“That box is huge, and besides, everybody drops stuff,” I said, “it’s great that you brought these. They’re so pretty.”
“I’m just happy that people like them,” she said. “If they didn’t, I might end up eating them all by myself.”
“When I was pregnant, I would go get a dozen of them for the shop, and I’d eat four or five of them myself,” Sarah Jo said.
“I’ve eaten five in a row, and I’m not pregnant,” Luke said. “They’re just that good.”
“Thank you,” she said, looking shy.
Macy went back to her cookie display, and I scanned the room for Jeremiah Leeds. He was across the room from me, hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like he didn’t know what in hell he was doing there.
He went to the little wood podium and raised the microphone to his height, “Excuse me, everyone. I just wanted to thank you all for coming tonight and for hosting this dinner. It’s very kind of you,” he cleared his throat and seemed a little stiff. “Everything looks delicious. Please, go ahead and start the meal.”
He stepped back, nearly plowing into Rev. Mark who was going to say the grace. I noticed Jeremiah bowed his head but seemed unsure what to do. After everyone said Amen, people started lining up to fill their plates. I set down the napkins I was carrying, tossed my careful waves off my shoulder and stood up straight. I was going to do battle. Just verbal sparring, just coaxing him to love my town, maybe a little flirting. Nothing too dangerous. Except with him, I could tell it was all too dangerous. I felt a thrum of excitement in my body as my heartbeat kicked up.
The mayor had sidelined him and was talking, gesturing with his hands. Jeremiah was nodding, but he seemed a little taken aback. I went to join them. I breezed right up to them and slipped my hand into his elbow. I meant to be cheerful and welcoming, but the galvanic shock that jolted through me at the touch seemed to shred my ability to use words. I almost pulled my hand away from his arm, but his heavy bicep felt too good to let go. I wanted to use my grip on his arm to turn him to face me and kiss him, hot and hungry. I wanted his hands on me, demanding and taking. The heat in his eyes as they met mine turned my body to something molten, something that longed to surrender to him. I could easily imagine him hauling me against him, claiming my mouth, his muscled chest hard against my aching breasts.
“Good evening, Maggie,” the mayor said, pulling me from my thoughts.
“Good evening, sir,” I said with a smile. “You don’t mind if I borrow the guest of honor, do you? I thought it would be rude if we didn’t let him fill his plate pretty soon. All those tamales your wife makes will go fast, and we don’t want him to miss out on those.”
“Oh, you’re sweet to say so. They sure are a hit around our house. The grandkids love ‘em. You two go right ahead. I’ll talk to you later,” he said. “Good meeting you.”
“Yes, sir, thank you,” Jeremiah said, more respectfully than I expected.
We started away from the mayor, “What?” Jeremiah said.
“What?” I said back.
“You just looked shocked.”
“I was—you were polite to the mayor, and I guess I was surprised.”
“My mother taught us manners, in case you thought I was raised by wolves.”
“I shouldn’t have assumed you’d be rude to him.”
“No, you shouldn’t. Am I such a monster?”
“Maybe, or maybe not. I haven’t decided yet,” I said, smiling at him just because I enjoyed his arm under my hand and the warm citrus smell of him and the sound of his voice. I’d like to have that voice say my name, would like to have those hands of his make me beg for more. I swallowed hard, trying to remember this was business. The business of saving my town. Pleasure couldn’t enter into it.
There she was at my side, urging me to try a little of the mac and cheese from the diner, the burger from Cecil’s, Mrs. May’s salad ‘the good kind with nuts and strawberries in it’. She told me who made everything. There were four long tables lined with food, and she could identify every dish and its origin like some archaeologist. Everything she said was entertaining, colorful. But she’d glance up at me and look a little concerned. Like I was going to say something obnoxious in response.
“Am I that fearsome?” I said.
Maggie had just told me that the carrot and raisin salad was the minister’s mother’s specialty, that she still used her mother’s World War II ration book recipe. Then she looked at me, a wrinkle between her brows.