Midnight in Legend, TN by Magdalena Scott

“Mayberry at last.”

Midnight Shelby pulled into a parking place on Main Street in front of the big brick building whose drooping, faded sign still halfheartedly proclaimed Jim Bob’s Saloon. It was hers now—the first building of any sort she’d ever owned. A sign for her own business would be one of the first changes to make.
Midnight in Legend, TN
Midnight in Legend, TN by Magdalena Scott
She climbed out of her Jaguar convertible and stretched. It had been a long drive from New York City to this little town. Long in the literal sense, but also the figurative one. She looked around at the picturesque one hundred-year-old buildings that anchored the main street of Legend, Tennessee. This was her new world, reached by several hours’ drive and the shedding of a painful past. According to her realtor’s office, Legend had a population of about six thousand. She noticed a few people walking along the sidewalk or from car to store, well-worn vehicles heading north and south on the unimaginatively named Main Street. In her two days of driving, she’d seen a lot of small towns, some county seats complete with courthouse squares, and some with a single main thoroughfare, very much like this one. Before this excursion, small towns only existed for her on television. Mayberry was her favorite from all those years ago when she watched The Andy Griffith Show as a child. It had seemed an idyllic place to live. That’s why when Midnight Shelby’s life fell apart, she decided to move from big city-big corporate life to the real world—Mayberry—or rather, Legend, Tennessee. She found her version of paradise via the internet. Otherwise, she never would have known it existed. Even with a good magnifying glass, Legend was barely visible on a map. The air around her was cool and crisp and smelled of evergreen. Delightful. She inhaled deeply and relaxed a bit. Relaxing had to be a conscious effort for her; it didn’t come naturally. Midnight lightly ran her fingers along the gleaming silver hood of her car as she stepped onto the sidewalk. Along with the new scenery, the car also represented a new start for her. No more boring, black, safe sedan; no more familiar city. In every possible way, Midnight had left her comfort zone miles behind her. After twenty years of marriage, her life had changed suddenly when she returned from a business trip and found a scribbled note from her husband on the kitchen table. Their marriage had been in trouble for a while, but she’d still been stunned. Midnight. Sorry to let you know this way…. The divorce process had been hellish—emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Always a private person comfortable in her own company, Midnight had felt lonely for the first time in her life. Being alone by intention was light years away from being alone due to loss. When all the divorce paperwork was finalized, her attorney, Rebecca Mayfield, took Midnight out for dinner and encouraged her to look to the future with a positive attitude. After all, the property settlement turned out rather well for Midnight. With the sale of the property, she had everything she needed to start a new life. She could find another elegant apartment—one without memories of Jeff—and set it up with the lovely furniture and collectible items that were now hers alone. She’d continue with the work she loved, make new friends…. Midnight reached back into her car and picked up the little voodoo doll she purchased at a roadside stand. She had been surprised to learn one could find some very interesting things at small trading posts in the mountains of Tennessee. She hadn’t been able to pass up the place with the purple sign that flashed out: MEN ARE SCUM! in hot pink letters. Fifteen dollars was a bargain for the foot tall, cotton-stuffed voodoo doll and complimentary three-inch straight pin with “pearl” tip. The dolls came in red, yellow, black, and white and one could purchase markers to individualize them. She chose a plain white one and left it faceless. That way it not only symbolized her ex-husband, but also the man who got her fired from the job she had—and loved—ever since college. After her divorce, a co-worker tried to “comfort” her in a very physical way. When she refused, he retaliated by pulling strings with upper management. Suddenly Midnight was drawing unemployment checks. By that time, she was so tired of fighting, she didn’t even try to get the job back. The anonymous voodoo doll symbolized men in general to her right now. Men really were scum. She jabbed the pin into the doll’s crotch a few times. Some of the stuffing dropped out. She’d worked on that particular area repeatedly since making the purchase a few hours ago. Midnight tossed the doll onto the smoky-gray leather passenger seat and checked her watch. Exactly five o’clock. She was on time, of course. The person she was meeting, however, was late. She leaned against the passenger side door attempting to relax and release the frustration from this lack of punctuality. Midnight noticed a tall, dark-haired man and a teenager—from his build and hair color, likely the man’s son—having a discussion in front of a building in the next block. The motion of the red and white barber pole out front indicated the shop was open. It was obvious the boy didn’t want anything to do with a haircut. He could have been the poster child for Surly Teenager Syndrome. Finally, the shaggy haired boy relented—she could see it as his shoulders sagged—and entered the building. The father turned fully in Midnight’s direction and she tried not to pay attention, but it was difficult. Even from this distance she could make out broad shoulders and strong facial features that would have done a Greek statue proud, and…. Hmm. In spite of herself, she wondered about the rest of him. How would he stand up to the Greek statue test? What a useless train of thought. It had been a very long time since she’d been with a man. How long? Too long to remember. But the first day in her new town wasn’t the right moment to suddenly become needy. She reached for the cotton figure again. She might need to make a return trip to the stand. Maybe buy another voodoo doll and pick up a plate for the front of her car as well. Twenty-five dollars to proclaim MENRSCUM everywhere she drove seemed like a good deal. Perhaps she needed the reminder. As she squeezed the fetish in her hand, she noticed the tall, dark man walking toward her. She quickly stuffed the faceless cotton gewgaw under the passenger seat, jabbing her finger with the pin as she did so. The immediate stab of pain helped to focus her attention on reality instead of retribution. Midnight squeezed a dark red drop of blood from the wound and quickly sucked it clean. She straightened and tucked a stray lock of silky black hair behind her ear. In the city, one didn’t meet strangers’ eyes. But this man looked directly at her, or rather, from her to the convertible and back to her. She could hardly avoid his eyes without seeming rude. Snooty. Citified. Not a good beginning in her new hometown. Midnight pasted onto her face what she hoped was a friendly smile. Subliminally she willed the man to pass by. A small, bent, gray-haired couple came along from the other direction and they also checked out Midnight and her car. Midnight used her smile on them too. They smiled in return and spoke a word of greeting. Okay, now Mr. Greek Statue. She turned the smile his way and watched as his brow furrowed a little. He walked over and stuck out his hand, expecting to shake hers. “Miz Shelby, right? Martin McClain. I wondered if you might have a change of heart and not come.” Oh, great. Her realtor was Mr. Greek Statue. With an attitude. She took a good look. Navy Dockers. Brown leather jacket covering a collarless, blue-knit shirt, Very dark brown hair, straight, and a little mullet-ish in the back. Deep chocolate eyes. Extremely handsome face. A neatly trimmed goatee. Lips…. Oh yeah, definite possibilities there. This man could be trouble. “Um. Right. Good to meet you, Mr. McClain.” Still making an effort at the smile, but with more difficulty, Midnight shook Martin McClain’s hand firmly and as briefly as possible. She shoved both her hands into the back pockets of her designer, low-rise jeans. Her intention was to have her hands out of the way. She didn’t want to touch him again, even by accident. Touching a man—particularly a man she felt such an immediate physical attraction to—was not something she was ready to do, and that included a simple handshake. Martin McClain’s gaze drifted to her snug white T-shirt, which now, with her arms in that awkward pose, felt too tight. Too sexy. Why hadn’t she slid on her jacket? It was certainly cool enough for one. Midnight took her hands out of the pockets and crossed her arms over her chest. Immediately, she realized a drop of blood from the pin-wound had stained her shirt. “Oh, great!” She stomped her black ankle boot on the pavement. “Your…um…your shirt is bleeding,” he said, his eyes flicking to the red spot, then quickly away toward the street. She looked up at him. Even from her five-foot-eight plus three inches of stiletto ankle boots, it was still up. He was probably six foot two or three. Tall, dark, handsome. Fortunately, his inanity and her recent personal history helped temper the physical attraction she felt. He was just an idiot man. Yet another reason the Men R Scum stand was in business. Your shirt is bleeding? What a line. She scooped up her Coach handbag, strode across the sidewalk, and stood before the large oak-and-glass front door of her new building. “Mr. McClain, this is my building, right? Can we go inside? Is the water turned on?” Martin took several rings of keys from his pants pocket and sorted through them. “Here we go,” he said, holding the one marked “M. Shelby” out to her. She extended her open hand, and he dropped the keys into it. Heavy. Solid. It was a good feeling. “It’s the large brass one there for the front door.” Midnight inserted the key. The lock turned easily. She stepped inside, followed closely by the realtor who reached behind her—too close—and flipped on the light switch. A subtle glow filled the room. Large, round, moss-green, glass globes hung from the high tin ceiling. It was an amazing room, full of nostalgia and potential. Martin walked quickly behind the bar just a few feet to the left of the entry door and turned on the faucet. Here was an encouraging sign; no rumbling pipes, just immediate water. “Great. Thank you,” Midnight said, checking the water temperature. “But I’ll have to take off my shirt. Hmm.” She glanced at him and saw one dark brow rise a little higher. Abruptly, she turned off the water, tossed her handbag onto the walnut bar top, and marched outside pulling her car keys from her front jeans pocket as she moved. In a few moments, Midnight returned with a long-sleeve, black T-shirt and found the women’s bathroom at the back where she changed. In her new attire, she ran cold water over the blood stain on her shirt until the spot was gone. Then she headed to the front of the building again, her high heels making a gratifying, no-nonsense sound on the scarred, hardwood floor. “Nothing like a strong first impression. I don’t usually bleed from just a handshake.” “You…what?” He looked down at his own hands, searching for a way he might have punctured her finger. “Just kidding. I pricked it on a pin as you walked up. But not kidding about first impressions.” She looked up and around her at the room. “Like this place. When I saw the virtual tour on your website, I knew I had to have it. Absolutely gorgeous in spite of needing a lot of updating.” “It’s a special place. Lots of history, lots of memories here. It’s a shame the family doesn’t want to keep it. I hate to see them sell out.” “Especially to a newcomer, I’ll bet.” “I didn’t say that.” There was that frown again, the two vertical lines between his dark brows marring an otherwise perfect face. “Not in so many words. But, of course, you rather someone local purchased it and continued the bar business as it always was. Right?” Men were so predictable. You didn’t mess with their sports teams, their bars, or their underwear drawers and not expect an emotional response. Martin McClain heaved a heavy sigh, much like she had seen his son do a few minutes earlier. Except this movement in her realtor strained the front of his shirt a bit in an interesting sort of way. “Welcome to Legend, Tennessee, Miz Shelby. No reason for you and me to start off badly. We got along fine on the phone, now didn’t we?” Midnight hated being patronized and so many men did it without even thinking. “We got along fine, the deal closed, and here I am owning this big beautiful building on Main Street and enjoying status as Legend’s newest citizen. Now, do you have that list for me?” “List?” Of course, his wife had been the helpful one all through the process. His wife, whose mere existence was the best deterrent in the world to Midnight considering any action on the physical attraction thing with the hunky realtor. How had the wife even slipped her mind? Betsy—thank goodness for Betsy! “You know…the list I’ve been talking to Betsy about….” Martin groaned. “Oh yeah! No. I mean, no, I didn’t get here with it.” He blew out an exasperated breath. “Left the dang thing on my desk. She told me…she said I’d forget it. We can go over to the office and get it right now though. Just take a minute. Office is just a couple blocks from here.” He headed out the front door and Midnight followed, the sound of her heels bouncing off the empty bar’s walls and ceiling. She quickly turned off lights and locked the door behind her. I’ll be back. Soon. “Oh, and you’ll want to park your car in the back,” the realtor said when she turned away from the door. “There’s a garage. It’s small, but it should be big enough for a little car like this. I’ll show you.” “No need for that. I’ll be able to find the back of the building on my own.” Midnight was nearly certain she hadn’t rolled her eyes at his comment, but it was difficult. “Now, let’s go to your office and pick up the list. Get in and I’ll drive.” She saw the look. He didn’t ride while a woman drove. Lord, give me strength. Midnight walked around, got in, and started the powerful engine. She saw his eyes widen a little when he heard it. He opened the passenger door and folded his tall frame into the seat then let the door close with a soft click. **** “Nice,” he said, looking at the tachometer and other instruments and resting his right arm on the door frame as she backed out of the parking space into the sporadic traffic. “Very nice.” Martin watched her pale, slender hands turn the wheel and shift gears like a pro. Her short, neatly-filed nails glistened with clear polish. Glittering on the index finger of her left hand was a single ring, diamonds and emeralds in a gold setting. Her porcelain skin was even more beautiful in the sunlight than it had been indoors, and her gleaming black hair shone almost blue. He’d never seen hair as black as hers and recalled—even though she wasn’t looking his way now—that her eyes were black too. Like those black holes in outer space, where things could get sucked in and disappear. Oh yeah, a man could get lost in those eyes. He’d have to be careful. Martin McClain was a simple man, “salt of the earth” as the saying went. But he was human after all. The exotic beauty sitting next to him was definitely one of the finest surprises to enter his world in a very long time. Not that he was interested in getting involved with her, but he could enjoy looking. And he could spend a few seconds thinking about what those beautiful, long-fingered hands could do. He inhaled her subtle feminine fragrance…. “Where is it?” “What? Where’s what?” he asked, startled out of his near-fantasy. “Your office.” She sounded exasperated. He gave directions, and they covered the short distance in an instant. Sooner than Midnight had expected because when he yelled, “This is it!” she immediately swerved into the narrow drive to the parking lot and slammed on her brakes. Something shot out from under the passenger seat and punctured his ankle. “Yeeeow!” He reached down and picked up what looked like a doll; a pearl-tipped pin was still stuck in the place where its hand would have been. A few pieces of stuffing fell out of the crotch onto Martin’s navy Dockers. “What. In. The. Hell?” “Um. Is that a question?” “Hell, yes, it’s a question! What is this thing that just stabbed me?” Midnight rescued the doll, snatching it out of his grasp as he shook it rather roughly. “That seems obvious. It’s a voodoo doll.” “Oh yeah, right, of course. What was I thinking? Doesn’t everyone drive around with a voodoo doll under the front seat? Or at least every woman? And to think I was….” He climbed out of the car, slammed the door, stomped into the real estate office, and slammed that door too. **** And they say women are flighty. Midnight entered the office quietly. A pretty blonde looked around. She’d obviously been watching Martin stalk through the front office. Both women flinched a little as a door toward the back of the building crashed shut. A framed certificate fell off a wall near Midnight, the glass shattering when it hit the floor. Midnight forced a tight smile. “Hi. I’m Midnight Shelby. Mr. McClain said he left a list here for me.” Recognition lit the blonde’s pretty face. “Oh, hi! It’s good to meet you at last! I’m Betsy McClain.” Well, of course she was Betsy. How could she be anyone else? She was the perfect picture of what a Betsy should look like. Curly golden-blond hair outlined her head like a halo. She had big blue eyes, a round face with a little turned-up nose, and a pretty mouth shaped like a red bow on a Christmas package. The fact that she was Martin McClain’s Betsy was what made the introduction surreal. To be married to him, the woman must be a saint. The halo would be a requirement. Midnight walked over and held out her hand. “Betsy, I’m so glad to meet you. I feel like we’re friends already.” In the weeks since Midnight’s first discovery of Legend, the real estate agency, and her ideal building, she had spent a lot of time on the phone with McClain Realty. Most of that time with Mrs. Betsy McClain, who’d seemed excited about helping Midnight start her new business. The Emporium would sell locally produced arts and crafts. The walnut bar would no longer serve draft beer, but rather, specialty coffees and teas. Midnight also hoped to have a lunch special each day. Although Legend was in a financial slump, with the new factory coming in, there was hope in the community that fortunes were changing for the better. “Miz Shelby….” “Please. Midnight.” “All right. Then, can I ask about your name? I just think it’s so exotic. But with your black hair and eyes, I can see it really suits you.” “Just what my parents thought when I was born. ‘Alabaster skin, hair like midnight.’ That’s the first line of the poem my mother wrote when I was a baby. She’s very artsy, my mother. Irish. My dad’s artsy too, but he’s Navajo. Skin like Mother’s, hair like Dad’s. Not an artistic bone in my body, but I love arts and crafts. Which is how I got the idea for the shop. I’ll sell some of my parents’ work along with the locals’.” “It’s exciting!” She clasped her small hands together. “And everybody else thinks so too. I told you I’d call the people I could think of who do wood carving and painting and weaving and pottery and such. Well, there were so many and, of course, a lot of them are cousins of mine or my husband’s, and then they started telling other people. The list got longer every day. I stored it on the computer and kept adding to it, and today I printed the latest copy. And, of course, Martin forgot to take it with him.” She shook her head, grinning. “What would he do without me?” Betsy jerked a thumb toward the back of the office. “I don’t think I’ll go back there, so let’s just print another copy.” She winked at Midnight, clicked a few computer keys, and paper started scrolling out of a nearby printer. Betsy stood up carefully, sort of waddled to the printer and retrieved the pages, stapled them together, and handed them across the desk. She was an even more perfect picture of “Betsy” now. Midnight guessed her at about five feet tall and extremely pregnant. What a cute little thing. And what a mismatch to Martin McClain. “They start coming tomorrow at nine a.m.” “They do?” “Yes. Every half hour all day for the next three days. You’ll be busy.” Midnight looked at the top sheet. The first line read: Augustine Abell, Wednesday 9 a.m. The whole sheet was filled, as were the rest of the sheaf. She would, indeed, be busy. Chapter Two Midnight realized sometime during the first day of interviews that Legend didn’t run on the same time she did. This was The South, and life moved more slowly. Much…More…Slowly. People arrived when they arrived, didn’t mind waiting, and were glad to sit and talk a while. Midnight had to stop herself from tapping her pen or shaking her foot nervously as she heard yet another story detailing the evolution of someone’s craft. Or the person’s house, health, or pet dog. Living in Mayberry would require some adjustments. Late Friday afternoon, Midnight was exhausted from three straight days of interviews. She pulled on her white, fake-fur jacket and white leather gloves, turned off the lights, and locked the door. Nothing sounded better than a long, hot bath and a soft bed. The sign painter had done his thing earlier in the day. Gold-and-black letters now arched across a large plate glass window advertising THE EMPORIUM and a placard hung over the doorway, perpendicular to the building, with the name in smaller letters. It looked like a business, and a successful one at that. Midnight felt a surprising swell of pride. There seemed no end of local artisans and no end of the variety of wares they created. Short of voodoo dolls, she’d have nearly everything under the sun available for sale. At least she thought that would happen, eventually. Midnight had put together a fair agreement that would make money for the vendors and a profit for her too, but no one came close to signing it. They all took a copy to read again, talk over with a spouse, etc., etc. In spite of the long, drawn-out discussions she had with the stream of artisans, not a single one had committed to anything. Since arriving in Legend, she’d been staying at the Legend’s Landing Bed and Breakfast where proprietress Suzie Schul pampered her with a wonderfully comfortable bed in a feminine bedroom, fluffy towels, and creamy scented homemade soap in the bathroom. She served a delicious breakfast and supper each day in the large dining room. Suzie didn’t serve lunch at the B&B, but Midnight had approached her about preparing lunches for The Emporium and Suzie seemed interested in the idea. Suzie was one of the cheeriest, most energetic people Midnight had ever met. She’d surely been born to run a bed and breakfast. It was early December, and the B&B looked very festive with its old-fashioned decorations. Thanks to Suzie’s nearly-constant baking, it smelled like Christmas too. Midnight had even helped string popcorn for the tree. She felt cared for and welcome there. Rounding the corner of The Emporium, Midnight heard the honk of a horn and instead of automatically ignoring it as she would have in the City, she glanced around wondering which vehicle it came from. Maybe the white Sunbird with the dented passenger door. Maybe the dark green sedan with the tinted windows. Without doubt, even if the person wasn’t honking at Midnight, it was someone she’d interviewed in the last three days. Or their spouse, cousin, brother, sister, neighbor, boss, or employee. Everyone seemed to talk to everyone about everything in Legend. So far, Midnight hadn’t run into distasteful gossip, but there was sure a lot of chatter. A lime green Volkswagen Beetle pulled over to the curb as Midnight continued down the sidewalk. She looked over to see Betsy McClain. “Hi, Betsy,” she called as she rounded the front end of the car and stopped at the driver’s side window. “Hey, Midnight. Wow, you look great! How’s it going with the interviews?” “You’re sweet. I feel tired instead of great, but thank you. As you no doubt know, I just finished the interviews. As of about ten minutes ago. I really appreciate you putting that scheduled list together. I couldn’t have met all those people without you.” Betsy turned a becoming shade of pale pink. “Oh sure you could have. Just might have taken longer. So, are a lot of them going to sell their stuff in your store?” “Well, not yet. Everyone seemed interested, or I thought they did. But they’re all hesitant to actually sign anything, or even make a verbal agreement. Frankly, that surprises me. I mean, if people need money, and I’m creating this opportunity....” Betsy smiled. “You’re new. People need to get to know you.” Didn’t I just spend the last three days of my life getting to know pretty much everything about pretty much everybody in the entire county? Midnight didn’t dare say what she was thinking. Better to take up the topic some other time when she wasn’t tired and frustrated. Betsy continued, “I think your store is a terrific idea, and it’ll be good for the town’s economy too. Who knows what will happen with that new factory. There’s so much red tape and controversy about that whole thing. I’m not even sure what I think about it.” She shook her head, as if to rid her mind of the topic. “But let’s don’t talk about negative things. Are you headed back to Suzie’s?” Midnight didn’t need to tell Betsy she was staying at the B&B. Word simply got around in a small town. “Yes, I’m there until I get the upstairs apartment in my building renovated. The B&B is a great place to stay, but if I’m there much longer I’ll have to buy elastic waist jeans. Suzie’s quite a cook.” “Oh yeah! My poor husband wishes I was like that. For a while I did Suzie’s cooking school on Saturdays, but lately I haven’t felt all that energetic about it. After working all week at the office, I want to do my nesting thing on weekends. And sometimes I nap. I know my napping days are coming to an end.” She patted her tummy affectionately. “When Junior gets here, I’ll be lucky to sleep at all. Sometimes I can’t now because he kicks and wakes me up.” “What will you do when the baby comes, Betsy? Stay home or go back to work?” Midnight hoped Martin McClain would let Betsy make that decision, and hire someone for the office if she wanted to stay home to raise their baby. Evidently, Martin’s teenage son had a different mother because Betsy was clearly too young for that. “I don’t know yet. With money being tight, it’s complicated. I’d rather stay home for a while. Maybe ’til Junior goes to school.” “So, Junior is definitely a boy?” “I just say Junior. She might be a girl. I decided I didn’t want to know ahead of time. Takes away much of the fun.” “Could be Betsy Jr., then,” Midnight said with a wink. “Wouldn’t that be funny? Can you do that?” “I don’t know if anyone has, but I bet you can name a baby just about anything. Celebrities come up with pretty odd names for their children. Some that would make Betsy Jr. seem ordinary.” Betsy giggled. “True. But I bet her daddy wouldn’t go for it. He’d think it was a crazy idea. Really, he doesn’t even want the baby named after him if it’s a boy. Too many McClains have done that, and it makes family get-togethers real confusing. If you say one name, three fellas think you’re calling them.” She squinted, perhaps trying to imagine attending a family event with a daughter named after her, then shook her head. “So, no Betsy Jr. But it was fun to think about for a minute. You have cool ideas, Midnight!” “You were probably closer when you said ‘crazy.’ Crazy ideas. That would be me. Sometimes they work out though.” She hesitated, thinking. “In fact, my crazy ideas work quite often,” she said much more quietly, almost to herself. She pictured some of the store displays for which she’d become renowned when she traveled around the country to create a one-of-a-kind look for each location of the department store chain that had employed her for so many years. She hoped to do the same for displays in her own little shop. “Um, Midnight?” She pulled herself back to the moment. “Yes! Sorry…my mind was wandering, huh?” “Looked like it.” Betsy grinned, her dimples showing. “Anyhow, I gotta go. Supper to nuke and throw on the table. See you!” She waved and spun her car around, saluting with a quick toot-toot of its horn. Midnight waved and tried to keep her mind on the present. Away from the lucrative, award-winning work she’d done for years. Away from the major cities she had visited and the expensive hotels that became her homes-away-from-home. Away from the business associates who had been the closest thing she’d had to actual friends. Away from her old life which, though glamorous and monetarily rewarding, was pretty hollow. She realized that now. Realized it the day she found the farewell note on her kitchen table. Jeff had been just as glamorous as the places she’d lived and work. He’d also been just as devoid of substance, when you got right down to it. Midnight had had a lot of time to ponder her relationship with Jeff. She hadn’t given it enough consideration during the actual marriage, which was part of their problem. But she thought about it during the lengthy divorce and after the judge ruled Midnight’s share of the property would be close to what Midnight considered fair, instead of what Jeff’s attorney offered during settlement negotiations. One night during their separation, Midnight and Jeff accidentally attended the same party. Seeing Midnight, Jeff deposited his wine glass in the hand of the beautiful and well-endowed blonde whose neck he’d been nuzzling. He walked over to Midnight and asked why she was going through the trouble of hiring an attorney when his could draw up all the necessary papers and save the extra fee. “Because I want someone on my side, who knows what to look for, so everything’s done fairly,” she answered evenly. Then she glanced at the blonde, trying to remember where she’d seen the girl. “Midnight, baby.” He took her hand and she pulled it out of his grasp. “My attorney has everything printed up and ready. All we have to do is sign, and it’s a done deal. Move on with our lives.” He shook his head, looking sad. “It’s the best thing, I guess. I’ll always love you, baby, but you know…people change. Grow away from each other.” He lowered his voice to a near whisper and, leaned closer. “But there’s no reason to go through a lot of drama. Right?” “I’m not looking for drama. I’m looking for fairness.” Midnight searched the eyes of the man she’d married and tried to remember the love she saw there all those years ago. How sad she couldn’t recall it. Too many years of both of them going their own direction, always focused on succeeding in their careers. Their relationship had died from lack of attention. “What do you mean fairness? You think I’d cheat you?” Jeff’s voice became shrill with agitation. She silently counted to ten and composed herself, and in that moment, finally placed the blonde. Previously a redhead, the woman had lived down the hall from Jeff and Midnight’s apartment. “I think you’ve cheated on me, and I’m pretty sure Mandy here is not the first. Given your track record, cheating me out of money and personal property wouldn’t even be an issue for you, Jeffrey.” He cringed when she said his full first name which he hated. “I’ve spent our marriage acquiring beautiful things that mean a lot to me. You know you don’t really care about those, Midnight. You’re just being difficult because I finally decided to leave you.” “Jeffrey, I have every right in the world to be difficult because of that. But I’m not. I just want what’s fair. You’re not the only one who acquired and enjoyed those things.” He’d decided to change tactics then. He’d reached out his hand and gently touched Midnight at her right jaw line just below the teardrop-shaped emerald-and-diamond earring. “Midnight, even after all these years, with your black hair and eyes and perfect skin, you’re the most beautiful of all, you know,” he whispered. “Most beautiful of all what?” “Of all the things I’ve acquired, you’re the most….” Jeff didn’t complete the sentence, because Midnight, quite without forethought, smacked him square on the cheek with the strength of a woman scorned and well-toned. “I am not a thing. I am a person.” Jeff’s face, especially that cheek, immediately turned crimson. A couple of mutual acquaintances had separated them and, at her request, Midnight was ushered to the parking garage and her black Saab sedan. Jeff had one exactly like it, no doubt parked in the same garage. She’d been stunned a couple of years earlier when he’d presented her with the keys and said he’d sold her ancient Subaru while she’d been out of town. Midnight loved that old car. She spent many hours sitting in gridlocked traffic in the little vehicle with its ratty rag top, marvelous add-on stereo, and 200,000-plus miles on the odometer. Jeff never liked it, told her it was hideous. He said it was beneath her to drive a vehicle so—ahem—utilitarian. And he repeatedly said it wasn’t ladylike to drive a stick shift. Well, up his. The car episode had been just one in a long, miserable series of Jeff controlling her—or at least trying his level best to do so. Midnight hadn’t let Jeff walk over her in the divorce. It finally came down to her tough attorney in stilettos out-haranguing his tough attorney in penny loafers. Ugly, yes. But also necessary so that she had financial assets to start her new life. When her job was suddenly gone, those assets became even more important. That seemed a lifetime ago. **** With the memories swirling in her brain, Midnight pulled into what had become her parking slot at the Legend’s Landing Bed and Breakfast and turned off the engine. Taking a moment to relax against the soft leather headrest and close her eyes, she regained control of her emotions. It wouldn’t do to let the past get in her way. That was over. She was here for a fresh start and Jeff couldn’t affect her anymore as long as she kept that history behind her. Having no small town experience beyond television sitcoms, Midnight wasn’t prepared for the invisible barrier she faced. Although the locals talked to her plenty, she felt anything but accepted so far. Betsy and Suzie were exceptions. Other than that, it was as if Midnight was living on one side of an invisible wall and everybody else in Legend was on the other. How did she get over there or get them to come to her? She didn’t like being an outsider but didn’t know how to change it. Her shop’s purpose was to help the people of Legend Valley while she made a profit. It was a win-win, and she’d expected people to realize that. She certainly didn’t understand the mindset of these people. New Yorkers would have grabbed onto the idea with both hands. Would have inundated her with items to sell as long as the paperwork was done to their satisfaction. But all of Legend seemed to be watching her and waiting. She wished she knew what it would take to win them over. Midnight breathed deeply a few times, blowing out the negative energy and filling her lungs, her whole being, with the positive energy from the tranquil scenery of Legend Valley and the pale yellow Victorian, cute-as-a-button B&B she temporarily called home. She felt a little better after this ritual and climbed out of the car. Pulling her handbag with her, she flipped the button to lock all doors. The locals simply did not lock things, but Midnight did. Always. It wasn’t wise to be too trusting. Entering the front door of the B&B, an immediate sense of peace and comfort once again enveloped her. Some of the strain from her recollections of the Jeff Years fell away. Her shoulders were still tight, but she relaxed her hands from the fists they’d become. She walked to the kitchen and leaned against the door jamb. Suzie looked up from a large, steaming, stainless-steel pot and smiled her I love everybody smile. “Hey, Midnight, honey. Have a hard day?” “Oh, not really. Just some unfortunate memories cropping up. Makes me tired.” Suzie weighed that for a moment. “It’s not fair, is it, honey? Some people keep their hold on us even when they’re gone. Even when we think we’re rid of their sorry behinds. Well, you come on over here and stir this soup for me while I work on the yeast rolls a minute. Nothing like some kitchen time to work out stress.” “I’m not a cook, you know.” But Midnight took the large spoon from Suzie who described how to stir slowly, just so, to ensure the cream of broccoli soup would heat evenly and not stick. Midnight stood there, mimicking the motion Suzie showed her, enjoying the aroma of the vapor as it rose. She watched Suzie’s adept movements with the yeast dough, shaping dozens of tiny round balls and then putting three in each greased muffin cup. “Cloverleaf rolls, Midnight. Funny-looking, aren’t they? But when they bake up, they won’t be three little balls in a muffin cup. Each will be a perfectly shaped roll with three knobs on top. You pull them apart and slather them with butter. Mmm. Nothing much better in this world than fresh bread and butter. At least, nothing I can do in my kitchen.” Suzie looked up. “Health department, you know.” It took a moment, but Midnight caught Suzie’s meaning and laughed as Suzie winked long and slow. “Why, Suzie Schul, shame on you. What talk. But don’t let me stop you. Just what have you been doing in the kitchen that has the health department after you?” The smile tightened a little. “Oh, honey, I don’t really do it in the kitchen. Just teasing. Trying to get you to laugh and it worked. If you come home some time and find all the doors locked though, don’t peek in the windows. You never know when someone tall, dark, and handsome might walk into my kitchen and knock the socks off me.” She sighed delicately, her face flushed. Suzie shook her head. “Not that I need a man. Because I don’t.” Words that were part of Midnight’s current mantra. Midnight didn’t know any details, but Suzie had said her marriage had also ended in divorce. Midnight assumed yet another idiot man had made the mistake of his life. Why did most of them zip their brains into their jeans? “Well, if Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome gets in the way of you cooking for your guests, I hope you realize there’ll be an uprising!” Midnight said to lighten the mood. Suzie dimpled. “I guess I’ll have to teach him to cook then.” “Or find yourself a chef. What a perfect match that would be!” Midnight laughed at her own joke, but Suzie wasn’t laughing or even quite smiling anymore. What did I say wrong? Midnight looked back down, watching the cream soup swirl in the pot while she stirred. “Some people seem to find the perfect match,” Midnight continued. “My parents are like that. It gives me hope for the future of marriage. For the species in general.” “Oh…that reminds me. Martin McClain called for you a little while ago.” Midnight dropped the spoon and barely caught it before it was totally immersed in the soup. “He did? Why?” Suzie smiled. “Didn’t say. Martin’s not much of a talker most of the time. He said he’d tried your cell. Didn’t want to leave a message with me.” One arched brow rose. “I don’t get good cell reception here. The land line should be installed at the shop soon. That’s odd, though. Why would he call?” “Better yet, why didn’t he just walk over and talk to you at the shop?” “I was busy all day. He may have looked in or even stopped in, and I didn’t see him. It’s been a steady stream of arts and crafts people thanks to Betsy.” “Hmm. It’s interesting.” “What is?” “Martin. Calling you, then not leaving a message. Just not like him.” She looked up through her bangs and caught Midnight’s eye. “Quite interesting.” “I saw Betsy right before I came home, and she didn’t say anything about it.” Suzie waved a hand. “Oh well, Betsy’s got a lot on her mind right now.” “Right. Like, is he going to let her stay home with the baby?” “Oh, I think Martin will let Betsy do about anything she wants. That decision’s more likely one she’ll let her husband make though. She’s an old-fashioned little thing.” “Right. That’s what I said. Whether he’s going to let her stay home.” “Mike?” asked Suzie, shoving a pan of rolls into the oven. “Who’s Mike?” “Mike McClain. Betsy’s husband.” The long handled spoon slid out of Midnight’s hand again, but she was too slow to catch it this time. “What’s that grin about?” Suzie straightened, looking as if she had an idea. “Grin? Oh, I don’t know. Just thinking about Betsy. And her husband…Mike. I’ll bet they’re a good match.” “Nearly perfect.” Suzie got another long-handled spoon, scooped the first one out of the soup and dropped it in the sink. She handed the new one to Midnight who automatically began to stir again. The hot kitchen was suddenly making her perspire. She cleared her throat. “Well, if Martin McClain was calling me, it must be about business. Why else, after all?” Midnight wouldn’t let herself think Martin might’ve called her for a personal reason. Impossible. Plus, Midnight had sworn off men. She definitely wasn’t interested in a romantic entanglement. Even with a tall, handsome man whose dark chocolate eyes made her hungry. No, she wasn’t interested. She stood and stirred and tried not to think about him. Chapter Three Midnight leaned over and dunked the large sponge into the weird-looking concoction that one of the other store owners had recommended so highly. It smelled like green tea and was made of a mixture of natural local ingredients she’d never heard of. When she smeared it all over the plate glass window, it obscured the view entirely, like a thick fog. She put the sponge back into the bucket and softly hummed the “Jeopardy!” song to herself twice, meaning the stuff had been on the glass for a full minute. She pulled the short-handled squeegee from the back pocket of her jeans and started at the top left corner to remove the white slime. Afternoon sunshine poured in through the first stripe of immaculate glass. Without a doubt, this was an amazing cleaner. She’d started out being leery of it, but decades of cigarette smoke and general crud had been cleaned off the first window with just one application. Several days had gone by since the evening she’d dropped the spoon into the soup in Suzie’s kitchen. Since that time, she’d received no word from the realtor who was allegedly trying to reach her. It probably had been a misunderstanding, although Suzie didn’t seem the type to get a message wrong. No doubt Martin McClain and everyone in town who was interested knew the store’s new phone number. When the landline had been installed, it was a two-hour event where Midnight learned the life story of the phone company guy, Junior. And that was just to get a phone line installed! Midnight had also learned more about the people of Legend (and Junior’s family in a Knoxville suburb) than she’d ever known about most people in her life until now. It was strange, yet endearing. One woman told Midnight she was very easy to talk to—that it was no wonder everyone confided in her. That was either the young red-headed mother of three who made natural-ingredient soaps that looked like cupcakes and pie slices, or the young strawberry-blond mother of two who wove rugs and placemats out of worn-out blue jeans. Midnight didn’t feel particularly easy to talk to and quite often felt uninterested in the life story being poured out to her. But in a couple of minutes she was always sucked in, loving the way a young mom talked about her mother, her grandmother, the things they learned from each other, and how their family was related to others in the area. The phone company guy, for instance, was some kind of cousin to the McClains. He’d been proud to tell her that. Evidently being a McClain in Legend was rather a big deal. Midnight pulled the squeegee across the window again, almost halfway done with this one. She smiled to herself, picturing Martin McClain dressed like a Victorian-era Rockefeller with a high white collar and big wide tie cinched up tight. He didn’t really need uncomfortable clothing to look all restrained though. She wondered if the man ever relaxed. She cleaned off the squeegee and pulled it across again. At the halfway point of the pane, there was Martin McClain’s face on the other side. No smile, but not quite a frown. Plenty of uptight, though. He stood still, watching her. Why did that bother her? After a moment’s hesitation, Midnight finished that slice of window. Martin had the grace to move out of her line of vision, thank goodness, right before she made the pass below his belt buckle. She focused entirely on washing the window, trying not to think about the man on the other side. In a moment the bell on her front door jingled. “Miz Shelby.” “Mr. McClain.” She didn’t look up but smoothly finished cleaning the window. “What brings you to my humble establishment?” She flinched only slightly when she dropped the sponge into the bucket and some of the elixir splashed onto the floor and her jeans. Why do I do something awkward each time he’s around or even when his name is mentioned? Squeezing her eyes shut, she hoped he would leave soon. Then it might be voodoo doll time again. “Riley Mae fix you up some window cleaner, did she? The old plate glass looks good.” “Yes, she did and thank you.” “You’re welcome.” He looked around the large room, perhaps re-living good times. Midnight was surprised to associate the word wistful with Martin McClain, but that was his expression. “Planning to make a lot of changes to the place, I guess.” “That depends what you mean by a lot. I’ll be selling coffee and tea, maybe light lunches, at the bar instead of beer and chips.” “Jim Bob’s had the best damned fish sandwich and bowl of chili in the county.” “It’s a shame to lose that, I’m sure. Remember though, it’s not because of me that the bar closed.” “I know that. Of course I know that. Just hard to see the end of a business that was decades old. It was here before I was born. Kinda sad.” “Better for me to buy it and do something new than to see the building empty and deteriorating, wouldn’t you say? It was on the market a while, I understand.” “Couple of years. Not good for a building to sit empty. Hard on it. Economy’s bad in Legend or maybe somebody would have taken a chance on buying it to run as a bar. Nobody around has the extra money for that. Or if they have the extra, they don’t want to run a bar.” “Did you think of buying it yourself?” He shot her a sharp glance. “Why ask that?” “Oh…just the look on your face.” Wistful, but he wouldn’t like that characterization. His brows knit. “You notice a lot. Yeah, I’d thought of it, but it’s not for me. I have a son to raise, and that’s better done with a day job.” Martin looked away to the far end of the building. “You didn’t say about other changes to the place. Not that it’s my business.” “It’s all right. I’ve talked to myself most of the day, so conversation is a luxury.” She extended a hand above. “The old tin ceiling and light fixtures will stay the same. The walls are mostly okay, but need to be painted. I love the woodwork and hardwood floor. I’m almost done with the first cleaning. That and some TLC should bring out the beauty. I wish some of the old bar furniture was still here. I mean, I love these old revolving stools but to have a couple of the original tables and chairs…that would have been great.” She shrugged. “So I’ll have to buy tables and, of course, display cabinets. Assuming I ever get something to display.” She dropped onto a bar stool. “Do you want me to fail, Mr. McClain? Is that what the whole town wants? It almost seems that way to me.” Martin turned away from her to stare out the windows. “No reason for me or anybody else in Legend to want that, Miz Shelby.” He leaned against the bar as he’d no doubt done many times in the past. “Listen. You ever live in a small town before?” “No. Why? What am I doing wrong?” “Nothing and everything. You’re different from everybody here, you know. You look different. Dress different.” He inhaled deeply and almost smiled. “That expensive perfume—you even smell different. You’ve got Big City written all over you. Most everybody in Legend has lived here their whole lives. We have history together and know a lot about each other. More than we want to, a lot of times. But that makes us tight. We’re small town and proud of it. You come in here and start changing things, you think for everybody’s good. But change is hard for us. Legend isn’t a lot different now than it was when I was a kid. Some of the changes that have happened went wrong. We’re supposed to get a new factory, you know. Jobs we desperately need. The mayor has worked hard to bring a big employer in and people have their hopes pretty high.” He shook his head. “Expecting outsiders to come in here and make things better. I don’t know. It’s hard to trust in it.” He looked into her eyes. “You seem to be different from most outsiders in one way. Your idea is to help people make a little money off what they already know how to do. Things that are creative and enjoyable. Crafts that are part of our history.” He looked around the room. “Emporium sure isn’t what this building is accustomed to, but the building is probably more flexible than most of us flesh-and-blood Legendarians. What I don’t understand is who you think is going to buy the stuff.” “Ah. I have ideas; you can be sure of that. My whole work life has been in marketing. I am very, very good at it. I just need the merchandise. And I guess to get that, I need to be accepted somehow.” “We’ll see what we can do about that.” He looked searchingly into her eyes and seemed to make a decision. “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, Miz Shelby. Betsy said I should take you to the Christmas Ball. Local fundraiser the Chamber of Commerce puts on. I show you around, introduce you in that kind of a social situation, and treat you like a valued member of the business community.” “Even though I’m not?” Midnight couldn’t stop a smile. He winced, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I didn’t say that. I’m trying to be nice! Don’t antagonize me.” “Sorry. It’s just so easy to do.” He scowled. “Betsy practically begged me to do this. And Suzie has a high opinion of you. I respect her judgment. So you’re going with me.” “I am?” “Yes.” He started to leave. “When is this event? In case I decide to attend,” she asked his retreating back. “Tonight. Be ready at seven.” He closed the door harder than she would have liked, strode down the sidewalk, and disappeared out of sight. Chapter Four Midnight stood in front of her closet wearing just a black bra and matching panties. Her cell phone was securely held between her ear and shoulder. “Betsy, I refuse to get nervous and spend a lot of time primping for this. It’s a business thing. Not a date.” She replayed Martin’s statement that she would be attending the ball with him. “Trust me, if that was his idea of an invitation for a date, I understand why Martin has been single for years.” Betsy’s voice sounded in her ear. “Okay. I know it’s business, but I’m glad he invited you. I think it’ll raise your stock with folks.” “Thank you for pushing him to do it. I’m sure it took some persuasion.” At arm’s length she held out the two dresses in her closet, both black, of an excellent cut, and created by the same designer. Both had a wide V to show off the length of her neck and perfect skin and would hit her at the exact location to best emphasize the shapeliness of her legs. Hmm. Long sleeve or three-quarter length? That was the only difference. “Well, I had to nudge pretty hard,” Betsy said. “But you can’t ever get Martin to do something he doesn’t want to. So, part of him didn’t mind too much.” Midnight could imagine which part, although she refused to do so. “I don’t have many clothes here. Nothing colorful or festive. I wasn’t expecting to be asked to a party.” “The Christmas Ball is a big deal every year. It raises money for Shop with a Cop—you know, kids who wouldn’t otherwise get gifts are taken out for breakfast and then shopping by volunteers. Police officers, firefighters, and others. I’ve never been to the ball, but I’ve…um…had experience with Shop with a Cop. It’s a great program. You know, Midnight, I imagine you could show up at the ball wearing a feed sack and still dazzle the crowd. That’s just how you are.” “Hmm. Meaning?” “You stand out.” She rushed on: “I don’t mean that in a bad way! But you know... You’re different.” “So I’ve been told.” She returned the shorter sleeved dress to the closet and laid the long sleeve one on the bed. “Guess I either need to use that to my advantage or try harder to fit in.” “Maybe you can do both.” Midnight smiled to herself as she opened her jewelry box. “Perhaps.” A few minutes before seven, Midnight sat in a wingback chair in the front room of the B&B hoping this was where Martin would come to pick her up. Her ego refused to let her call and ask him if he intended to come here or to the store. Anything like that would mean she felt less than in control in this relationship and she wasn’t going to give an inch more than she had to. Suzie had left for the event hours ago; evidently she was on some kind of committee. Midnight consciously slowed her breathing, closed her eyes, and tried to relax. It isn’t a date. At least she knew that. It was just a meet and greet with the locals and Martin was functioning as a kind of tour guide. Even though Betsy had pushed him into it, he was doing Midnight a favor. She would be pleasant to him. And you never knew, maybe his sponsorship would get something going. Something had to happen for people to loosen up She heard a vehicle pull up, a car door open and close, and footsteps on the wooden porch floor, but still she sat motionless. The doorbell sounded and unhurried she rose, crossed the plush carpet, and opened the door. Chilled air rushed in, but Midnight was warmed by the sudden look of appreciation in Martin McClain’s eyes as they traveled over her. “Hello. Please come in while I get my wrap.” She retrieved her red wool cape from the newel post, slid it over the form-fitting black dress, and picked up her black leather clutch bag. “You look great. Movie star great.” “Thank you. So do you. I haven’t seen a man wearing a suit since I moved here.” “You’ll get your fill of that tonight, I promise you. We’re still old-fashioned enough to dress up for some things. Weddings. Funerals. The Christmas Ball.” “Betsy indicated this is a major social event. But she said she has never attended.” “Not her kind of thing, I guess. Hers or Mike’s. He’s my cousin. Our dads are brothers. But we’re not much alike. Mike can be real bullheaded.” He turned the doorknob. “Ready?” “Yes.” She preceded him through the doorway and paused while he shut the B&B front door. No need to lock it, of course. Local custom. Martin walked her to the passenger side of his Jeep and opened the door for her. “Chivalry lives on in Legend, Tennessee, I take it?” She slipped into the seat. “It’s on its last leg, but not quite done yet.” He almost smiled as he closed the door, and went around to get in. In a moment he started the engine, and they were on the winding Lake Road heading toward town. Midnight cast around in her mind for a topic of conversation that might not start an argument. “Nice weather.” He grunted. “Give it a day and it’ll change. You haven’t seen a storm here yet, have you?” “A little rain is all. Why?” “You’ve never been through winter ’til you’ve seen one in the mountains. It’s a rush, for sure. You better hope you don’t need to go anywhere when it snows either. That’s a fine little car you’ve got, but it won’t be worth having when there’s snow on the roads. Let alone ice.” She wouldn’t waste the energy it would take to explain winter in New York City. “That’s something to consider. Of course I should be moving to town before long. I have plans to fix up the second floor of my building and live there.” “So I hear. That’s what Jim Bob and Sylvie did. Lived above the bar and raised their kids there.” He slowed suddenly while three deer stepped into the road, saw the Jeep, and bounded away. “What’s it going to take to make the place livable for you? I remember it looking pretty good.” “Nothing drastic. A good cleaning and coat of paint should do it, really. I can do other little things after I get moved in. My furniture and all are ready to be delivered as soon as I’m prepared for it. So. Do you live above your office?” “Hell no. That’s full of files and old furniture. We’ll go past my place in a minute. I like being outside town a little bit because of Daniel. My son, you know. A boy needs to be able to run in his own yard, climb trees, make forts in the woods.” “Downtown Legend isn’t exactly a concrete jungle, Martin.” “Yeah, well. I know that. Town living isn’t for me though, even a little town like ours. Too much noise. I like to sleep with the windows open and hear the crickets, not some teenager screeching his tires.” “That’s interesting. You know, I’ve never slept with a window open. Ever. Some of them weren’t made to open. Plus sirens, dirty air…. I love New York City—don’t get me wrong. Love it! Or, I did.” She looked out the Jeep window, thinking about that. A strange thing to wonder about—what it would be like to open her bedroom window and have fresh air come in while she slept. She suddenly hoped the windows in the second floor of her building would open. “Fresh air’s good for you. A little cross-ventilation on a cool day or a warm night is better medicine than you can get in my Aunt Dorothy’s pharmacy.” “I’ll have to try it. The fresh air. Does your aunt own the pharmacy with the soda fountain?” “Yep. Pretty cool. And so’s she.” He slowed and jerked a thumb to his right. “That’s my place. Not fancy, but it’s home.” A two-story cabin sat back on a green lawn; behind it lay the darkness of the pine forest. “Rustic. Did you build it?” He shot her a look. “Not by myself, but yeah, I had a hand in it. Why?” “Don’t get all defensive. I just wondered.” “And I just wonder what goes through your mind sometimes. You think people around here are less than you because we build our own houses or make arts and crafts. Country people make things and city people make money from those things. Right?” “I don’t know how you can see out your rear-view mirror with that giant chip on your shoulder, Mr. McClain. You’re the one who’s created a chasm between country people and city people. We’re just people, after all. I can’t carve a wooden pipe or build a house, but I can appreciate the skill of someone who does. I can appreciate the beauty of the finished product. And yes, I’m really good at getting people to notice an item that’s available for sale. Does that make me some kind of devil in your mind?” Now that she had the bit in her mouth there was no stopping the resentment and anger that had been building up in her since she realized she would never be anything in Legend but an outsider. “I came to Legend to start over and I don’t need negativity thrown my way. I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime. I bought a building that resulted in a commission for you. You might try being glad about that income. Then you can be thankful the sellers got their money—the family that ran your favorite bar all those years. Then you can hope I know what I’m doing enough to turn a profit and stay here. Because you know what happens if I don’t? I don’t have to hang around. I can pick up and move to wherever I choose. The building will be put back on the market and with my current mindset, I imagine I’d be looking for a different realtor. No new income stream for the people who have a room full of crafts they make because they enjoy it. No additional business for the coffee shop or restaurants or gas stations. It would be as if I’d never heard of Legend. You better hope that doesn’t happen. You better hope I do well. Because The Emporium isn’t just about me creating a cool-looking sales floor. It’s about giving Legendarians a way to display some work they’re proud of and make a little money at the same time. I’m not the only one in need of a fresh start. Your hometown is desperate for one from what I can see.” “And you’re going to single-handedly save our town?” The man was determined to put every roadblock possible in front of her and every other newcomer, wasn’t he? “Of course not. But it’s a start. Who knows what good might result? What is wrong with giving my idea a chance?” “Legend was just fine before you ever heard of it, Miz Shelby; and it’ll be fine after you’re gone.” “Excellent. That closed-minded attitude explains a lot to me.” Martin turned off the street and parked in the high school lot. “We’re here. Welcome to the Christmas Ball,” he said, flipping off the ignition and staring straight ahead. Midnight jerked open her door. “I am so in the mood for a festive evening! Thanks awfully much for bringing me.” Martin got out and slammed his door. He had to rush to catch up with her as she made her way across the gravel parking lot. “You parked as far away as possible hoping I wouldn’t be able to maneuver gravel in these heels?” She knew the answer was ‘yes’ and also knew he wouldn’t admit it. As kind as Betsy was, as cautiously open as the townspeople were, Martin McClain was beastly. But if McClains were as big a deal as Junior the phone guy said, Martin might be important to her future success. Excellent. Maybe she shouldn’t have shot off her big mouth. When they stepped out of the cool night and into the warm gymnasium, it was as if they had also entered another world. The place looked more like a backdrop for Irving Berlin’s White Christmas than it did a basketball court. Heavy cloth tarpaulins protected the wooden gym floor; dark blue fabric suspended from the rafters hid the bleachers. In front of the fabric, tiny white Christmas lights encased in yards and yards of sheer tulle gave a subtle glow. At one end of the gym a few couples swayed on a small dance floor, but the rest of the space was taken up with tables and chairs. White linen cloths covered all the tables, and on each was a fat red candle inside a hurricane glass surrounded by fresh holly and ivy. The fragrance of roasted meat mingled with the scent of feminine perfume. People stood in small groups chatting and laughing. “Take your coat?” Martin ground out. “Well, yes. Thank you so much.” Midnight gave him a dazzling smile. She was determined to enjoy the rest of the evening or, at least, look like she was. Maybe if she had a good time, Martin would chill out too. Why is he always so on edge? Martin navigated through the gathering crowd clutching her red cape. Not meaning to, she followed him with her eyes. He handed the cape to the young man she’d seen with him that first day on the sidewalk by the barbershop. Midnight walked over and joined them just as Martin turned to go back in her direction. He almost collided with her. “Oops. Guess I was tailgating.” She smiled at the young man, not at Martin. He smiled back a bit shyly. “I’m Midnight Shelby.” She held out her hand and the young man shook it. His face colored a little. “Daniel McClain. Nice to meet you, Miz Shelby. I guess you know this is my dad.” “So very nice to meet you, Daniel. I didn’t know for sure, but I guessed it. Are you very much like your dad or do you just look like him?” He looked at Martin and then back to Midnight. “Kinda alike, I guess. But different too.” “That’s a good thing.” She smiled at him again. What a nice young man. “Yep. That’s what most everybody says.” His return grin was a showstopper. Here was a boy who would be even more handsome than his dad in a few years. “Wish I could hang out with you guys, but some of us from school are doing this coat-check thing. And helping serve the food and clean up after and stuff.” He snagged the arm of another young man standing nearby and tipped his head toward his compatriot. “Miz McClain, this is our cousin Joey.” The other boy nodded, looking embarrassed. Martin, obviously a proud father, smiled and looked relaxed for a change. Martin was a different person when he let himself be human instead of focusing on ruling his little corner of the world. She felt an easing of the stiffness in her shoulders caused by the stress of the evening so far. She shouldn’t let the man’s boorish behavior color her mood. Grinning, Martin put an arm around each young man’s shoulders. “So, you boys learning a lot?” Daniel made a face. “Yeah, like I never want to be a waiter.” “We don’t have real restaurants in Legend, so it doesn’t matter,” said Joey. “We don’t have much of any place to work in Legend,” Daniel replied, shrugging. “Everybody knows the town is dying.” “Where’d you hear that?” his father hissed, standing straight up now. “Geez, Dad. You, for one. I like Legend, but nothing new ever comes here. Stuff shuts down; people leave. Unless that factory comes to town…but I don’t want to work in a factory unless I’m the IT department.” Daniel’s frown showed determination. Midnight remembered the first time she had seen him trying to avoid a haircut. The boy obviously had a stubborn streak, and she knew he’d come by it honestly. “I’m not working in a factory either,” said Joey. “I’m gonna work on cars like my dad does. I might even go to college and become a diesel mechanic. That’s pretty good money.” “Not around here,” Daniel muttered. “Oh. Yeah.” “Unless something changes, we won’t live in Legend after high school. I bet none of the other cousins will either. Or any of our friends.” He looked at Martin with a challenge in his eye. “Why would they, Dad?” “Because it’s home.” Daniel shrugged, still looking gloomy. “It’s not home if you can’t afford to live here anymore.” “You know, Daniel, you shouldn’t count Legend done just yet,” said Midnight softly. “Yeah?” the boys asked in unison. Martin looked at her. She smiled. “Yes, indeed. Legend has potential.” She put a hand on each boy’s shoulder. “The two of you are part of that potential, if you choose to be. Just remember that.” Daniel looked beyond her and stiffened “Uh-oh, we’re getting the evil eye from Mayor Crenshaw. Better get back to work. I’d like to talk to you sometime about what you mean, Miz Shelby.” There were several people in line to use the coat check service. Midnight hadn’t realized they’d been talking so long. “Well, it’s been a delight to meet you both. You and your friends could stop by my shop. I have some work that needs doing there. Assuming you want to make money and it’s okay with your dad.” She shot a quick look to Martin, wondering too late if her offer would irritate the man and be the end of his semi-pleasant humor. “Cool!” said Daniel, taking two coats from a gentleman and giving two coupons in exchange. “Oh! Dad, can I spend the night with Joey? “There’s a surprise question.” Martin smiled. “Sure. Tell his mom and dad I’ll pick you up in the morning.” “Okay. Thanks, Dad.” “No problem. Night, son. Night, Joey.” Martin took Midnight’s hand and led her away. She tried hard to ignore the shock that went up her arm at his touch. She knew it had nothing to do with static electricity. She wondered if Martin had noticed it too, but she couldn’t see his face as they proceeded single file, weaving through the crowd. Before long Martin stopped and pointed to name cards. “This is our table.” He pulled out a chair for her. “Have a seat.” Midnight looked around at the crowd. “Hmm. People aren’t really sitting down yet, are they? I’d like to meet some more Legendarians. Any other McClains here?” His eyes rolled dramatically as a big grin lit his face. “Hell yes, there are other McClains. We’re everywhere in this county. Look at the name cards right here. It’s a damned table of McClains.” One eyebrow arched. “I guess you’ll be charming the whole family.” “Do you think I could? What a strange, yet nearly endearing comment.” “Take it however you want, Miz Shelby.” He met her eyes. She couldn’t read him. Was he still irritated with her or flirting? A short, very attractive woman and a tall, distinguished-looking man, both with graying hair, walked up arm in arm, beaming at her. Midnight was grateful for the distraction. “Well, hello there! I’m Charles.” He tipped an imaginary hat. “Charles McClain. This young man giving you any trouble, miss? I’ll turn him over my knee if you say so. I’ve had to on more than one occasion when his dad and mom weren’t handy and it needed done.” Midnight laughed and put out her hand which was immediately lost in the gentleman’s large one. “I’m Midnight Shelby. Thank you for the offer. I’ll remember that if it becomes necessary.” Charles laughed too, a full and hearty sound. Squeezing Midnight’s hand for a brief second, he released it to put his arm around the woman at his side. “Midnight Shelby, I’d like you to meet the love of my life, Dorothy Robbins McClain. Wife, mother, pharmacist, best cook in the county, and all around terrific gal.” He kissed the top of Dorothy’s wavy hair as Dorothy shook Midnight’s hand. “Midnight! We’re so glad to meet you. Betsy has told us wonderful things. I hear your new shop is going to be just lovely. I keep meaning to pop in, but I know you’ve been busy interviewing people and signing them up for consignments. Right?” Midnight shifted uneasily. “Interviewing, yes, but no one has signed up yet. Betsy suggested maybe it’s because I’m new in town.” Dorothy waved a hand. “Oh, probably! Legend is home for me. I love it. But sometimes the closed-mindedness of our townsfolk makes me irate.” She touched Midnight’s sleeve. “You have to understand, honey, that a lot of people here seldom cross the state line. That’s not a sin, but sometimes we forget there’s an outside world or different ways to do things.” “Come on, Aunt Dorothy! You make us sound like a bunch of hicks.” She pierced Martin with a look. “You said it, Martin. I did not. What happens, though, is that we tend to become insular. You know”she crooked her fingers in air quotes“This is how we do things in Legend. This is how we’ve always done things.” “And?” Martin growled. “And if we let that mentality continue, dear nephew, our darling little town will wither like a tomato left too long on the vine.” Charles cleared his throat. “First it rots, honey. Then it withers.” “Well, close enough. It’s an analogy, after all, Charles. I’m not giving a horticulture lecture. My point is that we need new ideas, fresh energy.” She winked at Midnight. “I can see you’ve got a lot on the ball, missy. And I hear things—not just from Betsy, either—but I hear people saying good things about you.” She leaned a little closer. “Don’t give up, Midnight. I think you and...” She glanced at Martin. “I think you and Legend need each other.” Dorothy’s eyes sparkled. “Now! Where’s the rest of our clan?” “Mom and Dad have a body. Chloe should be here, though.” “Body?” Midnight glanced from Martin to his aunt. “Oh, Martin. Don’t you even talk to this girl?” Charles shook a long finger at the younger McClain, then turned to her. “Miz Shelby, has Martin failed to draw the family tree for you? Figures, I guess.” His frown would have been severe if not for the chuckle that accompanied it. “Martin is our nephew, son of my brother Daniel and his long-suffering wife Sharon. Daniel and Sharon run the Legend Funeral Home.” “Oh. I see.” “Yeah. Takes all kinds, huh? Well, somebody’s gotta do it; and when I go, that brother of mine had better give me a deep discount.” He grinned. “Get it? Deep discount.” “Geez, Uncle Charles, can we please not do undertaker humor tonight?” Martin pleaded, then waved an arm up high. “There’s Chloe.” Charles whispered into Midnight’s ear. “Martin’s sister. More info for the tree.” Midnight tried to picture the branches of a tree so she could keep the relationships straight. Chloe walked over to the group looking like a Vogue cover in a silky-red, maxi dress and heels. “Hey there.” She hugged Dorothy, then Charles. “Bro.” She punched Martin lightly in the shoulder, then tipped her head toward Midnight. “You going to introduce me to the lady?” Midnight immediately liked the woman’s style. She had short, spiky, blond-and-dark brown streaked hair and dark brown eyes like Martin’s. She wore a diamond stud high in one ear and bell-shaped, dangling earrings in both lobes. They made music when Chloe moved her head. But even better, Chloe’s style included giving her brother grief even when he hadn’t earned it yet. Because of course, he eventually would. “Yeah. Like you don’t already know her name.” Martin stuck his hands in the front pockets of his pants and looked around for someone else to talk to. “Martin. I’m pretty sure our parents tried their best to teach you some manners. It’s not too late to start acting as if you learned.” Chloe smiled and batted her long, blackened eyelashes up at Martin. “Midnight Shelby, this is my spoiled sister, Chloe McClain. She has a mean streak a mile wide.” Chloe punched him again, but not gently this time. Midnight saw him wince. The two women shook hands. “I think your idea for the store is great. I’ve been busy getting some canvasses done for a collector, but if you’re interested, I’ll do the consignment deal. Might not bring in much business, but you never know. Oh—” She slapped her forehead with the heel of her hand. “You probably don’t know. I paint pictures.” Dorothy announced, “Chloe is well known for her talent, Midnight. She’s done shows all over the state. Do you still have that map, Chloe? The one that shows where your paintings are now?” “Yes, but I imagine it’s out of date.” Chloe turned to Midnight. “When I can, I find out where a painting will be displayed. It’s kind of neat to think my stuff is hanging in living rooms in over forty states.” “Living rooms and art museums,” said Dorothy proudly. “Or outhouses,” Martin muttered, earning another punch in the arm. “Ow! I’m kidding. She’s pretty good, considering,” he admitted. “Considering I have a butthead for a brother?” Chloe turned to Midnight. “Anyway. I’ll bring you two or three things, and you see if you’d like to handle them for me, okay?” “I’d love that.” Finally, an artist willing to commit to The Emporium. A voice came over the tinny sound system. “Good evening. Would everybody please find your seats and we’ll get started.” The harried looking man at the podium tapped a drinking glass with a spoon to add emphasis. “Find your seats, please, people. Thank you.” The din of voices shifted as people moved around the room to their tables. Midnight and the McClains were just sitting down when two young women with long dark hair and dark eyes rushed up. “Hey. Got talking to Jim and Lilly Hood. They’re so cool,” said the first woman. “So much in love,” the second one added. Both sighed in unison. Dorothy smiled. “Your times will come, my dears.” Another tall man with dark eyes joined the group. This one had an easy smile and grey just at his temples. He shook her hand. “Midnight Shelby. So glad to finally meet you. I’m Martin and Chloe’s father, Daniel. I know, I know, it’s confusing that he named his son after me. Not my idea, I can assure you. I go by Dan and my grandson uses the longer version. Less confusing.” He shook his head. “And this is my wife, Sharon. Sharon, honey, this is Martin’s new friend.” He winked at Martin. Sharon was a tall, auburn-haired beauty. “Dan, don’t start pushing. Midnight just moved to town. Martin is only a business associate.” She smiled. “Although we wouldn’t want Martin to think we’ve given up on him ever getting married again, maybe giving us another grandchild, now would we?” “Mother! Geez!” Dan held Sharon’s chair. “Sorry we were late, everybody. Got a call.” There was a general muttering of concern. “Who?” asked Dorothy. “Miss Eleanor.” “Oh, dear. She’d been sick such a long time. Now she’s finally at peace.” Dorothy looked at the two young women next to her. “But her poor family.” “True,” said Dan. "Her kids come in tomorrow afternoon to make arrangements. Couple of them are out of state, you know. I expect it’ll be a big sendoff.” Dan sat down, causing a little more chair-scooting. When the jostling was done, Midnight was wedged between Chloe and Martin. Martin scowled. “Why are the chairs all jammed up?” “We have nine people at a table for eight, Martin.” Charles winked at him. “It’s okay with me. I don’t often get to sit so close to so many beautiful women. Kinda cozy. What do you say, Dan?” He nodded, smiling. “Works for me. Martin looks uncomfortable though.” Both the older men looked at him. Charles cleared his throat and looked sheepish. “Sorry to throw even more names at you, Midnight.” He gestured at the two young women who had arrived together. “These are our daughters, Maureen and Janelle. Dorothy and I also have two sons. David who works in Knoxville and Joe, who lives and works in Legend but wouldn’t be caught dead at the Christmas Ball.” Dorothy laid a hand on her husband’s coat sleeve. “Now Charles! You make him sound like a Scrooge.” “Oh—sorry. Not a Scrooge. Just a snob. He’s happier taking a car engine apart, throwing a football around with his son, or eating his wife’s home cooking. Joe’s not much for the social scene.” “Yeah. The whirl of society in Legend can be exhausting.” Maureen—or Janelle—laughed at her own joke as did her sister. Midnight chuckled with them. What a wonderful family! She was falling in love with the McClains. Martin’s arm was warm next to hers and, try as she might, it was impossible to keep their legs from touching under the table. As Charles said, it was cozy. Evidently Betsy’s last-minute insistence that Martin invite Midnight to this event didn’t take into account the fact that the family table was already full. But she agreed with Charles and Daniel. It was okay this way. And she didn’t mind if it made Martin a little uncomfortable. She didn’t mind at all. A minister walked to the podium, cleared his throat, and asked a blessing on the food. Then the volunteer servers got busy. The meal was delicious. Midnight recognized some of Suzie Schul’s best dishes and was able to wave to Suzie once across the room. The B&B owner was in her element serving food, making people feel comfortable and happy. The harried looking man from earlier tapped on the microphone, producing a particularly unpleasant sound. “Okay. Everybody? Thank you for coming to the Christmas Ball. You know most of your ticket money goes to Shop with a Cop. Some of the food and all of the labor tonight is donated.” A round of spontaneous applause erupted. “Tickets sold real well this year, which is a good thing. We have more kids to sponsor than ever.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “So, thanks to all of you for your generosity. Hopefully, by this time next year, things’ll be different for Legend.” The applause for this was even louder. “I know you’re all wondering. We’re not sure about the new factory, but it looks promising. They want to bring their plant to Legend.” “Attaboy, Jack!” Midnight wasn’t sure who had yelled it out. She looked around at her dinner companions who appeared to be less than enthused. “Have you met Mayor Crenshaw?” Chloe whispered to Midnight. “No. Is that him?” Chloe nodded somberly. “Yep.” “He’s doing the best he can, Chlo,” said Martin softly. “Selling out to big business is the best he can do?” Chloe’s return whisper was harsh. “You think you can do better, run for mayor,” Martin said. “Maybe I will.” Chloe crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the mayor. “You won’t.” Martin shrugged. “You’re all talk, Chloe.” “You don’t like the factory idea either. Admit it. You of all people!” Someone started playing old standard Christmas songs on a CD player and several couples went to the dance floor. “My dear?” asked Charles, and he and Dorothy excused themselves. Dan and Sharon did the same. “Dance?” Martin asked softly. “Um. Sure. Why not?” Midnight slid the large, red, paper napkin off her lap and put it on the table. Martin pulled out her chair. Dancing had to be better than sitting in the middle of a sibling argument. “Sorry about Chloe,” he said as soon as they were a few feet away from the table. “She’s got a big mouth.” “Hmm.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Nothing. Just hmm.” “Of course I’m not thrilled about a factory coming in. I hate the idea. But Pete—the mayor—thinks it’s a great opportunity for Legend.” Having reached the small dance floor, Martin turned and faced her. He looked almost timid as he put a hand on her waist and took her other hand in his. Midnight slid her free hand up his arm to his shoulder. Being held by him, even so tentatively, was more intimacy than she’d experienced in months. It wouldn’t do to let herself get too comfortable though. “So, you don’t like factories?” Martin started to sway, carrying her along. “I don’t like our people being taken advantage of. The deal sounds too good. Can we just leave it at that? What we’re here for is to raise some money to help the kids. Eat a good meal…it’s supposed to be a nice evening.” “It is nice.” Midnight let go of any thoughts of a factory and slid back into the moment. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was playing. The dance floor was crowded. The man who held her had a magnetism even his temper couldn’t ruin. “Be just my luck the music would stop after this song.” Midnight felt the words brush past her temple as he said them. She couldn’t help chuckling. “If that happens, we could keep dancing anyway.” She smiled up into his face. “I’m game if you are.” “That’d start talk, Miz Shelby. Doesn’t take a lot to start talk in a small town, you know.” He squeezed her hand, danced her around in a circle. “Now, even just that move right there might start some talk. How would you feel about that?” She laughed. “I’d feel as if I’d rather do something more scandalous if I were going to be the subject of discussion.” Martin’s eyebrows rose and he looked like he was about to say something when Mayor Pete Crenshaw tapped him on the shoulder. “I’m cutting in, Martin. You can’t keep this little lady all to yourself the whole evening.” Martin stepped back and the mayor placed his rather cold hands where Martin’s warm ones had been just a moment before and the moment of pleasant flirtation was lost. “Pete Crenshaw, mayor of this fine metropolis. I hope you don’t mind me stealing you away from Martin.” “Not at all, Mayor.” She peeked over Pete’s shoulder. Martin stood at the edge of the dance floor. Was that disappointment on his face? “So, Miz Shelby. Business good for you?” “Not yet, but I hope that will change before long.” “I understand your shop will be consignment of local arts and crafts. That right?” “That’s most of it. Also a coffee bar and a little space for presentations or book readings.” “Really? Sounds pretty fancy.” He cleared his throat. “You know, I wonder if you’d do better with something like a used clothing store. I just don’t see a lot of people in Legend Valley buying arts and crafts they’ve mostly grown up around. Especially since unemployment is so high. You know, money’s tight and all that.” “Money is tight in most parts of the country, Mayor Crenshaw.” “Sure. Sure.” He nodded, frowning. “I’m just trying to be helpful.” “Yes sir. I realize that. I expect to do quite a lot of advertising. Bring people into the area. Legend has a lot to offer, but your customers haven’t found you yet.” She noticed Martin McClain’s eyes following her from his position on the sidelines where he was talking to some people she didn’t know. “Advertising, huh? Well, there’s another problem, Miz Shelby. We don’t have money to throw at billboards along the interstate. Those things cost a fortune. Plus they’re all full of Gatlinburg shops and Dollywood’s new ride of the year. Who would want to come to Legend when they can go to those places?” “Oh, Mayor. There are lots of people who would prefer a quiet, quaint little town to spend an afternoon or even a weekend. Get them here to visit the shops, eat in the restaurants, stay in the B&B. Bring them in the summer to rent pedal boats on the lake or to hike or fish. Legend doesn’t need to be Gatlinburg. It just needs to be the very best Legend it can be.” “We’re a long way from that. But I like what you say, Miz Shelby. The question is, how do we bring the people in?” “I’ll work on that a bit and get back to you, Mayor. I have some thoughts.” She watched Martin’s son Daniel clearing used dishes off a table. “I think you have more to work with here in Legend than you may realize.” The music ended, and another song was just beginning when Martin tapped the mayor’s shoulder. “Cutting in, Pete.” “Gotcha, Martin.” Mayor Crenshaw slapped Martin on the shoulder. “Real fine lady you’ve got yourself here.” He turned to Midnight. “Miz Shelby, I want to hear more about your ideas. I’ll be in touch.” As if they’d done it a thousand times, Martin and Midnight came together for the next dance. “That Pete Crenshaw putting a move on you?” She laughed up at him, enjoying the crinkles at the outside corners of his eyes when he smiled. They didn’t talk at all, just moved together as the schmaltzy Christmas music played. Martin was smiling now which made him even more handsome. Midnight decided the Christmas Ball was living up to and above any expectations she might have had and was enveloped by a sense of contentment. Maybe this could be home after all. After another dance or two, they returned to the McClain table. Dorothy yawned delicately. “We’re about to call it an evening, dears. It’s been lovely.” Martin said, “Yep. I was just going to say I have an early morning. Should probably head out myself. That is, if you don’t mind, Miz Shelby.” Midnight picked up her evening bag. “Not at all. That’s fine.” “We enjoyed meeting you, Midnight. Don’t be a stranger now,” said Dorothy. “Stop in at the pharmacy sometime. Lunch will be on me.” Sharon, Martin’s mother, took Midnight’s hand. “Do you know about the Christmas Eve service? Seven PM. It’s at the Methodist Church this year. Nice candlelight service, community choir. Our cousin Eli and his wife Jeannie are singing a duet this year. Not to be missed. Eli used to sing professionally before he came back to Legend to teach music at the high school. Gorgeous voices!” Dan nudged her. “You’re gushing, dear.” He looked at Midnight. “They are really good though; and the service is always worthwhile. You’ll be glad if you come. We will be too.” He smiled and touched her arm. “Nice to have you here, Miz Shelby. We hope you’ll be happy in Legend.” Martin led the way through the crowd occasionally looking back to make sure she was there. Once he took her hand, and she felt the shock again. It was annoying that this man was making her feel things she hadn’t felt in such a long time and didn’t particularly want to experience any time soon. Martin McClain was so wrong for her, for so many reasons. Once on the road, Martin asked, “You need to head right back to the B&B? Or do you feel like a drive?” “A drive would be nice, thank you.” Wrong answer from somebody who says she’s sworn off men. Midnight took a deep, silent breath to consciously relax. Berating herself for speaking without thinking would serve no purpose. Just enjoy the little side trip and chalk it up to an unguarded moment after a surprisingly enjoyable evening. The Jeep headed up a steep road and continued to climb. Eventually Martin parked in a little turn-off at the edge of the road. “Legend by starlight, Miz Shelby. Best viewed from outside of the car, if you’re up for it.” Midnight pulled her cape around her shoulders and slid out of the vehicle. Martin joined her and shut the door. Then he extended his arm to the cloudless, star-filled sky and the little town glittering below them. His voice was low. “I’ve been some places. Not seen the whole world—I’ll admit that. But I can’t imagine there are many spots prettier than this.” It was amazing, a view she couldn’t have imagined. Midnight’s eyes began to burn at the unexpected, simple beauty. She had to swallow to make sure her voice didn’t quaver when she spoke. “I’d say you’re right, Martin. Legend is a cute little town. Legend by starlight is…breathtaking. Add snow and this would be the perfect Christmas card. In the City, light pollution keeps us from seeing the stars, you know.” “So I hear.” He shook his head. “That’s an awful shame. A person needs to be able to see the stars so he has a better sense of his place in this world.” Midnight considered his statement. She was startled back into the moment when he spoke. “Are you frozen to death yet?” She realized her legs felt near to frostbite. “Not yet, but it is chilly up here.” She looked up again at the sky, out and down at the town, hoping to memorize the scene. It was a perfect point in time she’d love to hold onto, always. Midnight turned toward Martin. “I hate to leave though. It’s so lovely. Thank you for bringing me up here, Martin.” She put a hand on a sleeve of his suit jacket. “Thank you for sharing this with me.” “No problem, Miz Shelby.” Martin looked down at her. He caught a strand of hair that had escaped and smoothed it behind her ear. “This is a place the kids come to make out, y’know.” He winked. “I’ve been up here before, but never with anybody like you. You’re different, but I can’t help liking you a lot.” Midnight looked up at him. “I like you too, Martin. You’re an interesting person when you’re not being all blustery.” Martin leaned down and kissed her lightly on the mouth. “Had to hurry and do that before I lost my nerve,” he said after straightening again. “You mind?” “As it happens, no I don’t. I imagine I’m more surprised to hear myself say that than you are.” Midnight smiled, rose on tiptoe and kissed him back, slowly and thoroughly. His arms came around her and for several minutes there was nothing and no one else in the world but the two of them. Until bright lights shone on them as another car came along the road. “Well, hell,” Martin muttered, opening Midnight’s door so she could climb in. He got in too and headed the Jeep back down the mountain road. Neither of them spoke until he parked in the B&B lot. “Sorry about earlier,” he growled. “I was acting like a damned teenager.” Martin stared at the steering wheel. “Don’t know what came over me.” Obviously, he regretted what had happened up on the mountain. Midnight didn’t want to feel hurt by that. “Oh well,” she said. “Lovely dinner, beautiful scenery. People get carried away sometimes.” Her chuckle sounded and felt hollow. “It’s no big deal.” “Good. Friends, then?” “Sure,” she said. “Friends.” Midnight got out of the Jeep and went up the porch steps into the B&B and to her bed. But tonight, instead of feeling comfy, the big soft bed felt lonely. Martin McClain was messing with her head, and she was afraid she was in trouble. Chapter Five A week later, Saturday morning sneaked up on Midnight. For the first time in years she hadn’t set her alarm. When the sun finally woke her, it was high in the sky. Stretching, yawning, and feeling completely blissful, she pulled back the covers to start the day. After her usual yoga time, showering, and being sweetly chastised by Suzie as a “sleepyhead,” Midnight left for town. While she drove, she drank coffee from a Legend’s Landing B&B travel mug Suzie had pressed into her hand. A basket of delicious-smelling breakfast leftovers tantalized her from the passenger seat. She would eat them while she worked on her building. She was excited about getting to the physical labor portion of her new start. So much had happened already, and all of it good. But there was still a lot to be accomplished—with the business and her life. The business part was coming along. Since Chloe signed, several others did the same. From the looks of things, she’d have plenty of arts and crafts to sell. She knew her promotion and advertising ideas would bring customers to Legend. There was a lot to see in this cute little town if you slowed down long enough to enjoy it. She’d talked with Chloe, Betsy, Suzie, the newly married Lilly Hood who ran New Beginnings, a Main Street shop geared towards infant and toddler needs, pharmacy owner Dorothy McClain, and bookstore owner Jane Smith. They were enthusiastic about helping to involve other business owners in a united promotional campaign. But Betsy cautioned and the others chimed-in to agree, that there were people who’d probably try to dissuade them from a big promotion of Legend. One of the biggest naysayers would be Martin McClain. He liked Legend just the way it was. Betsy hesitantly admitted it pained him to sell property to newcomers. “Just what I said to him,” Midnight told the ladies, “the first time he took me into my building and talked about the history of the place.” Her frustration with Martin’s ambivalence to outsiders helped her to ignore his good looks and virility. Of course, at the time, she thought he was married to Betsy. But married or not, he was just another man determined to have his own way. Delicious-looking, of course, but still. He needed to stand aside and get over the past because Midnight believed big things were on the way for Legend, Tennessee. So her business was getting started and her new life was too. She hadn’t pulled the voodoo doll out from under the car seat in days. She finally felt as if the divorce and her job loss were behind her. Neither of the men involved mattered to her at all anymore. Enough time had passed that she’d begun to heal. Really. But just in case, she’d keep the little doll handy for a while. She might need it if Martin got in her way…or if she felt like getting in his. The weather guy on TV said some kind of weird high had moved into the area, bringing unseasonably warm temperatures with it. Midnight knew the pleasant weather wouldn’t last, but that made her appreciate it even more. With the top down and the radio blaring, she pulled out of the B&B parking lot. Like the magical time she shared with Martin on the night of the Christmas Ball, the cool, fresh air was even more delightful because it was so unexpected. Driving slightly over the speed limit, the wind played with her hair. Her Queen CD reminded her “Too Much Love Will Kill You.” Ha. Fat chance of that happening. Too much love? She couldn’t even fathom the idea. She threw her head back and laughed. **** Martin McClain stepped out the front door of his office. Gliding down the street a few yards away was a glistening, silver power car with a beautiful woman at the wheel. She laughed as she drove and her long, silky black hair whipped about behind her. A song played loudly, but he paid no attention. He just stared after her, wondering what had brought such an exotic creature to tiny Legend, Tennessee. She intrigued him. He had been trying to quash that feeling since he first spotted her on the sidewalk in front of her building. All beauty and elegance, looking worried and hurried, yet somehow in charge of the situation, she was so obviously out of place in his simple hometown. In Legend, life moved slowly, people lived simply, and the word “elegance” seldom applied. Midnight Shelby seemed the epitome of the word. Even dressed casually in snug jeans and form-fitting knit shirt with her hair hanging straight down her back, she was elegant. But that night at the Christmas Ball, wearing a plain, but probably sinfully expensive black dress with her hair twisted into a knot at the back of her neck, she looked more beautiful than any model. His dad had remarked that she reminded him of the late Audrey Hepburn. No doubt about it, Midnight was out of his league, even if he was interested in getting involved. Which he definitely was not. Legend had kind of a reputation for people falling in love when they didn’t expect to, but ever since Daniel’s mother, Martin managed to keep that brand of disaster at a safe distance. He kept busy with work, with his son, helping friends and family with projects. It was good to be busy and not let his mind wander or start to think about what life could be like with the right woman. And the owner of the new shop in town certainly was not the right woman. His momentary lapse of judgment at the overlook could be explained. She said it herself…something about the evening being nice and the scenery being beautiful. Not his fault. The mountains made a little magic where he didn’t intend to. But he had to admit, Midnight Shelby was intriguing. And as far as he could tell, she was slowly winning the hearts of the general populace with her idea of selling their handmade crafts. Betsy certainly idolized her. But Betsy was like that, Martin thought as he locked the door of his office behind him. Sweet and innocent, really, in spite of his idiot cousin Mike. Betsy liked everybody and often trusted too quickly. Martin found himself watching out for her; even lecturing her at times for not keeping her guard up. He knew all about keeping up a good guard. And maintaining a distance. Most people were out for whatever they could get. Since his wife left him with a tiny baby thirteen years ago, Martin was wary of women. His ex-wife had filed for divorce and sent him the papers to sign, giving full custody of their son to Martin and three-fourths of everything they owned to her. Martin signed the papers, filed them at the county courthouse, said good riddance, and got on with his life. He was raising Daniel by himself and doing a damn fine job of it. Martin wouldn’t let anyone get that close again. Sure he was bitter. Who wouldn’t be? But he’d also learned his lessons and he taught them to Daniel throughout the boy’s entire childhood. Take care of each other, always watch your back, and remember that home is where you belong. Home wasn’t just the house they shared. It was the extended family and friends who loved and supported each other in Legend. Martin made sure Daniel knew the importance of home—the importance of Legend. Martin was devoted to family and friends, most of whom still lived where they had been born and raised. But since the divorce, he avoided relationships with women interested in more than friendship. There were some local girls, like Suzie Schul and Jane Smith, who were okay. But in general, Martin steered clear of the fairer sex out of habit. It was becoming an issue with thirteen-year-old Daniel, who, like all teenagers, thought he knew everything. He was a handsome kid, popular, and smart. Everyone liked him, including the girls. Martin thought about it often. When would Daniel’s heart be broken for the first time? And how could he bear to watch? Martin shrugged, knowing he couldn’t protect Daniel forever. At least for today his son was safe at his cousin Joe’s house. The boys would spend the day messing with computers and throwing a football around in Joe’s back yard. Growing up would be put off for another day. Which left Martin with some time on his hands. He’d pick up Daniel this evening, but until then, there wasn’t a whole lot he needed to do. Maybe he’d amble downtown and see what was going on at the new arts and crafts shop…. Just to check on his recent sale. Nothing personal. **** Midnight stood in the center of her new bedroom and admired her handiwork. The second-story apartment above her shop hadn’t needed any drastic renovations. The hardwood floor was in almost perfect condition compared to the one downstairs, and once washed, the creamy white walls suited her taste. She had spent plenty of evenings cleaning and deciding where each item would go. Yes, it was wrenching to see the furniture she had used in the apartment with Jeffrey, but for the most part she was feeling stronger and more confident every day. So much was going right with her new life. In her excitement to finish the project, she had closed the shop for lunch hour because she was eager to get the final touches completed. She had left the bedroom for last. She glanced at her watch. Just a few minutes left, and she’d need to go downstairs and open up for any customers. As she draped a Battenberg lace coverlet onto her four-poster, antique bed, she surprised herself by idly thinking what it might be like to kiss Martin McClain again. Et cetera. Unbidden, some delightful thoughts presented themselves. She shook her head to dislodge the images. It wouldn’t do to fantasize about him, as the two of them were as dissimilar as any man and woman could be. Smiling to herself as Martin’s face receded in her mind, she plumped a raspberry-colored pillow and tossed it onto the matching raw-silk upholstered love seat she’d carefully arranged by a mahogany-and-marble reading table in the corner of the room. This would be a wonderful corner to curl up with a book on the cold winter nights she knew weren’t far away. A sparkling reflection of light caught her attention and she looked around for its genesis. Her eyes followed it across the room to a front window, and then straight upward. That’s when she saw it for the first time. An edge-to-edge mirrored ceiling. She sank onto the love seat and slumped back into it. What in the world? How had a mirrored ceiling not made it into the virtual tour she’d taken via the McClain Realty website? Various methods of how to murder Martin McClain flitted through her head. With her long, jeans-clad legs stretched out in front of her, ankles crossed, and her arms folded over her middle, she felt as if she were literally holding herself together to keep from flying apart. Forget the scene on the Battenberg lace. She would definitely have to kill him. What a shame. Because it was now killing and not kissing, on the agenda, she decided she’d call and order him to come over here right this second. No. She’d go to his office, stand over him at his desk, and scream at him. No! She’d…. The sound of footsteps on the wooden stair treads snapped her head around. Had she fallen into the Legendarian habit of leaving the place unlocked? The door at the top of the stairs opened, and there stood her handsome nemesis. “You! How dare you! Are you here to laugh? To gloat?” She sat up and glared at him. The look on his face went from pleasant to confused, to something that could easily turn into anger. “What’s wrong with you?” “What’s wrong? Ha! As if you don’t know!” “Okay! Yeah. As if I don’t.” Deep furrows showed between his brows, evidence of his confusion. “Why are we yelling?” “How did you expect me to react when I saw it?” He met her black-eyed glare. “Saw what?” Her only answer was to re-cross her arms across her chest, lean back, and look straight up. Martin looked up too. “Has that been up there the whole time?” he asked. He eased himself down onto the love seat. “I didn’t put it there.” She huffed. “One would think, with you being the realtor….” “Okay, just stop. I see there’s a mirrored ceiling. I didn’t know it before. Didn’t notice.” “Typical man,” she muttered, neatly ignoring the fact that she had only just noticed it herself after working in the room for quite some time. Frowning, he looked up again. “Well, okay, whatever. I didn’t notice.” He shook his head and chuckled a little. “If you’d known the previous owners, you might have more of a sense of humor about it. Just think of the mirror as a bonus. Now, come on, Miz Shelby, you’re not shocked, are you?” “Shocked?” She was, in a way, but would die before admitting it to him. She looked up at the ceiling, hoping to think of something cutting to say. But she met his eyes in the mirror and noticed again they were the color of dark chocolate. Good for you. Packed with antioxidants. She licked her lips without thinking. Saw her unintentional action reflected in the mirror. Saw him watching her. Lost her breath at the look in his eyes. Was that hunger? Lust? Midnight’s throat was suddenly dry and her heart was beating a little too quickly. Unable—or unwilling—to stop looking at the huge mirror, she watched as the reflection of his narrowed eyes bore into the reflection of hers. His nostrils flared just a bit. “So, what are you going to do about it?” she softly asked into the mirror. “It’s your ceiling. That decision’s one you’ll have to make, Miz Shelby.” He’d relaxed now and was baiting her. “You can tear it down, I guess. Or…enjoy it.” One eyebrow rose as he spoke. She watched it in the mirror, wondering if it was the right or left brow. Hard to get it straight in a mirror. Sort of. “You’re disgusting, Mr. McClain.” “I don’t believe you mean that, Miz Shelby. I believe you’re thinking about it.” He stretched his arm out along the back of the love seat. She knew what he meant, thinking about it. She’d never admit he was right. She and Martin on the Battenberg lace…. **** “So maybe you’ll decide to just make the best of it.” His voice was soft, sultry. He tentatively moved his hand along the back of the love seat a few inches toward her, mentally calculating which direction, how far, in reverse. Making his move in a mirror was more complicated than doing it the usual way. Every time he dealt with this woman, there was some kind of challenge. But he wasn’t a man known for backing down. He hadn’t planned to touch her. But the sparks they struck off each other lit a hot flame in him and damned if he was going to continue to ignore it. He’d been ignoring too much too long. He was hungry—for a taste of something imported. Martin watched his hand touch the top of her head, felt his fingers comb through the silky hair and trail down to her shoulder. The pale skin revealed by the wide neck of her black knit shirt was driving him crazy. From her shoulder, his hand moved delicately along her collarbone to her slender neck. He felt a strong, erratic pulse in her throat. He also felt her jump just a little as he made contact with her beautiful skin. She didn’t pull away—not with her body, not with her eyes. But her eyelids did flutter a little. That told Martin he was affecting her. Every sensation in his own body, and there were many, told him she was stirring him up too, and strongly. **** Midnight’s eyes were riveted to the mirror as she watched Martin McClain’s hand make love to her hair, collarbone, and throat. Those long fingers, strong but not rough, could have belonged to a violinist. They were that talented. How could such a simple touch be so erotic? And how could watching it make it even more so? She didn’t know what he’d do next, but had an idea she’d enjoy it tremendously. Maybe right now she would take her hand and…. “Hey! Anybody in here?” They jumped to their feet just as footsteps sounded on the stairs. Chapter Six Daniel Martin McClain burst into the room after clattering up the wooden stairs. “Geez, Dad. What’s wrong? You look weird.” “Nothing’s wrong, Daniel, except you’re supposed to be at Joe’s. What’s up with you?” He stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and side-stepped behind a large box as he spoke. “Um, Dad. I told you I had a computer thing to do today. Remember?” He rolled his eyes as only a teenager can do. “Geez.” “A computer thing, sure. That pretty much describes your life. Why are you here?” “Miz Shelby asked….” The boy looked at Midnight. “He’s here because I hired him. Daniel’s going to create a website for me and a few of the other business owners for a start. We’re going to get one put together for the town of Legend and as many individual businesses as want to participate.” “Yeah, Dad, and then I said we can link it to the county site and that’s linked to the site for the state.” Midnight broke in again, caught up in the excitement of the topic and leaving behind the excitement of her interlude with Martin. “And my parents have a site they market their stuff on and my mom has a poetry blog. They’ll link those to my site here because I’m going to sell some of my dad’s Native American art and, of course, Mom’s books. And then when” “Wait right there! What are you talking about?” Martin’s face looked almost purple as he came storming out from behind the box. His hands were out of his pockets now. “We’re talking about marketing Legend,” Midnight answered. “No reason to have all this natural beauty, eating and shopping opportunities, relaxation to the max, and not share it with the world. We’re going to bring people from all over right here to Legend; and when they see what we’ve got, they’ll tell their friends; and they’ll come too.” Midnight walked across to look out one of the large windows. “Some of them will want to move here. Good for the real estate market, of course. With the power of the ‘net, there’s no telling how far Legend can go.” She spun toward Martin again. “Isn’t that exciting? And Daniel’s just the IT guy we need. He’s great with web design. I mean, your site is fantastic for a small town realtor. Well. Maybe that wasn’t the ideal phrasing, but it is really good, and Betsy said….” “Stop! Stop talking.” Martin threw a hand up in a plea for silence. “Good Lord, woman. How many words can you say without taking a gulp of air? Just stop and let me try to digest this. You’ve hired my son to create websites for the local businesses and bring a bunch of outsiders to Legend?” “Well, it’s business, Martin,” she said quietly. “You have to have outsiders to buy the products, you know. Legend can’t support itself without bringing people in.” She looked at him searchingly. “You know that, right?” Silence. Martin’s face turned a deeper shade of purple. “Let’s go, son.” He headed to the top of the staircase. “But Dad!” “Let’s go.” The look that passed between them was like a lightning storm. But after a few moments Daniel dropped his head and walked toward the staircase too. “Geez.” “Martin McClain! This is not the end of it!” she shouted as they descended the steps. “You can’t avoid progress forever. You’ll kill this town.” Then she bit her tongue because she didn’t want to say any more with Daniel present. He was a good kid. And he certainly seemed to have more foresight than his father. Daniel deserved to have a future in Legend if he wanted to keep living here as an adult. But if attitudes like Martin’s prevailed, there wouldn’t be a future for anyone. **** “And then he stomped down the stairs and out the door, all self-righteous. As if I’d done something wrong.” “And you hadn’t…exactly.” Not what Midnight expected to hear. “I hadn’t, exactly?” She sat with Betsy at the white wrought iron table in the large kitchen/dining area above Midnight’s store. It was late Sunday afternoon and they were enjoying some white chocolate cappuccino. Decaf cappuccino, in deference to Betsy’s pregnancy. This was Midnight’s celebration for putting her living quarters together in one weekend. Martin’s sister Chloe had helped most of the day but couldn’t stay longer because she had to finish a painting. Betsy shook her head, and her golden curls caught the light. “You should’ve asked Martin. Remember? I told yoube sure to ask Martin before you say anything to Daniel. Now…” She shook her head. “Martin doesn’t forgive easily. And he loves this town. He wants the best for it. The way you explained things may have put him off.” Put him off? Set him off was more like it. But no way did Midnight think any of this fiasco was her fault. Martin was just too old-fashioned and stuck in a rut. “I can get someone else. Someone from away. There are probably millions of people who create websites. I just wanted to give Daniel the chance.” Betsy drained her cup and placed it carefully in the saucer. “That was a good thought. But you can’t give Daniel a chance unless you work with Martin. That’s not fair to either of them. You don’t want to hurt their relationship, Midnight. Think about that.” “Think about the town.” Midnight didn’t see that anything she had said or done could create problems between Daniel and Martin. A quick blow-up maybe and she deeply regretted that. But nothing long-term. Betsy’s brow furrowed. “I am thinking about the town. We need to get more people in here to do the touristy things, shop in the stores, stay in the B&B. I don’t know what’ll happen with the factory they’re talking about bringing in here. I’m not saying what you want to do is wrong, but you’ve started off bad.” She smiled, as if to soften the impact of her words. “Not just with Daniel. You’ve got to get Martin and some of the other guys in Legend thinking outside the box like they say on TV. I think men have a harder time doing that than we women do.” Betsy patted her large round tummy. “Legend’s biggest export is our kids when they get out of school, especially the really smart ones. To get good jobs, they have to go somewhere else. We know that. It’s been that way for years. We just don’t know what to do about it. I’m not sure a factory is any kind of an answer.” “Betsy, you can talk to Martin. Reason with him. He’ll listen to you. I’d bet on it.” “I don’t know. He has a double dose of the McClain bullheadedness.” She sighed. “Poor Daniel. I’ll bet he got an ear full on the way home yesterday.” “You’re right. I feel awful about that. He’s such a neat kid, and so smart. He’ll go far, especially considering how advanced he is at thirteen. But he won’t be able to go far and stay in Legend at the same time. Do you see that?” “I do. But I don’t know if Martin does.” “Maybe that’s the way you need to approach it when you talk to Martin, Betsy.” “Maybe that’s the way you need to approach it, Midnight. The more I think about this, the more I believe you need to be the one to explain it to Martin. I know he’s set in his ways. No one knows it better than I do. But he treats me like a kid sister, and I don’t think he’d take me seriously if I tried to talk to him about it. Plus, you have the background and the vocabulary for all this business stuff.” She dropped her eyes and twisted a tendril of curly blond hair around a forefinger. “I’m just a small town girl.” Midnight looked hard at sweet, innocent Betsy’s halo of blond curls. Was she trying to get out of this for some other reason? Could Midnight force little pregnant Betsy into an unpleasant encounter with big, noisy Martin? No. She’d have to do it herself. But she would let him cool down some first. Chapter Seven “Midnight? Remember the Christmas Eve service at seven,” said Dorothy McClain when Midnight saw her in the checkout line of the Piggly Wiggly. “Should be beautiful.” She looked more closely at Midnight. “You okay, honey?” “Yes, fine. Just tired, I guess.” Midnight picked up her bag of groceries and moved aside so Dorothy could check out. “Oh! Looky, Mommy! It’s snowing!” A little girl with red braids exclaimed, pointing out the window. Midnight felt a smile on her lips. She did love snow. If there was a nice snowfall, surely that would get her into the Christmas spirit. She felt pretty low right now and wasn’t sure precisely why. Dorothy paid the clerk, picked up her bags, and walked toward the door with Midnight. “Isn’t that perfect?” “The snow? Very nice.” She walked along with Dorothy as the big fluffy snowflakes started to come down more quickly. “I’m surprised Legend stores don’t do more for Christmas. The snow will be so pretty, but other than the big tree in the front yard of the Old Meeting House, there isn’t much holiday décor. How pretty the town would be if all the Main Street stores were outlined in white Christmas lights.” Dorothy shook her head. “No money for it, dear. Remember, Legend is in a recession all its own. The store owners are lucky to keep their businesses open. Extras are out of the question—like Christmas lights and the electricity to run them. I agree with you that it would look delightful, of course.” “Like the perfect representation of small town Christmas.” She shrugged. If the store owners couldn’t afford it, there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Especially not on Christmas Eve. “Maybe next year.” “Maybe,” Dorothy said. “Then again, the way things have been going, next Christmas could be even worse. I don’t want to put my hopes in that factory. It goes against the grain to expect our town to be bailed out of a bad situation by outsiders.” She dumped her groceries onto the back floorboard of her car. “No offense, Midnight. You’re not an outsider anymore, anyway. You’re one of us.” “Thanks for that vote of confidence, Dorothy. I’m a little more accepted at least. But there’s so much to do for Legend….” “You’re just the one to lead the effort,” the older woman said, putting a hand on Midnight’s arm and gazing deeply into her eyes. “I have every confidence in you.” She smiled. “Seven o’clock at the Methodist Church, right?” “I’ll try to make it.” **** It was a little past seven when Midnight stepped out her front door. There were at least three inches of snow on the sidewalks and it was still falling. Tire tracks marred its perfection in the street, but Midnight’s were the first footprints on the sidewalk because most stores had closed at noon for Christmas Eve. She stepped back and looked at her display windows. They were beautiful, showcasing a local artist’s Santa dolls. Tiny white lights outlined the windows and the big Christmas tree on the stage at the far end of the building was visible from here. It wasn’t overdone, but compared to the rest of the Main Street stores, it was a lot. Midnight turned away, and hunched her shoulders against the blowing snow and Legend’s this is how we’ve always done it mentality. She crossed Second Street, started walking south on Main. This darling little town could be such a draw if only the merchants and citizens could work together to reach its potential. A car quietly made its way west on First Street, its tires moving almost soundlessly in the snow. Maybe they were heading to the Christmas Eve service too. A magical hush blanketed Legend. Midnight stopped and closed her eyes, tipping her head back. Big flakes landed on her face and she didn’t care. It was so peaceful. No sounds at all now except her own reverent breathing. Then, in the distance, music began. She started walking again, following the sound to where she knew it emanated—the Methodist Church. Traditional Christmas carols, pipe organ, voices of all abilities lifted in wonder and praise. She arrived and climbed the front steps but stood just outside the door and listened. It was her own private concert, enjoyed in the most beautiful of concert halls—Nature itself. Later, before the final “Amen,” Midnight went back down the steps and around the corner, taking a longer route home. She didn’t want to meet anyone but also wasn’t in a rush to go indoors. Pleased with her secret enjoyment of the peaceful evening, Midnight was surprised when a voice called her name. “Miz Shelby! You missed church,” said Daniel. She stopped walking and approached the open window of the Jeep that had pulled up alongside her. She made eye contact with Daniel but not with his father. “I was there but didn’t go in. It sounded lovely.” “Geez. You shoulda come into the church.” Daniel squinted. “You’re getting’ all snowy, Miz Shelby. Aren’t you awful cold?” She smiled. “Actually, I’m fine. Thank you, Daniel. Just enjoying a walk in the snow. It’s different here than in the City.” “Better?” “Maybe, Daniel.” She touched his hand on the window frame. “You have a wonderful Christmas, okay?” “Yes ma’am. You too.” Daniel looked the other direction. “Right, Dad?” “Absolutely,” Martin said softly. He looked serious for someone who was celebrating Christmas. Likely he was still angry with her about hiring Daniel. “We’d be glad to give you a ride home, if you like, Miz Shelby. Don’t want Legend’s newest citizen getting frostbite.” “I’ll be fine, but thank you.” She tried to catch his gaze but he didn’t cooperate. “Merry Christmas, Martin.” “And to you, Miz Shelby. And to you.” He drove off slowly as Daniel rolled up his window. A little while later Midnight unlocked the front door of The Emporium and took off her boots to leave them to dry. It had been a very unusual Christmas Eve, but beautiful nonetheless. The only thing that made it less than perfectly peaceful was the rift she had accidentally created with Martin. But hadn’t Betsy assured her that Martin would come around if he were approached correctly? Christmas Day, Midnight got up late, made coffee, and sat on her little back deck bundled in a sweatsuit and flannel robe. The town was blanketed in sparkling white snow. There were sounds of kids having snowball fights, car doors closing, and people greeting each other happily. But Midnight stayed home all day. It was her first Christmas to spend physically alone, but she had spent some Christmases with Jeff emotionally alone. This year was better in many ways. She phoned her parents and her sister to catch up on their news and share progress of her store. She fixed scrambled eggs and toast for brunch, napped, and finished the day on her loveseat next to a big bowl of popcorn reading a Christmas romance novel. It was an unusual holiday, but still nice. Her soul was much more at peace than before she came to Legend or in her early days here. If Legend’s slow pace, wonderful people, and beautiful scenery could do that for her, it could do it for others too. The following day her plans began to take shape. Major agenda itemenlist the aid of Martin McClain. **** Several mornings later, Martin opened the front door of The Emporium and was amazed. The walls were painted a deep forest green, and the hardwood floor had a shiny new coat of polyurethane. The old bar had been cleaned and polished so the beautiful grain of the burled walnut shone. Elegant, stemmed, glass mugs proclaiming The Emporium in forest green lettering hung from brass hooks above the bar, awaiting customers. A cappuccino machine and other black-and-stainless gadgetry gleamed on the shelves of the wall cabinet. The rich aroma of roasting coffee beans nearly made his mouth water. The huge room was an eclectic variety of displaysjewelry, clothing, wooden toys, hand-carved walking sticks, dulcimers, glass dust catchers of various sorts. A lot of his family members were into the old-time crafts, and he recognized some of the wares made by one or another of his cousins. He saw a display of books and wondered about those. And had Midnight’s father created the Native American art that filled a walnut-and-glass case along one wall? Large, low-slung leather club chairs were interspersed with the displays as if inviting one to sit and visit or read. At the far end of the room was a small stage with a striking floral arrangement placed in front of the classy walnut and brass lectern. The place was inviting, yet professional. It was as nice as any ritzy store in Knoxville and much classier than anything he’d seen in Gatlinburg. It made him want to stop and browse. And this was saying something because Martin McClain was not a shopper. It took a moment for him to get his bearings and remember why he’d come here. Midnight appeared. That was the only way to phrase it. Maybe she’d been standing there the whole time, maybe she’d just stepped out of the stairwell. But she made absolutely no sound. She was just there. And looking gorgeous. Her black hair hung straight down her back. She wore a little more makeup than usual, maybe, causing him to be drawn into the depths of those incredible black eyes. Her milky-white skin was translucent. Not that he could see much of it. She was wearing a black business suit that looked as if it had been made for her, or on her, and black leather high heels with dangerous-looking pointy toes. The large diamond studs in her ears and the diamond-and-emerald ring on her left forefinger winked at him. She was sex, beauty, and professionalism all at the same time. Martin wondered again what this amazing woman was doing in his little hometown, why she went to so much trouble for the people and place she had adopted as her own, and what he could possibly do to persuade her to stay. He felt himself staring. “Good morning, Miz Shelby.” Look at the wall. At the blown-glass black bear. Anything but her. “Martin.” “Got your voice mail. You wanted to see me about something?” “Yes. I asked you here to talk about our future.” Chapter Eight “Our future? Our future? What do you mean by that?” “Just what I said. Our future. Yours and mine. And Legend’s. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I want to share some ideas with you. That’s why I left the message on your machine at the office last night. So you’d hear it first thing this morning and come over before we open for the day. I have a feeling we don’t have time to waste.” She was talking crazy. Martin wondered if he needed to be concerned about another attack by a long, pearl-tipped, straight pin, with or without accompanying voodoo doll. But he liked listening to her nasaly New York accent and watching her beautiful mouth move, even when she wasn’t exactly making sense. She was wearing a dark purplish-red lipstick that made her lips look more delectable than usual. He would’ve said that was impossible before seeing it today. He decided not to interrupt her for once. He’d just let her talk. What could it hurt? Maybe she was succumbing to his charms. Not that he’d tried real hard. “Go on,” he said, moving over to one of the high stools by the bar. “I assume there’s coffee in it for me, at least?” “Of course. I just roasted some new beans.” She walked behind the bar and spent a few minutes dealing with the beans and grinder, then put the grounds in to brew with water she poured from a large glass jug bearing a fancy label. Imported water, he guessed. Nothing plain about this woman, not even the water she used to make coffee. Amazing. “About the other day….” they both began. Then chuckled. “Ladies first.” “All right.” She sent him a brilliant smile. “The other day. I should have talked to you before contacting Daniel about the websites. I knew better. But I was excited about the prospects and wanted to give him a chance at it. And in just a few minutes of conversation with him, I forgot I should speak to you first. I apologize.” He could see what the apology cost her and appreciated it. “One thing about that. How did you contact him?” “Well, that’s easy. He stops in nearly every day after school. Didn’t you know?” No, he didn’t know. Had no clue. Why did it hurt him to hear this? Martin took a moment to digest the information and his own reaction to it. “He comes here and does what?” “Helps me. He’s helped clean and polish, haul whatever I need to have hauled. His cousin Joey and their friend Tyler have been so much help too. But mostly Daniel. He never misses a day. This makes me feel awkward, Martin. I thought you knew that. I thought he’d told you.” “He comes to the office after school, but I’m sometimes out, and when I’m there I’m often distracted. Geez. You probably think I’m one of those dads who doesn’t care.” She smiled. “I think nothing of the sort. He’s thirteen and maybe a bit headstrong. I imagine he knew you would balk at his spending time here.” She shook her head. “Anyway, one day when Daniel was helping me with the polyurethane….” “You got him to polyurethane your floor?” “He helped me do it. We read the instructions and did it together. Why?” “Nothing.” Martin could barely get his son to do basic chores around the house. Willingly painting a floor? No way. “So we were working on that. And maybe Joey was here too…yes, that was it, and they were talking computers and websites and Daniel said he’d done yours and that got me thinking about what a great tool the site is for you. I got the idea of a group of sites for the stores here and linking them…and I just got caught up in the concept. I mentioned it to Betsy next time I saw her and she said talk to you.” Midnight paused, looking sheepish. “I guess I got carried away with the possibilities.” “I see you’re easily caught up in the excitement of ‘marketing Legend’ as you said the other day. I saw it then and it’s flashing in your eyes now. I can believe you forgot to talk to me. Of course, Daniel should have mentioned it to me.” Midnight looked into Martin’s eyes. “Maybe he was afraid you’d say no.” “Probably would have.” “Why?” she asked, handing him a steaming cup of coffee. Columbian. Black. Without asking, she knew that’s how he’d want it. Martin made a point of looking carefully at the mug. “Your coffee mugs are nice. Elegant. You like things elegant, don’t you, Miz Shelby?” “Elegant? Yes. I like nice things. And I want my customers—my guests—to feel I’ve made an effort to make them comfortable. As if it’s a treat to come in here so they’ll want to come back.” He looked around the large room with its eye-catching displays. People were going to feel that way about it, he’d wager. He did and that surprised him. “This is a real fancy place. It looks like it belongs in the city. Not like it fits in Legend. This is just not the way we do things here.” “Oh, Martin, please don’t say that. That attitude can kill anything. I’ve seen it happen in retail loads of times. Management decides it can’t change the way it always sets up a display or the way marketing is always done and the customer loses interest and goes somewhere else.” She lowered her voice and with her hands flat on the gleaming bar top, leaned a little toward him. Her black eyes flashed. “That could happen to Legend. If our local people don’t care enough about it to make it the best it can be…to capitalize on what makes Legend unique...” She gestured at the local crafts surrounding them. “Some other small town will take advantage of the niche market and bring in the people. And the business. And the money. And Legend will just fade away and die.” It had an ominous ring of truth to it. “Assuming you’re right, why would it matter to you?” “Legend is my home now. I want to live and work here and make lasting friendships. Friendships that matter.” “It’s not just about the money?” She laughed, but the laughter didn’t reach her eyes. “You must be kidding. If I was interested in maximizing my income potential, this is not where I’d be living. You know I worked in New York City most of my adult life and traveling the rest of it?” “Yeah. I think that was mentioned to me somewhere along the way. So why come here?” “A lot of reasons. Quite honestly, some of them are none of your business. But the main reason is I wanted to have a home and friends. And have meaningful work again. I miss that.” The fact that she said she hadn’t had a home and friends before wasn’t lost on Martin. She’d had meaningful work but not a home and friends? How did anyone live like that? “Basically just a fresh start?” “Yes. Small Town America is something I’d never experienced as an adult. I lived in and traveled to big cities. Of course, I saw all kinds of places with my family when I was a kid.” “Where’s your family now?” He hoped he wasn’t getting too personal but realized he really wanted to know. “My parents move a lot. They’re both artists, so they can live anywhere. Dad does arts and crafts.” She gestured to the walnut and glass case. “And Mom writes poetry. It’s in her Irish soul. I have the collection of her poetry books here. Talk about a niche market! But she actually sells some of them; mostly online with their website, sometimes at readings. They don’t make loads of money on any of it, but they’re incredibly happy. My sister and I were so fortunate to grow up in an interesting and eclectic life. Money isn’t everything. I do know that, in case you’re wondering.” Her last statement stung. He had been thinking of her as a spoiled rich woman, come to the little burg to impress everyone, and then move on. Now he was starting to believe what she said. She wanted a home. If her parents moved a lot when she was a kid and she didn’t feel at home in the city, then her concern for Legend made sense. He wondered if there’d been a husband or boyfriend or a series of them in New York and whether a broken relationship was part of what drove her away. He didn’t know her well enough to get into such a discussion. Not yet. But he definitely wanted to know. He wanted to know everything about Midnight Shelby. That realization surprised and scared him. It felt like the beginning of a relationship and he wasn’t sure he was ready. He assumed too she wouldn’t be interested in a hick like him. Maybe as a fellow business owner, but nothing personal, surely? Yet there was something…. “Martin, what bothers you about attracting new business and new people to Legend? Surely you knew your website would help bring people here.” “My son created the website without my knowledge when he was twelve years old. I made him take it offline for a little while and then Betsy and Chloe and some of the others got on my case and I gave in. It does help business, of course. I’ve had a few sales come my way and several other potentials because of it.” “Me, for instance.” “Yeah. For instance.” Without the website, Midnight Shelby would never have landed in Legend. Martin put that thought into the back of his mind to ruminate on later. Maybe Daniel’s allowance was due for an increase. “Again, what are you afraid of?” Her persistence impressed and frustrated him. “Not afraid, exactly. Wary. I’m wary of outsiders. I’m still getting used to Lilly Hood who’s just been here a few months. Even though she married Coach Hood and seems a pleasant enough type, something about her just makes me wonder. I don’t entirely trust you, if you want the truth.” He drained the last of his coffee, set the cup down, and slid it toward her. “My reasons are my own, but the gist is, anyone who comes to Legend is going to have to prove himself—or herself—to me. This town, the whole county, is my home. McClains have lived here for generations. There’ve been McClain mayors, county councilmen, commissioners. Even a state senator a couple decades ago. I feel duty-bound to protect what’s here.” “As if it’s your inheritance?” “And my son’s. Yeah, I guess so.” “Realistically, Martin, what will be here for Daniel when he grows up? What kind of living could he make here? What quality of life will there be? You’ve lost some industry in recent years, I’ve been told. The empty factory outside town is an eyesore. Several of the shop owners are struggling now.” Her graceful hand gestured toward Main Street outside her front windows. “Unless something turns around, the struggle will get worse and they won’t be able to hold on. We need to get things moving for Legend…for us, for Daniel, and for whoever comes after us.” It sounded so noble when she put it that way. “So you’re devising this Marketing Legend campaign. And you need Daniel….” “I don’t have to use Daniel. I want to give him the opportunity. He’s incredibly bright, Martin, and he needs to be challenged so he continues to grow and learn. But if you don’t want Daniel to participate, I’ll tell him we’re going to use someone else. I’ll come up with a plausible reason.” “Well, either way, you sure don’t need me for this plan of yours.” She adjusted some coffee mugs that already hung in perfect symmetry. “We want you to be part of it. You’re important to the community. You know its history and its strengths that some of the rest of us might not think of. Give it some thought, okay? That’s all I’m asking right now.” **** A few minutes later, Martin walked briskly back to his office. There was still a little snow on the ground and the air was frigid. He felt warm inside though—savoring the aftertaste of delicious coffee and his recollection of Midnight Shelby’s beautiful lips and incredible black eyes. He’d give her idea some thought but doubted he’d participate in any campaign to bring in a bunch of newcomers. It was just asking for trouble. That’s how Daniel’s mother had come into his life, a pretty young woman who’d gotten an office job at a factory outside town and moved to Legend because of it. She and Martin had an instant and intense physical attraction. It lasted through three months of dating and several months of marriage. But when Daniel was tiny, the factory shut down and the pretty young woman left town. Left behind were an empty shell of a factory, a lot of unemployed people, and a broken-hearted Martin McClain with a child to raise by himself. But he healed. And he made sure Daniel wasn’t messed up because he didn’t have a mother. Both the corporation and the woman had been out for their own interests and had had no qualms about taking what they could get from Legend and its people. Martin didn’t wish either of them back. He couldn’t let that happen again. Not to his town, and not to his son. Chapter Nine Christmas lights. On the way to school this morning, Daniel asked Martin for permission to help Miz Shelby with Christmas lights in the afternoon. Martin didn’t hesitate to say yes. Since learning Daniel was helping Midnight, he’d paid closer attention to the way this woman affected his son. Daniel always had a better outlook, not quite so teenage-sulky, when he’d been at The Emporium after school. Martin stopped in a couple of times and found Daniel doing such unlikely work as using a dust mop on the hardwood floors in the showroom and learning to squeegee the large front windows. He saw the look of respect and adoration on Daniel’s face when Midnight instructed him on a task or corrected him for something he didn’t do quite right. Midnight seemed to have endless patience with Daniel and was interested in teaching him, encouraging him. It looked as if Daniel had found himself a surrogate mom. Martin was coming to terms with that. He’d always had a close relationship with his own mother. Still did. A boy needs to have that kind of relationship or he wouldn’t know how to treat a wife, Betsy explained after reading a parenting magazine. Made some kind of sense. Too bad Daniel didn’t feel that way about any of the local women. There were plenty of cousins around who’d be glad to take Daniel under their wing. Instead, he immediately gravitated to Midnight. As had Martin, like it or not. All in all, Martin didn’t much mind when Daniel wanted to help with Christmas lights. For one thing, how much time would be involved in taking down and putting away a few strings of lights? Today was Friday too, so no hurry to get Daniel home to hit the books. Martin agreed to Daniel’s request to pick him up at Miz Shelby’s when Martin was ready to head home. Seemed harmless enough. Several days had passed since Martin and Midnight’s discussion of Legend’s future. Martin had thought about it and come to terms with Midnight’s plan. Legend did have a lot of potential even without counting on something big from outside like the factory that might or might not end up coming here. He’d got a call from the mayor about it this week and the prospect looked less likely all the time. But Legend already had businesses. There were locally-owned shops and restaurants and Suzie Schul’s B&B. Plus there was Lake Legend, which in warm weather, was a great place to swim, picnic, and rent pedal boats at the municipal dock. All the local businesses would benefit from an increase in tourist traffic. And if the businesses benefited, there’d be more money coming into the town and into the pockets of the citizens through increased employment. Which might, in turn, create more local business. Martin couldn’t see a downside to it, and Lord knew he tried. The Market Legend campaign, or whatever she called it, made sense all around. In a way, he hated to admit it, and if he could avoid doing so in her presence, he would. At closing time, Martin said good night to Betsy and walked out of the office with her. She managed to get into her lime green bug and drive off. She was getting rounder by the day and he wondered how much longer the baby would wait. It wasn’t due for over a month, but petite little Betsy looked about to pop. Martin decided he’d leave the Jeep where it was and walk downtown to get Daniel. Save a little gas, get a little exercise. He started down the sidewalk, reveling in the cold, crisp air. He loved winter. He pretty much loved all the seasons in their turn, but winter was his favorite. The warmish weather a few weeks ago was just a memory. Today’s high had been thirty degrees. He was lost in his own thoughts, not paying much attention as he walked, then finally looked up and had to blink a few times. It looked as if Legend had become an ant farm and the ants were busy. Ladders leaned on every building—extension ladders on the two-stories—and people, many of them high school kids, climbing up and down. Others on the sidewalk shouted directions. There was lots of laughter, and Rosemary Clooney sang a ’40’s version of a Christmas song from an open window somewhere. What in the world was going on? He walked a little closer and saw them. The strings of lights. Christmas lights. Lots and lots of clear bulbs and electric cords. Martin continued down the sidewalk, speaking to everyone because he knew them all, but didn’t stop till he reached the front of The Emporium. He looked up to the delightful sight of Midnight Shelby’s long, denim-encased legs and shapely derrière ascending a tall ladder. Daniel was at the ladder’s base also looking up, but with a look of grim determination instead of rapt appreciation. “Son.” “Dad.” “Big project you’ve got here.” “Yeah. Market Legend, you know? It’s on the site. Winter lights and stuff starting next week and lasting till like February, I think. Anyway, I forget the date, but it’s on the site. “Which site is that?” “The Market Legend site. Geez, Dad. You know. I made this general site and a bunch of the shop owners have their own page on it. We’re gonna do something more extravagant later on, but we needed to have a web presence right away, Miz Shelby said. She’s so cool. She helped design a lot of it. She’s really smart about making things look good.” “Mmm-hmm.” Martin looked up again, enjoying the view. She was reaching awfully far from that perch on a top rung. Looked dangerous. “Hey, Miz Shelby!” She looked down, flashed him a brilliant smile. Martin wasn’t sure he’d ever seen such a beautiful smile anywhere. She was quite a picture with her shiny black hair, snug jeans, and purple fleece pullover silhouetted against the pale January sky. “Hey, Mr. McClain! Merry Christmas.” “Well, looks that way. But I’m thinking that was a couple weeks ago. You want some help with those lights? I’m pretty good on a ladder.” “I’ll just bet you are.” She smiled again. “Sure.” She looped the strings of lights over the end of the ladder and started her descent. This was even more enjoyable to watch than her trip up because she was getting closer and he was now helping Daniel hold the ladder. She reached the last rung and stepped off onto the sidewalk, giving Martin a good-natured slap on the shoulder blade. “Tag!” She looked so full of life, so excited about whatever-it-was that was going on. Her enthusiasm, her sparkling black eyes, and brilliant smile along with the overall carnival atmosphere that was Legend at the moment caused Martin to briefly step out of himself. Toss aside the reserve. Without considering his action, he leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. It was just a little peck, hardly physical contact at all. But it set his head reeling. He immediately straightened, found it hard to breathe, and looked at her to see she seemed to be having the same reaction. “Geez. Dad! Take it inside if you’re gonna do that.” Daniel looked down, his face turning a little pink. There was a glimmer of an embarrassed smile on his face as he studied one scuffed sneaker. “Geez.” “Yeah, Martin. Geez.” Midnight smiled too, but hers was not at all embarrassed. It looked more intrigued. Well. That was encouraging, wasn’t it? Martin quickly looked around, but it seemed the populace of Legend was paying no attention to the drama unfolding at the foot of a slightly battered extension ladder in front of The Emporium. Part of that drama was going on inside Martin because he’d just felt another chunk fall out of his imaginary wall. The wall he’d built of his disinterest in and distrust of women was crashing down. The disinterest had been a goner ever since Midnight Shelby showed up on Main Street. And the distrust? Maybe that wasn’t quite as helpful as he thought. Maybe it hurt him more than it helped anything. “So, are you ready?” Oh yeah, so ready. But now didn’t seem like the time “Oh. Right. I’ll get up there and string those lights. Right.” He stepped one boot onto the bottom rung, then hesitated. “But first, may I ask why we’re putting up Christmas lights the second week of January? Some special holiday I’m not aware of?” Daniel rolled his eyes. Martin braced himself for the explanation. “We’re calling it ‘Legend by Starlight.’” She smiled and he remembered the time he drove her to the top of the mountain to see the night view. “I got a great deal on these outdoor lights at a few of the big box stores in Knoxville on the day after Christmas. Actually, Suzie let me drive her Honda because I knew there’d be a lot and they wouldn’t fit into my car. So I got all these lights and everyone seemed to like the idea of lighting the fronts of all the Main Street buildings with them. We’re going to turn off the street lights beginning January 14 and every Friday night through February 14, Main Street will be lit just by these.” “Huh. That’s interesting.” “And all the shops are going to stay open ’til ten o’clock on those nights. We’re doing a winter romance and Valentine theme. Jane’s running specials on her romance books and has romance authors lined up to autograph copies and answer questions from readers some nights. I’m doing a new coffee drink called Legend by Starlight, with loads of whipped cream on top and little star-shaped chocolate sprinkles. Lilly has all those darling baby clothes and her shop is going to have a drawing for a layette done in a heart-theme. That’s just a couple of examples. And there’ll be candlelight tours by horse-drawn carriage through the older residential neighborhoods. Everyone’s coming up with something different to offer.” “Wow. Pretty ambitious.” “It is, but we’re all working together really well. Look at all the help we’ve got right here. People seem to realize this is a good way to bring in business and let Legend help itself.” “Speaking of help, I’d better get to work.” He quickly climbed the ladder and started working with the fasteners and lights. It was best, for now, to do this manual labor and think about what she’d said. The woman had been in town just a few weeks and she was already in the midst of a major marketing campaign. Besides the website Martin had failed to visit, which his own website was no doubt linked to, he’d bet there was plenty of newspaper and radio advertising to bring people in. Amazing woman. And then there was that kiss. Brief as it was, he wanted to be sure to explore those possibilities in the near future. Martin and all the others worked at the project steadily, not knowing or caring how much time passed. The music changed from old Christmas songs to top 40 Country and at some point the singalong started. Legend’s bright street lights came on automatically, and everyone worked by that for a while. Then the music was turned off in the middle of a song and Midnight’s voice came over a loud speaker. “Hey, everyone. Great job! We’re nearly done and it’s looking absolutely fantastic. The food committee tells me soup and sandwiches and hot cocoa are set up in the Old Meeting House, so if you’re ready for a break, or to quit for the night, go for it!” Several teenage boys shouted their support. Whether for the food or for quitting, it wasn’t clear. People came down off the remaining ladders. Martin was nearly done with his project and was just a few feet off the sidewalk when the announcement was made. “Martin, you going over for some chili or something?” Midnight asked from the base of the ladder a few minutes later. “Yeah. Sounds good. Give me ten or fifteen minutes though. I’m so close to being done.” “Thanks for your hard work,” she said softly. “Yeah, Dad, who knew you’d help.” Martin glanced at his son. “Great. You make me sound like an ogre.” “Not an ogre. Just not interested, I guess.” He looked at his father with new respect. “That sounds bad, Daniel. This is my town too. Everybody’s working on this big project, and you didn’t think I’d help? Come on.” “Well, I’m glad you’re part of it, Dad.” “Yeah? Me too.” He looked around at the buildings of his beloved Main Street, dressed in their finery, creating an appearance of welcome, festivity, and success. He smiled at Daniel, then at Midnight, standing a few feet away. “Me too.” Chapter Ten The first day of Legend by Starlight arrived and the whole town buzzed with excitement. Daniel was bouncing in the Jeep seat on the way to school, watching out the window as shop owners made last-minute preparations to their store fronts. At the office, Martin could barely concentrate on work because the phone rang constantly. It seemed as if Betsy was some kind of co-chairperson of Legend by Starlight. All the incoming calls were for her and her enthusiasm permeated the very air in the real estate office. Martin sat at his desk, spending some time on the Market Legend site then its companion Facebook page and Twitter feed, checking for updates. This had become a habit. He was extremely proud of the work Daniel had done and he was in awe of Midnight Shelby’s orchestration of the whole thing. It had her stamp on itorganized, elegant, professional. After a couple of hours of no business calls, he strolled into the front office for a coffee refill. Betsy looked up from a schematic of Main Street. “Hey, Martin.” “Things looking good for tonight?” “Omigosh, it’s so exciting! Almost everybody on Main Street is into this. Even the few empty buildings, the owners at least let us outline with the lights. It’s gonna be so pretty when we light it up tonight.” “Well….” “And Suzie’s B&B has been totally booked for days and people keep calling her to try to make reservations. All the nights of Legend by Starlight are totally, totally booked. She said she wished she had the old Lake Lodge building for overflow. Of course it’s ancient, so that’s not gonna happen. But imagine! Overflow! In Legend!” “It’s….” “And one of the Knoxville TV stations is sending a crew down for the opening tonight. And a woman from the Knoxville paper is coming too.” “You know….” The phone rang again and Betsy snatched it up. “McClain Realty.” He didn’t know why she bothered to say that. The call wouldn’t be about real estate. He ambled back to his office and shrugged into his heavy leather bomber jacket. Might as well go downtown and watch the excitement build. The intercom buzzed. “Martin, it’s Mayor Crenshaw. He doesn’t sound so good.” Martin scooped up the handset, steeling himself for bad news. “Mayor?” “Martin. We just got the word. The factory’s definitely pulling out. Got a better deal from another city council. Tax breaks we can’t afford. You know the drill.” “Yeah. I know the drill. They want us to bend over backward for them so they can come in and tear down trees, pollute the streams, hire our people, and treat them badly, and in a few years up and leave. Been there. So have you.” “We tried to work with them.” The mayor’s voice was heavy with dejection and exhaustion. “I know that.” Martin rubbed the deepening furrow between his brows. “Everyone with any sense knows that. Legend people try to get along, try to work together.” “But these aren’t Legend people we’re dealing with.” The sound of paper being wadded up came across the phone line to Martin. “No, and they’re not gonna be. Good riddance.” “We need the jobs, Martin.” “We need to figure out something else to create jobs for our people, Jack. We can’t keep expecting somebody to come along and work magic.” “Like Midnight Shelby,” the mayor said softly. “What?” Was the woman going to invade every facet of Martin’s life? “Work magic. Like Midnight Shelby. She’s been here such a short time, yet she’s got this town working together like it hasn’t done since the big fire on Main Street when the fire plug malfunctioned and we had a bucket brigade from the one down the street and people dragging out furniture and all. You remember.” “Yeah. I was there.” “Of course you were. Everybody was. That’s my point. And that deal last fall with Lilly. Remember how everybody pulled together?” “Who could forget?” Martin picked up a pen and jabbed the point repeatedly into his desk calendar. “Martin, Midnight understands Legend. What makes it tick. She gets it and she understands business and marketing. I have a very, very good feeling about tonight. And about her future ideas for Market Legend.” “I haven’t heard those.” He hated to admit it too. “You ought to come to the meetings. The woman is a dynamo. We meet at The Emporium and she stands up at that lectern on the little stage and talks about her vision for Legend and asks us about ours. Then she makes suggestions on how we can get there. And we have real good discussions. There’s hope.” Martin heard Jack Crenshaw slap his desk. “It could make a grown man cry.” “Calm down, Jack.” “Right.” The mayor cleared his throat. “Anyway, right now we’ve got no factory and no other outside prospects. But we have a city council with our best interests at heart, a woman with big ideas, and a town full of great people That’s gonna have to be enough. What do you think?” Martin felt more relief than disappointment. “It’s more than enough. Thanks for calling. I guess I’ll see you at the big lighting ceremony?” “I’d say. I’m throwing the giant fake switch.” Martin leaned back in his squeaky desk chair after the call ended, finding himself both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed because he could have used the commission for the factory deal and many of the townspeople were counting on the factory to turn their fortunes around. Relieved because he’d been thinking lately that the commission would’ve been dirty money anyway. And he knew Legend didn’t want or need to be dependent on the factory for the town’s future. But would Midnight’s ideas work any better? **** Midnight spent the day on the cordless phone answering a myriad of questions from locals who were getting antsy, and from people who got her number off the website or ads she placed just about everywhere within driving distance. She was glad Betsy let her put the real estate office number in the ads too and wondered if Betsy was getting as many calls. She hoped Martin didn’t mind. Thank God for Betsy’s help. And for Chloe, whose first consignment contract had lent credibility to both Midnight and her store. And for the support she’d received from Dorothy and Jane and Suzie. And for dear, sweet, incredibly capable Daniel, whom she was growing very attached to. Never during her marriage had she wanted to become a mother. Now she almost felt as if she’d achieved that special role in life. And lately it seemed Martin had softened toward her a little. Maybe he was a bit less territorial, less suspicious of her and her “outsider” motives. About time! She’d hit the ground running and had worked hard on her business and jump-starting the whole of Legend’s businesses. Tonight was going to be the test. Had she done enough promotion? By all accounts, it looked that way. Every display window on Main Street was a “piece of resistance” as Daniel put it. No amount of Midnight’s careful pronunciation of pièce de résistance made a difference to his boyish Tennessee version. Suzie was calling Legendarians with large houses to see if they wanted to rent out a room for a night as sort of an annex to Legend’s Landing B&B. And she’d made bushels of her Famous Legend Mountain Blueberry Muffins. Even some of the Legend Dragons football team had agreed to be pooper-scoopers to clean up after the horse-drawn carriages. Absolutely everyone was going out of their way to make this work. So why was she so horribly nervous? A few minutes passed without the phone ringing and Midnight took the opportunity to jump in her car and head to the grocery. She’d ordered tons of star-shaped chocolate sprinkles for the special coffee drink, but she needed more whipping cream. Or might need more whipping cream. Depended on the crowd. Oh, this was not the time for self-doubt. The event would be a huge success. But then, if it wasn’t, she might as well pack her bags and take herself out of Legend. She’d never be accepted in town if she failed. Her hands began to shake and she clasped them tightly together, closed her eyes, and tried to still her nerves. It all came down to this. Did she still have what it took to pull a big presentation together? She thought so. Tonight she’d find out for sure. Remembering her possibly still ringing phone back in the shop, she shoved open the driver’s door and reached for her purse on the passenger seat at the same time. She hadn’t pulled the zipper closed and her lipstick rolled out and hit the floor. She quickly leaned over and scrambled for it, caught the silver cylinder in her hand and felt something soft. Dear Lord, the voodoo doll. She pulled it out, smiling sadly at its punctured crotch and faceless anger. She shoved it back under the seat. That was her past. Legend was her future. Her home. **** Twilight arrived in Legend that night with an aura of pomp and circumstance. Out-of-county cars lined Main Street and spilled onto First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Jacobs Streets as well. People of all ages milled around, buying hot cocoa from makeshift vending carts and looking in store windows. But people weren’t inside the stores. Everyone—absolutely everyone—was outside waiting for the lights to come on. Midnight stood at the base of the east steps of the Old Meeting House. The mayor was going to make a speech. A very brief one, he promised. And then he’d flip the big fake switch and all the store owners would turn on their individual switches for the hundreds of thousands of fairy lights that outlined all the buildings. And Tom, the city street superintendent, would turn off the street lights along Main. It would be awesome. She sincerely hoped. “Hey.” She turned to her right. “Hey, Daniel. I was missing you.” She grabbed his hand without thinking that a thirteen-year-old might be embarrassed by that or might pull away. He squeezed her hand a little. “It’s exciting tonight, huh?” he asked. “Oh my, yes. I’m a nervous wreck.” “You?” “Yeah, me. Why not? I’m kind of in charge of this whole thing. If it goes wrong, it’s on me.” “It won’t go wrong. It’s gonna be great.” His beaming smile reassured her. “Hey, Daniel. You beating my time with the lady?” She looked to her left and there was Martin. He took her other hand, held it in his large warm one and gave it a little squeeze. “This is going to go great, you know.” He echoed his son’s comment. Midnight felt his finger playing with her emerald-and-diamond ring as he spoke. “You’re not nervous, I take it?” she asked. He shrugged. “No reason to be. Miz Midnight Shelby has it all under control. Nobody here is nervous. We have total confidence in your ability to pull this off.” “Oh. Good.” Why did his declaration make her feel more jittery instead of less? The mayor’s speech was short and made conspicuous mention of Midnight. Legendarians applauded loudly, and Midnight surprised herself by blushing. The fake switch worked perfectly: the store owners turned on their lights at the appropriate moment (including Betsy taking care of The Emporium’s), and Tom shut off the Main Street lamps at the same time. It was, indeed, awesome. Everyone applauded, except Martin, who took that opportunity to sweep Midnight into his arms and kiss her tenderly, with a hint of passion. She kissed him back tentatively, hopefully. Suddenly everything felt right to her. She could see the scene as if from an outsider’s vantage point: Midnight Shelby, in a beautiful little town she’d grown to love, surrounded by people she…. Yes. Surrounded by people she loved. Including, very particularly, Martin McClain, the bullheaded, old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud who had somehow managed to steal her heart. Being in this moment with him and with Daniel within arm’s reach made her feel like part of a family again. Then her view of The Moment ended. The kiss was too brief, but she was left with a hope for more. Much more. Suddenly everyone was hugging Midnight, congratulating her and each other, slapping Martin and Daniel on the back. All the shop owners went into their stores, and the potential customers started making their way down the elegantly-lighted thoroughfare to sample the local offerings. Midnight and Daniel hurried to The Emporium so Betsy wouldn’t be there alone. Martin arrived a moment later and quickly learned to make her new coffee creation, Legend by Starlight. “Irish crème?” he asked when she showed him how to measure it in. “I doubt Irish crème has been a traditional big-seller within these old walls. Do I get to try one?” “Not now. The staff needs to be sober. It’s a busy night.” “I’m not staff. I’m a volunteer.” “They need to be sober too. Later.” She busily poured sugared coffee, measured liqueur, dolloped whipped cream, and sprinkled chocolate stars for the customers lining up. “Later? Promise?” He moved closer and spoke more softly. “I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to show you Legend by Starlight. That should count for something.” He caught her eye, touched her hand, played with her ring, and waited for a response. She laced her fingers with this. “It does, Martin. And yes, I promise.” Chapter Eleven It had worked. It had really worked. Midnight was happily exhausted as she wiped the counter, saying good-bye to The Emporium’s last customer of the night. Martin finished washing and drying the glass mugs and wiping down the stainless steel equipment. Betsy, from her high stool by the cash register, announced the total in the drawer. Amazing. Many pieces of local art found new homes tonight. “Miz Shelby! I’ve got like a million people wanting me to design websites for ’em,” Daniel announced from his little desk on the stage. Mayor Jack Crenshaw burst through the front door. “Miz Shelby! God bless you and whatever brought you here. What a night for Legend.” He moved to the center of the room. “Everybody, listen to this. I’ve been up and down Main all evening. The restaurants were busy the whole time, and the service clubs selling food at the Old Meeting House did a big business. Plus the little carts on the sidewalk with cocoa and Suzie’s muffins.” He swallowed the last morsel of the muffin he was carrying. “I think, starting next week, we’ll block all vehicle traffic on Main and just let people walk in the street. Sidewalks felt pretty narrow tonight.” His brows knit in concentration. “Yeah…that’d make it easier for the carriage drivers too. Jane’s author friend was real complimentary. Said she’s signing up to come another night. Lots of books sold. And Lilly’s shop was packed. Have you ever seen so many pregnant women in one place? Excuse me, Betsy, but it was quite a sight.” “No problem, Mayor,” Betsy said with a dimply grin. “And you were busy in here. I stopped in a couple times and there were people looking and buying pretty steady.” “Yes. It was a good night,” Midnight said on a sigh. “A good start.” “And all thanks to you.” “No, Mayor, not just me. Everybody. It was a huge team effort—something this town is obviously very good at.” He nodded vigorously. “You’re right. You’re right. Just like I was telling Martin about you and Market Legend and our meetings and your ideas for the future.” “Oh?” “Yeah, when I called to tell him…uh. Well, will you look at the time? I’d best head home or the wife’ll have my hide. G’night, all.” That was a smooth exit. Midnight looked at Martin who was checking to be sure every possible spot was wiped off the cappuccino maker, the back counter, et cetera. He certainly had the knack for looking busy…and innocent. “What was that about?” she asked. “What?” “When the mayor was telling you about me and our meetings. What was that about?” “Nothing. Just talking about Market Legend. It’s off to a great start, that’s for sure.” “Mmm-hmm.” The front door bell jingled for what seemed the ten thousandth time that evening. It was Joey McClain, Daniel’s cousin. “C’mon, Daniel. Mom says we’re ready. Dad already started the truck.” “Cool.” Daniel jumped up, stuffed his wire-bound pad, pens, business cards, and his laptop computer into a gym bag and started toward the front door. “See you tomorrow, Dad. After supper, okay?” “I’ll pick you up at four.” “Awww. Six?” “All right. See you then, Mr. Wizard. And congratulations on all those new customers tonight.” He clapped Daniel on the shoulder. “I’m real proud of you, son. You’ve worked hard.” “Yeah? Thanks, Dad.” He reached the front door, which Joey held open for him, then turned around and walked back to Midnight. “Thanks, Miz Shelby.” He gave her a fierce hug. She hugged him back as long as she dared, then watched his retreating back through misty eyes. “Oh, Daniel, thank you,” she said softly. The doorbell jingled again as she blinked back tears. “I guess somebody gave permission for Daniel to spend the night with Joey?” Martin asked, looking at Betsy. She finished rubber-banding bills together in neat stacks and rolling the last few coins. “You’re welcome, Martin,” she said, giving Midnight a quick wink with her back turned toward her cousin-in-law slash boss. Betsy dropped the money into the bank bag and zipped it. “Mike and I will drop this into the night deposit. You have a good evening, hear?” “Already has been. Thanks for all your help, Betsy.” Midnight gave her sweet friend a quick, careful hug around the impending baby. Betsy wrapped herself in the bright red wool cape Midnight had loaned her since her own jackets had become too tight. Mike was just outside the door as Betsy opened and closed it quickly with another set of merry jingles from the bell. Suddenly the large space seemed very intimate. And very quiet, except for the human-generated electricity crackling all around them. “Quite a night, Miz Shelby. Is it what you wanted?” He sat on one of the bar stools and leaned his elbows on the bar behind him. “Hmm? Oh! Yes, I suppose so.” She was tired, but let herself think for a moment of what she wanted with Martin. “I’ll know more tomorrow after I speak to the other store owners. The mayor was certainly enthusiastic. What was he talking about earlier? What he started to say and then didn’t?” Frowning, Martin shook his head. “The factory definitely isn’t coming to Legend. Pete’ll be announcing that to the town council soon, but he let me know since I’ve been kinda in the middle of negotiations.” “Trying to make a deal with the devil?” She sat down on the next stool and half-turned toward him. “It felt that way to me. I did my best to keep personal feelings out of it, but that’s hard.” “I know. You care so much about Legend. That’s one of my favorite things about you.” He brightened. “Is that right? I didn’t know you had favorite things about me.” “A few.” Martin turned toward her. “Care to name those?” She slid off the stool. “Actually, I’d rather not tell you all of them right now. It might ruin your humility. But if you come upstairs with me, I’ll give you that Legend by Starlight I promised earlier.” “Come upstairs? Why, Miz Shelby, are you trying to seduce me?” She smiled. “No. But come upstairs anyway.” “Should I lock the door or leave it open in case I need to make a quick getaway?” “Up to you.” The dead bolt clicked solidly into place. Martin walked toward her, took her left hand in his, and twirled her ring. She reached up and ran her hand along his strong jaw line, traced his goatee, as his eyes burned into hers. Then she leaned up and forward, placed a soft kiss on his lips. They ascended the narrow staircase single file with Midnight leading the way. At the top of the stairs Martin caught her hand again, gently pulled her to him. She fit neatly against his tall frame as if they’d stood that way many times. Martin had one hand at her waist, fingers spread, and with the other he gently traced the lines of her lips. So gently, it was as if just a breeze played against them. “You have the most beautiful mouth. It’s beautiful when you smile and even when you’re angry. But I like it better when you smile.” Which of course made her smile. He continued to touch the upper lip lightly with an index finger. “Now, this top lip is really nice. It has this deep V in it which is so sexy. But to be honest, I believe I like the lower one better.” He moved his finger to it as he spoke. “Because it’s so full and soft, and I think I’d like to nibble on it a little. Or a lot.” His dark head came down, eyes closed, and their lips met in a sweet, heart-stopping kiss. Midnight was certain she’d never been kissed like that before. It made her feel cherished. Martin straightened and chuckled, put his hands in his front pockets. “I almost forgot. You aren’t trying to seduce me.” Midnight cleared her throat. “Right. Well. Step over here and have a seat.” She led him to the love seat where they had spent a few tantalizing minutes just after she moved in. “Oka-ay. Not what I expected.” “I know. But be patient for a minute.” She turned off the light and then joined him on the loveseat. “Lean way back, like you did the other time you were here.” He slouched and slid down. “What happened to your ceiling?” She laughed. “Do you miss the mirror?” “Damned right.” “Not me. I had some workmen come and take it out. I think they took it down carefully enough they may have installed it somewhere else. Don’t know. Don’t want to know.” Martin chuckled and put his arm round her. “Well,” he said, trailing a finger along her collar bone, causing her to shiver with anticipation, “the skylights are nice.” “Yes. I like them better.” She took his hand and kissed his fingertips. She heard his swift intake of breath. “Legend by starlight you say?” he asked, his voice raw. “Yes. This version is just for you. I hope it was worth waiting for.” “It is at that. And so are you, Miz Shelby.” He glanced meaningfully toward the bed and wiggled his eyebrows, making Midnight laugh. “You’re different. Special.” He shook his head. “I still don’t understand why you wanted to come to Legend to live. But I’m sure glad you did.” “So am I.” Had she ever really lived anywhere else? Since coming to Legend she had felt so much more alive and involved than she ever had. “I hope you’re planning to stay a long time,” Martin whispered, kissing her temple. “Like forever.” “Mmm-hmm.” It felt so good and right to be with him here like this. A few weeks ago, she’d hesitated at even shaking hands with this man. But Martin’s down-to-earth goodness and honesty, even when they’d disagreed, had won her trust. And her love. She’d certainly never expected to find love in Legend, Tennessee. “I’d say this version of Legend by Starlight could get to be habit forming, Miz Shelby. Might need a warning label.” “Oh? Such as?” “Administer often and for many years to come.” Midnight let herself imagine the possibilities. “Mmm. Sounds cozy.” “Sounds permanent,” he said into the curtain of her hair. “Sounds like home,” she whispered, leaning into him for another kiss.


Post a Comment

Read free eBooks, English Fiction, English Erotic Story

Delicious Digg Facebook Favorites More Stumbleupon Twitter