“Really?” she cocked a knowing eyebrow at me. I shrugged.

“I’ll see you there,” I said, avoiding the question.

He did look like Gale, my crush from the Hunger Games movies. I never liked the sweet baker boy in those. I liked the competitive, hotheaded guy who was tall, dark and dangerous. Except this guy was here in town, looking wicked and being the kind of adversary that made my mouth water. He was real, and he was a danger to my town. There was also a slight but serious risk that I’d drop my panties for him if he asked.

I took my casserole to the Elks lodge, determined to leave with my dignity and my panties right where they belonged. I got there with the first wave of people and helped them set up. Layla was fussing over her bourbon balls, arranging them in circles on a glass plate, “Is a target pattern too obvious?” she asked.

“Nah,” I said. “He knows we hate him. Just as long as you don’t use him for actual target practice, it should be fine.”

“You don’t look like you hate him. You’re lusting. Tell me you took the edge off with your battery-powered boyfriend, because if not, you may not survive the night,” she said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you tasted too much bourbon while you were cooking.”

“Unlike you, the only balls I’m interested in here are on this plate. If you want him, go get him. I’m all for it. But you look half-crazed.”

“Only half? Payton had a tantrum in the toddler room today that could’ve gone viral as an exorcism if we’d filmed it.”

“So what’s different about that? You work with kids. They’re like wild animals—moody and unpredictable.”

“If that makes them wild animals, then you’re one, too,” I said.

“You’re not wrong,” she said, licking powdered sugar off her thumb, “look who’s here. It’s the man of the hour.”

My head whipped around as I checked out the door. There he was, dressed like a model in a J. Crew catalog. I wanted to get down on my knees and bite the neat row of buttons off his striped shirt. My face heated at the thought. Layla disappeared, then came right back and handed me a plastic cup of sweet tea.

“Here, drink this. You’re looking thirsty,” she said with a snort.

“You walked all the way across the room to make that joke,” I said. “Sad.”

“Like you noticed. You never took your eyes off him. You look like you could eat him alive, which I guess is one way to get him to save the factory.”

“I’m not giving out blow jobs for business favors.”

“I’m not suggesting it at all. I’m saying that factory’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages to this town if not more. And if a well-timed sexual favor saved that, it would be a heroic act.”

“So you are suggesting it.”

“Never. I’m saying if it was me, and it was something I wanted to do anyway…”

“So you’re saying I should blow him and then demand he keep the plant open?”

“We’ve had worse ideas.”

“Like the time I let you talk me into cutting bangs? It took me a year and a half to grow that out. It was a nightmare. So if I don’t take advice from you, don’t get your feelings hurt. I love you, but your ideas suck.”

“Maybe if you sucked, we could keep the factory,” she said with a laugh.

“God, you’re the worst,” I laughed, elbowing her.

I went to help set out plastic silverware and pour some drinks. The sweet tea hadn’t cooled me down a bit.

Sarah Jo and Luke were there setting out burgers and wings Cecil’s was contributing, and Macy from the bakery was putting her special frosted cookies on a fancy tiered tray that looked like it belonged at an afternoon tea. I went over and said hi, so glad the town was coming out in force to try and win Jeremiah over.

“How’s your dad?” I asked Sarah Jo.

“He’s good. He finally settled in to the assisted living over in Pendleton close to Ryan, and he likes it there. Says the food’s better than my cooking.”

“That’s got to be a load off your mind,” I said, “and I’m glad Ryan stepped up.”

“Well,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “he quit drinking, and it’s made a world of difference.”

“Really? What finally got him to stop?”

“I’m not sure. I wish I knew who it was. I’d give them free queso and margaritas for life,” Sarah Jo said.

About that time, Macy from the bakery dropped one end of her huge white box of cookies and some tumbled out onto the floor. We dove for them, saving the ones that didn’t break while she apologized and tried to salvage what was left.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m so clumsy.”

Tags: Natasha L. Black Romance
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