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Hold on tight, p.1
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       Hold on Tight, p.1

           Deborah Smith
 
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Hold on Tight


  DEBORAH SMITH

  “There’s a pure wildcat under your pretty pink skin, Madam Mayor,” Rucker taunted in a wicked, throaty voice.

  “Temporary insanity. I’ve never—”

  “Acted so un-mayorly … before,” he finished for her. “I know.” His voice dropped to a low murmur against her ear. “But, oh, little lady, you’re gonna surprise yourself a whole lot more than this before I’m through.”

  He curved his hands around her waist and abruptly picked her up. Dinah gripped his shoulders as he pulled her close and held her snugly to him. He was a big man, and she trembled at the sensation of being overwhelmed.

  “All right?” he asked.

  “I’m just feeling particularly female at the moment.” She didn’t tell him that this dignified and pristine female had no idea how to deal with a man who ruffled her reserve … and everything else.

  “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said in an amused tone.

  “It is, macho man, it is.”

  “You Jane, me Tarzan.”

  “You Rambo, me … I don’t know who I am.” She sounded resigned.

  “You’re a prim little ol’ beauty queen who’s come to her senses. You need to run wild a little.” She moaned as he pressed his body closer to her. “Come on, Dee. Run wild with me.…”

  HOLD ON TIGHT

  A Bantam Book / May 1988

  LOVESWEPT® and the wave device are registered

  trademarks of Bantam Books. Registered In U.S. Patent

  and Trademark Office and elsewhere.

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright © 1988 by Deborah Smith.

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  For information address: Bantam Books.

  If you would be interested in receiving protective vinyl

  covers for your Loveswept books, please write to this address

  for information:

  Loveswept

  Bantam Books

  P.O. Box 985

  Hicksville, NY 11802

  eISBN: 978-0-307-79660-8

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group. Inc. Its trademark. consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books. 666 Fifth Avenue. New York. New York 10103.

  v3.1

  This is for Myra and Don—sophisticated, glamorous, and two of the most loving people I know. They continue to provide me with worlds of romantic inspiration.

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  One

  “Boss, I have a baby possum for you.”

  “Miss Hunstomper, I distinctly recollect telling you that I wanted fried chicken and cole slaw for lunch, not baby possum.”

  “This is no joke, boss. Now look, that Alabama mayor you wrote the column about—the ex-Miss Georgia—has taken revenge. I guess it’s because you called her a ‘possum queen’ and made fun of her town’s Possum Days Festival.”

  Rucker McClure finished double-checking his latest column and slowly lowered the Lifestyle section of The Birmingham Herald/Examiner. When the top edge of the paper was just beneath the level of his eyes, he arched one auburn brow at his secretary. Nothing about his handsome face indicated that he believed her claim that a baby possum was now residing on the editorial floor of one of the South’s largest daily newspapers.

  “A possum, you say, Miss Hunstomper?”

  His feet, encased in custom-made eel-skin cowboy boots—a hint that his taxable income had been half a million dollars last year—remained nonchalantly cushioned on top of a golf bag, and the golf bag remained stretched out like a beached whale across one end of his crowded desk.

  “Miss Hunstomper,” he drawled in a deep voice as mellow as ripe peaches, “after three years of bein’ overpaid to do whatever it is you do here, you ought to recognize how important I am and stop tryin’ to drive me crazy.”

  She exhaled in disgust. Rucker grinned affectionately as the pretty, businesslike blonde kept her truant stance in his doorway. The sixth-floor newsroom stretched out behind her as a reminder that the rest of the world was a serious place. As usual, Millie Surprise—known to Rucker’s readers as Miss Hunstomper—finally grinned back at him. “I’m not joking, Your Majesty. There’s a live possum out here on my desk, in a wire cage. A courier just left it for you.”

  “You’re serious.”

  “You bet.”

  “Good grief.” An incredulous smile crept across his face. “Bring my gift critter on in here,” he ordered cheerfully.

  Millie gingerly set the wire cage in the middle of his desk. Rucker made room by pushing aside a stack of Sports Illustrated magazines, his baseball autographed by the Atlanta Braves, and the keys to his Cadillac. Then he opened the cage door.

  “It looks like a giant rat! It might bite!” Millie exclaimed. “It might be rabid!”

  “Naaah. Millie, where I grew up in south Texas, the only pets we could afford were possums. We’d peel ’em off the road—”

  “Oh, please. Save the lurid details for a column.”

  Chuckling, Rucker reached inside the cage and tickled the small gray animal under its long snout. At about the size of a half-grown kitten, the possum didn’t look threatening. It peered up at him with beady, timid eyes. He slid one hand under it and lifted it out, then cradled it to his stomach. Its long, hairless tail curled around Rucker’s wrist in a frightened way.

  “Poor baby,” Rucker crooned gently. “Millie, gimme that letter from Madam Mayor, the possum queen.”

  She handed him a sheet stamped with the official seal of Mount Pleasant, Alabama. “Seat of Twittle County,” Rucker read in a wry tone. “That’s one of the few backwoods places I’ve never heard of, and I thought I’d swilled beer and chased women everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.” He scanned the letter quickly, smiling all the time. “Listen to what Madam Mayor says, Millie. ‘Mr. McClure, if you are ever again so desperate for material that you besmirch the good name and good people of Mount Pleasant, I shall personally supervise the shipment of a second opposum to your office. Along with it, you will receive notice of a libel suit.’ ”

  Rucker put the letter down, his eyes gleaming with intrigue. “For an ex-beauty queen, she sounds pretty smart,” he commented.

  “One of the reporters’ looked up an old article about her after your column ran. Just for curiosity. She has a Mensa-level IQ, boss,” Millie informed him. “And a master’s degree in political science. She probably would have been Miss America six years ago, if she hadn’t walked out a day before the competition. Her father had died a month earlier in an airplane crash. She said the pageant didn’t matter anymore.”

  “Sounds like a gutsy woman.”

  “You better leave her alone. She’s not your type—she can read, write, and think. You swore you’d never have anything to do with that kind of woman again, remember?”

  “That was personal, m’ dear. This is professional.” Rucker leaned back in his chair. The possum crawled up his shirt and buried its dark little nose in the soft chest hair above his unbuttoned collar. Rucker str
oked its back and nodded to himself, thinking. “Call Mount Pleasant and find out when the next city-council meetin’ is. I’m goin’ to visit Madam Mayor.”

  After a stunned second, Millie said with glee, “Trouble. We got trouble my friends, right here in Possum City.”

  Dinah Sheridan hummed a little—a section from the Mozart piece she’d practiced on her piano before breakfast that morning—as she studied paperwork and made notes for the September city-council meeting. As usual she was efficient. Also as usual she was dressed tastefully, and her long, chocolate-colored hair was bundled in a perfect twist at the base of her neck. Her businesslike demeanor belied the fact that the body under her outfit had stolen many a judge’s breath in swimsuit competitions. She sighed with contentment and smoothed a hand over the blue unstructured jacket she wore with a colorful sweater and neat gray skirt.

  Outside the small windows that lined one wall of the council room, a cool Monday night had already closed in on the mountains around tiny Mount Pleasant, population 4,231. Inside, harsh fluorescent light-bulbs cast white streaks on the cheap-paneled walls.

  “Dinah, you shame the rest of us to death by gettin’ here so early,” Walter Higgins joked as he ambled into the room. He sat down beside her at the long council platform, a wide V built of darkly stained plywood.

  “We’ve got a big agenda tonight,” Dinah told the white-haired building contractor, a former mayor himself.

  “Did you ever hear from Rucker McClure?”

  “No. He got the oppossum—the possum—and the letter last Thursday. I suppose I terrified him.”

  “That old boy doesn’t terrify easy. He’s an important sonuvagun, you know. That column of his goes to newspapers all over the country. And he was on that dirty cable show, you know. Talkin’ to that Dr. Ruth woman.” Walter chuckled. “He told her his favorite sex toy is white bread and mayonnaise.”

  “I’ve never seen him, and I don’t ever care to. He’s an overgrown adolescent. I don’t care if his last book did make The New York Times’s bestseller list. True Grits. What a precocious little title.” Dinah made an elegantly derisive sound that dismissed Rucker McClure and his redneck schtick. “He’s trying to compete with Lewis Grizzard.”

  “It was a real funny book,” Walter countered. “People are sayin’ Rucker McClure is the modern-day Mark Twain.”

  “Bite your tongue,” Dinah said wryly. “That’s sacrilege.”

  The other council members strolled in: Fred Dawson, Jasper Mac Seagram, and Glory Akens. They were respected, local business people and amiable friends of Dinah’s. Following them, rocking along on short, plump legs, was placid Lula Belle Mitchum, a graying brunette who had been city clerk of Mount Pleasant for the past twenty years. Politicians come and go, Dinah thought, but Lula Belle endures.

  Within thirty minutes half the council chamber’s fifty audience chairs had been filled by townsfolk. The police chief sat in a corner yawning, waiting to make his monthly report. The fire chief and the city attorney were finishing a game of checkers on a table by the water fountain in the hall.

  Dinah cleared her throat, rapped her gavel, and smiled at the audience. People smiled back as she called the meeting to order, and Dinah’s chest swelled with satisfaction. She’d left a lot of trouble and sorrow behind when she arrived here four years ago. Her smile widened. “First on our agenda tonight is a zoning variance for Pop’s Seed and Feed …”

  Things went smoothly for the next forty-five minutes as one item after another passed under her gavel. She was authoritative without being rude, and people respected her opinions.

  Dinah sat with her head down, making a note on the pad by her right hand. As she listened to Fred discuss the Founder’s Day Dinner Dance, she stifled a yawn and raised her head to idly study the audience.

  The unexpected newcomer sat in the front row barely three feet away, looking back at her—no, staring back at her. Dinah glanced down, blinked several times as if to test the accuracy of her vision, then looked back up. Tall—he was over six feet tall. She could estimate that, even though he was sitting down, one booted foot propped on the opposite denimed knee.

  He nodded to her slightly, his head tilted to one side, his expression very intense, and his eyes riveted to her face. Dinah caught her breath then nodded back to him. All very polite, she thought. If only her pulse would slow to a polite gallop. She looked down, frowned in serious concentration, and drew some doodles on her note pad. She glanced back up casually, her demeanor very formal, very Katharine Hepburn, she thought, patting her hair.

  He caught her attention again with one devilishly lifted eyebrow, a simple gesture, really, but appealing and funny. Dinah looked back down at her pad. Fred was still talking, and she pretended to make a note.

  “Overconfident, oversexed,” she wrote, then scratched it out so that no one would think she meant Fred. The stranger seemed unusually sure of himself, and that intrigued her as much as it unsettled her. Most men weren’t confident, not around a former Miss Georgia who happened to have a high IQ and a forthright attitude.

  Dinah looked up frowning and stared straight at him. He gazed back so intensely that she couldn’t look away. Few other men would have been so attractive in jeans, a nondescript houndstooth jacket, and a shirt with wide plaid stripes. Those jeans, oh, dear. If a man wore loose, new jeans with ornamental stitching on the outside, he was fairly tame, probably a little shy, and mostly dependable. But if a man wore snug, faded jeans, he was asking the world to notice that all the ornaments were on the inside, and womankind had best beware. This stranger wore those kind of jeans.

  She swept an admiring gaze over his thick auburn hair and mustache. He had a terrific face, she decided, a well-lived-in face with a lot of kindness tucked into the laugh lines. His mouth curved into a vague smile in response to her attention. He looked as stunned as she felt, Dinah realized suddenly. Then he winked, and she knew that her scrutiny was being analyzed, appreciated, and returned. He knew she was leering.

  “… and so, Madam Mayor, I propose that we charge seven-fifty a head for the dance,” Fred concluded. “Your opinion?”

  Dinah jerked her eyes away from the provocative auburn-haired stranger and stared at Fred. Fred stared back. “Well?” he asked patiently. “What do you think?”

  “I … think …” Dinah had no idea what he’d just said. Self-rebuke shot through her. She was a serious woman, a serious mayor. It wasn’t like her to be so air brained. “I … think …” She turned to Glory, a bespectacled grandmother who owned the local bakery. “What do you think?” Dinah asked her.

  Glory eyed her askance for a moment, then took up the slack and began talking. Dinah cautiously let her gaze drift back to the disturbing stranger. He was grinning, nearly laughing, his green eyes crinkled deeply at the corners. He knew exactly what he’d done to her concentration. Dinah bit her lip and glared at him. He tugged his mouth downward and looked absurdly chastised.

  An awful thing happened to her. Her mouth tingled with a rebellious urge to smile. Amazed, Dinah let her lips part in temptation. Underneath all the teasing in his eyes was something corny and sweet, something that made her think of country mornings, church bells on Sunday, dancing by firelight with the kids in bed upstairs and the dog asleep on the couch.…

  Something was crawling up his back. Dinah barely contained her gasp as a small pink paw reached over his shoulder and grasped the lapel of his sport coat. Her hand jumped in shock, upsetting an empty coffee cup next to her notepad. The cup rolled over and she fumbled with it, her eyes never leaving the paw. The stranger’s eyebrows shot up as he felt something pulling on his jacket, but his movements were calm as he turned his head. Dinah noticed suddenly that everyone behind him was in quiet hysterics, their faces red with restrained laughter.

  A small possum climbed sluggishly atop the stranger’s broad shoulder, then sat there sniffing the air. Dinah felt all the blood leave her face as she noticed that it wore a slender black collar and leash. This asserti
ve possum had not wandered in by himself, then.

  The stranger gauged her puzzled reaction then raised one hand and showed her that he held the end of the possum’s leash. He gave her a jaunty guess-who look, and she felt her eyes widening in startled recognition. Only one man would have reason to deliberately bring a possum into her council meeting. Rucker McClure.

  No. Oh, no. What had she wrought with her stern letter and possum ploy? She hadn’t terrified Rucker McClure at all, she’d provoked him. She’d provoked a nationally syndicated columnist known for down-home humor and scalding truth. If he had come here to search out the truth about her, she’d be ruined.

  Dinah rapped her gavel, her hand shaking. Glory stopped talking. “Excuse me, Mrs. Akens,” Dinah said firmly, “but we seem to have a disturbance in the audience.” She pointed the gavel at Rucker McClure. “Do you have business here tonight, sir?”

  He straightened and uncrossed his legs. The possum was unsettled by the movement and nearly toppled over. Rucker reached up with one big hand and caught it gently. It squeaked, then climbed with amazing speed to the top of his head, where it perched happily. People gasped. After a breathless moment of silence the fire chief, Frank Raffer, spoke in a strained voice.

  “If my wife sees that hat, she’ll want one just like it.” Frank went into a convulsive hee-hee-hee-hee. Order collapsed. Anna Jenkins, a pert little old lady, nearly fell out of her chair laughing. Ten-year-old Clyde Daniels giggled so hard that he dropped his Ninja star. The city attorney, Mac Windham, guffawed and held his stomach. Dinah propped her chin on one hand and squinted at Rucker McClure as if she’d like to choke him.

  “Madam Mayor, I apologize,” he said, giving her a surprisingly earnest look. After the hysterics died to a reasonable level, he stood up, pulled the possum off his head, and cradled it in one hand. “In case anybody here hasn’t figured it out yet, I’m Rucker McClure, that redneck sonuvagun who makes more money than he’s worth writin’ for The Birmingham Herald/Examiner. Your mayor has taken exception to a little column I wrote about a week ago.”

 
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