“Let me guess. You want real, everlasting love,” he scoffed.

“There’s no such thing. Just ask our mother.”

“Exactly. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, for tomorrow ye shall be knocked up,” he said.

“That’s a beautiful poem. You should put it in a greeting card,” I quipped.

“You know I’m right. You’re taking this too seriously. Have some fun. It’s not like you’ll ever be back that way. You can have the kind of no strings attached fling guys dream of—the kind where you have zero chance of ever running into the woman after it’s over.”

“So that’s your dream?” I laughed. “You’ve disabled roadside explosive devices and secured an embassy, and your wildest dream is a one-nighter with no awkward future meeting?”

“Everyone has a dream. Some of us just don’t fantasize about Super Bowl tickets or Lamborghinis.”

“I’d just like a job in my field that doesn’t involve destroying the dreams of entire communities.”

“Okay, since when did you turn into Mr. Rogers?”

“I haven’t. I’ve been very successful at building things, creating projects, and expanding startups into something huge. I like that. I acknowledge the need to eliminate excessive operating costs but trashing a perfectly good factory and shoving all the workers and their families into the hole just to exploit some foreign workers—it feels shitty. I thought I was cynical enough to pull this off, but six months in and I hate it. This will be the fifth one I’ve shut down. The first couple it was no big deal, but it feels worse every time I have to go to a new place and do this.”

“So you’re up in your feelings about some chicken plant, but you’re not turning into Mr. Rogers? Come on. Sing me a song about make-believe.”

“Maybe if you watched more Mr. Rogers when we were kids you wouldn’t be such an asshole,” I said.

“You’re grouchy. Cardigan too tight?” he laughed.

“You crack yourself up don’t you,” I groaned. “Go find yourself a job as a traveling salesman or something so you can leave town after you hook up. Go live that dream.”

“I have a job. I’m doing roofing now. The money’s good, and it’s low stress. So don’t go telling me I could do more than that. Being outside is good for me and working with my hands. I’ve been working out more, too. Doctor’s orders.”

“Your shrink told you to hit the weight room?”

“No. He told me exercise helps with the PTSD. He wants me to try yoga, but that’s a little too fruity for me.”

“There’s hot women at yoga,” I pointed out.

“I still don’t know if I could do it without laughing.”

“You laugh when you watch attractive women in tight leggings bend over in front of you?” I said.

“You may have a point, brother,” he laughed.

Back in my room, I showered and changed. The smell of chicken processing never got more pleasant. I wondered if the workers got used to it and didn’t smell it anymore, the stink of poultry and machinery and the overarching smell of scalding meat. I scrubbed with my Bulgari toiletries. I always traveled with them rather than using some flowery scented crap from a chain hotel. At this B&B they had some kind of locally sourced goat milk soap that I actually liked for my hands. I might have to go buy my mom some before I left town.

I was contemplating it while toweling off when my in-room landline phone rang. I picked it up, “Leeds here,” I said, wondering who would call that phone to reach me.

“Mr. Leeds, this is Mrs. Carson. I’m sorry to disturb you, but the keys to your rental car were found in the lobby. They’ll be at the front desk for you when you come down.”

“Oh. Thank you,” I said, looking around and realizing I must’ve dropped them on the way in the building. I wasn’t dressed to go retrieve them, so I figured I’d get them later.

After a Skype with my direct report supervisor—a complete bastard whose answer to everything was cheap and ethically questionable relocation—I got ready for the potluck. I didn’t know how to dress for a potluck dinner in a small town. I decided khakis and a button-down would be appropriate.

As I made my way down the stairs, I noticed that the redhead was at the front desk. I felt the corner of my mouth kick up involuntarily, smiling at the sight of her.

“Hey, Company Man,” she said, barely looking up, “you want your keys?”

“Company Man?” I said.

“I’m sure you’ve been called worse,” she said tartly.

“You’d be right,” I said. “Thanks for the keys.”

“Just one of the many services we provide here at the inn. Did you enjoy your factory tour today?”

“It was fine. Is this part of being in a small town? Everyone knows exactly what you did today?”

“I run the daycare right outside the front entrance. They’re all factory kids. So their parents knew you were coming today.”

Tags: Natasha L. Black Romance
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