stupid that'll make it easy for him to snatch Tommy away from me."
It still stuck in everyone's craw, especially hers, that Walter had expressed interest in gaining custody only of his son—the heir to the Price family legacy, an Alabama cotton mill—but not his daughter. In fact, her lawyer, Helen Decatur, had used that very fact to show the judge why he was an insensitive, unfit parent.
Raylene looked thoughtful. "It would be just like that jerk," she said, despite the fact that she'd never personally laid eyes on the offensive Walter. She hid out in her room on the days he came to see the kids, claiming she didn't want to intrude or to say something to make the situation between him and Sarah any worse.
"Agreed," Annie said. Since she had first-hand knowledge of some of Walter's shenanigans after Sarah's return to Serenity, she spoke with even more authority. "I'll have Helen check him out. Or maybe my dad. With his store right there on Main Street, he sees pretty much everything that's going on in town. And I'll ask Jeanette to talk to Tom. She's been off for a couple of days, but she'll be in tomorrow. As town manager, Tom can check with the sheriff and see if they've been keeping an eye on anyone suspicious."
"Great idea," Raylene said, shuddering a bit. She was still spooked by the idea of strangers in town, even though she knew perfectly well that her ex was in jail.
Sarah flinched at the all-out investigation she seemed to have sparked. Maybe she'd overreacted just a little.
"Are you sure we're not going overboard? Could be he's just new in town and a big flirt."
"Then we need to know that," Annie said. "It'll put your mind at ease."
"Or it'll rattle you even more," Raylene said with a grin, which was a rare enough sight to be worth noting.
"I am not interested in this man," Sarah declared forcefully.
Her friends, darn 'em both, simply laughed.
Travis McDonald sat in his cousin's kitchen nursing a cup of coffee and thinking about the pretty little waitress at Wharton's who'd been providing him with so much entertainment for the past few days. Yesterday he'd scared her so bad, she'd sent Grace over with his meal. Today she'd avoided him altogether, except for casting a few nervous glances his way. He hadn't enjoyed flustering a woman like that in a long time. Most of the women he ran across threw themselves at him, so she had been a refreshing change.
Like his cousin Tom, the town manager here in Serenity, Travis had been a college baseball standout. Then he'd gone pro and spent a few years being traded around to various farm teams before finally making it to the majors with the Boston Red Sox. It had nearly killed his Southern, blueblood family to have him playing for a team up North. The only thing worse, in their opinion, would have been if he'd signed with the Yankees.