Cant let you go, p.10
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       Can’t Let You Go, p.10

           Jenny B. Jones
 
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  “Katie?

  Eyes closed, I took a cleansing breath. “Yes?”

  “Stay engaged to me.”

  The depraved part of my brain thought that sounded incredibly hot.

  The logical part thought maybe I hadn’t heard correctly. “What?”

  “If it’s important for Ian to see the breakup didn’t bother you, then we’ll show him.”

  “Why? Why would you do this?”

  “Because I don’t like him.”

  “This makes two of us.”

  “And I don’t trust him.”

  “Try finding him pretzled with Felicity.”

  “If you think he traveled all the way from London to do some community service, you’re fooling yourself.”

  “He doesn’t want me back.”

  “I’m not too sure about that. But whether he does or doesn’t, he’s not here with total Good Samaritan intentions.”

  “You can’t pretend to be engaged to me.”

  “What happens if you tell Ian the truth?”

  “I’ll be humiliated, what’s left of my dignity will be shredded, and he’ll gloat the entire time he’s here.”

  “Then don’t do it.”

  “Charlie—”

  “We’re doing this. A little diversion from the stresses of work.”

  “Does your job make you smell like bacon too?”

  “Something like that.”

  The warm breeze ruffled through his hair, mussing it, making him look boyish and young. His devilish smile had me hearing the peals of real wedding bells, and I shook my head to dislodge the sound.

  “You realize this isn’t going to work though, right?” I mean, pretending for a day was one thing. But longer than that? Impossible.

  “We should probably get our stories straight.” Charlie slipped his arm around me, folded me into his side, and we walked toward the diner. “You girls like a June wedding, don’t you?”

  “I think I might be sick.”

  “I’m more of a destination wedding guy myself. Hawaii. A beach in Florida. But your dad will expect you to have a church ceremony.” His hip bumped into mine. “Help me out here. I don’t know about any of this.”

  “You’re doing a pretty good job.” Frighteningly so. “The whole town will have to be in on it. We’ll have to tell them what’s really going on. And our parents are pretty much going to kill us.” Especially mine. My dad was a pastor, for crying out loud. I could already see this for sermon material. Please turn to the book of Matthew and let us discuss that all too common problem of when your daughter lies to a British gigolo and one small Texas town . . .

  “Ian will probably be gone in a matter of days,” Charlie said. “If he truly has a play to get back to.”

  “We’re seriously doing this?” I wanted to save face, but did we dare?

  He stopped at the corner of the diner. “Seems that way.”

  “Thanks, Charlie.” I leaned up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, and before I could step away, Charlie caught me in his arms.

  “Is that all you got for your beloved?” His gaze dipped to my mouth.

  It was more than the Texas sun warming my skin. “We don’t like public displays of affection. We’re a very private couple.”

  “Must’ve been your last fiancé.” And with that, Charlie pulled me to his chest and kissed me like I was his first pick, and not someone who’d been left behind. Like I was cherished. Loved. My insides nearly liquefied as his arm hooked behind my neck, bringing me closer before changing the angle of his kiss. It was sweet tea, sunshine, and the most indulgent chocolate all rolled into one.

  I finally took a step back. If I didn’t return to the diner, Loretta would fire me and make me return all my super-sized t-shirts. “You’re kind of good at that.”

  “I’m willing to practice more.”

  His eyes held promises I didn’t know I could accept. “Anything else I need to know about us?”

  Charlie slipped his hand into mine as we walked. “We like to golf.”

  “I’ve never even held a club.”

  “You love to sit with me and watch SportsCenter.”

  “I sound amazing.”

  “And you adore cooking for me on a Friday night.”

  “I do make the best frozen pizzas.”

  “Anything I should know?”

  “You’re pretty swell, Charlie Benson.”

  “That’s it?”

  I gave his hand a squeeze. “It’s enough.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  “You’ve really stepped in it this time.”

  “I know that.”

  “I mean big, big doo-doo.”

  “Yes, Maxine.”

  Maxine hopped over a crack in the sidewalk as we walked to a closed Micky’s Diner that night for the committee meeting. “I’m saying you need man-sized waders to walk through this level of—”

  “I get it.” My teeth hurt from clenching them so hard. “But who invited Ian here in the first place?”

  “And your parents thought I’d be the problem child while they were gone, but—”

  I held open the door of the restaurant. “Yes, you’re a virtuous saint.”

  “What you did was impulsive, reckless, and just a tiny bit scandalous.” Maxine winked as she walked past me. “I love it.”

  “No, do not even start that. This will be over before it begins.” I followed her toward the back of the dining area where the others sat at a large table.

  “Georgie and Michael had an arranged marriage on General Hospital, and it turned out just fine. Well, except for when that mob boss gunned them down. But they showed up alive again a year later, so it all worked out.”

  “A truly inspiring story.”

  “Gosh.” She pulled out her chair and sat down. “Being fake-engaged makes you grumpy.”

  I settled into a seat beside her and said hello to the group of fifteen or so townsfolk who were there because their business was on the chopping block or they just wanted to be involved. The chatter swirled around us and hovered like a cloud, but no matter who was talking, it was the same conversation. Thrifty Co. was a bully, there were lives on the line, and they weren’t going to let the corporation win.

  Maxine put a thumb and finger to her lips and produced an ear-splitting whistle. “Let’s get this meeting started. My granddaughter needs to go shop for honeymoon lingerie.”

  All heads turned toward me.

  “Yes, we hear congratulations are in order!”

  “When’s the big day?”

  “I’ll do your wedding cake!”

  “The Lonestar Motel has a bed that vibrates for a quarter.”

  “Um, thank you. For all that.” I took another look to make sure it was just us in the diner then lowered my voice. “There is no wedding. It’s a long story, but for reasons I don’t want to get into, I’m kind of faking this whole thing.”

  “Honey”—Mrs. Gleason gave her husband the side-eye—“I’ve been faking it for forty years.”

  “I need everyone to just kind of go with it,” I said. “And if any of you outs me to Ian, not only do I walk away from this project, but I make sure someone spits in your coffee at Micky’s for the rest of your lives. Any questions?”

  A gray-headed woman raised her hand.

  “Yes, Mrs. Higgins?”

  “Are you in some kind of legal trouble?”

  “No.”

  “Are we going to be interrogated by some immigration agent?”

  “I was born right here in Texas.”

  Maxine took a sip of water. “You look pretty alien to me.”

  “If you needed someone to marry you, I would’ve volunteered.”

  “Mr. Henry, you’re fifty years older than I am.”

  “I have my own chicken house empire.” He waggled his white brows. “You could’ve been my first lady.”

  Maxine patted his veiny hand. “If she and Charlie don’t work out, you are definitely her runner-up.”

  “Let
’s get started, shall we?” Good Lord, whoever said you couldn’t go home had clearly not been from In Between. Nothing had changed. “As I mentioned in my email to you all—”

  “I prefer text.”

  “I don’t do the computer.”

  “More of an Instagram man myself.”

  “As I said in my email, we need data. We need to show them the numbers. How many workers will lose their jobs? How much income will be lost? How much in taxes to the city does your business contribute?”

  “Let’s have everyone’s information to Katie by Wednesday,” Loretta said.

  “We also need to collect testimonials.”

  “FiberLax is really effective stuff.” Mr. Delmott removed his Dekalb ball cap. “Keeps things moving and grooving, if you know what I mean.”

  No wonder Thrify Co. had easily bought their way into town. “I meant a testimonial of how your business has affected someone in In Between.”

  “Oh. Still,”—He nudged the guy next to him—“good stuff.”

  “That lawyer we hired didn’t ask for any of this. Are you sure he’s worth a hill of beans, Don?” Loretta asked.

  “He’s my grandson from Houston. Mary’s kid. Of course he’s good.”

  “Why isn’t he here?” Loretta asked.

  “He’ll be at the town hall,” Mr. Henry said. “He told me to take notes.” The man clicked the end of his pen and returned it to the napkin he’d been writing on. “Did Katie say this was a shotgun wedding or one of those arranged situations?”

  Loretta’s eye roll was as dramatic as it was disgusted. “I’ll give you a testimonial,” she said. “Last year when John Thomas’s house burned down, Foster’s hardware store donated all the lumber to rebuild it.”

  “And Miss Loretta takes leftover food to the shelter every Thursday,” said Mr. Gleason.

  “That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for. We want to appeal to logic and emotion.”

  “Are you sure you don’t want me to make your wedding cake?”

  “There is no wedding, Mrs. Holcomb.”

  “But we will need some samples,” Maxine told the woman. “For authenticity’s sake.”

  “Well, whatever it takes to help you, Katie dear,” said Mrs. Holcomb. “You’re our leader, and we want to help you like you’re helping us.”

  “We’re gonna make this fake engagement look real authentic,” said Mrs. Gleason. “Just you wait and see. It’s the least we can do.”

  “All I need you guys to do is just keep the secret, okay? That will be more than enough.”

  “We won’t let you down, Katie.” Mrs. Holcomb pretended to lock her lips and throw away the key. “You just leave it to us.”

  *

  The In Between meeting hall was really just a big converted barn. The town used the red, rustic facility for dances, dinners, meetings, events, voting, and even the occasional wedding. Last summer Mr. And Mrs. Harris even rented it out for their Happy Divorce party. But tonight hundreds of In Betweenites sat shoulder to shoulder, occupying rows of gray metal folding chairs. These were the people I had grown up with. I knew their children, their stories. The Valiant was everything to me, but just as it held my heart, so many folks here had just as much, if not more, at stake.

  I followed Maxine and the committee to the center section, front row. The group wanted to be eye to eye with the mayor and representatives from Thrifty Co. when they took the wooden stage and spoke to the town. I scanned the area, smiling at familiar faces, but searching for one face in particular—Charlie’s. Since his home was now in Chicago maybe In Between losing some landmarks wasn’t that important to him.

  “This seat taken?”

  My stomach sank as Ian slid into the chair beside me.

  “Actually I’m saving it.”

  “For your fiancé?”

  “Yes.” Geez, the lies. They multiplied like weeds.

  Ian crossed his arms over his chest, his body leaning a little too close to mine.

  “Want to tell me how you could be engaged mere weeks after breaking up with me?”

  My brain shifted and stuttered. “It’s. . .it’s like you said—we’d been over for a long time. Charlie and I reconnected, and it was just. . .magical.” Micky’s Diner didn’t serve syrup any sweeter than this. “Charlie was my first love.”

  “I’m not really buying this.”

  “Your feelings on this don’t matter to me either way.”

  “You’re not impulsive.” Ian gave an infuriating chuckle. “You don’t jump into anything. It took you three weeks in London before you braved the Tube—armed with your spreadsheet you’d made of the stops. Six months of planning before you ventured to Paris. You waited—”

  “Okay, I get it. But when it’s right, it’s right.” Now I was quoting Frances. “If you must know, when Charlie and I had our near-death experience, it just opened my eyes to what really mattered. When that plane went down, all I could think about was. . .him. The only face I saw was his.” I cleared my throat, a little uncomfortable with how right that felt to say. That kiss replayed in my mind, falling to the earth with Charlie’s lips on mine. It had felt . . . right.

  “Nearly dying put things into perspective for me,” I said. “I realized life is short, and it’s certainly not guaranteed. I got a second chance, and I don’t want to waste it.”

  “On me.”

  “On people who don’t appreciate me. Respect me.”

  “And this Charlie does that I assume?”

  Ian’s tone was so condescending, I wanted to leap out of this cold folding chair and bang him over the head with it. “Charlie is honest, loving, and kind. He’s a man of integrity. And I can trust him to remain faithful for a long time. You know, like the fifteen minutes of an intermission.”

  Ian’s smooth smile slowly disappeared. “People make mistakes.”

  He was not sucking me in with this. Ian might’ve been a director, but he could act with the best of them. “I don’t want to talk about us anymore. We’re over. It’s in the past. I don’t know why you’re really here, but if you were hoping to find me languishing without you, you can see I’m far from it. I’ve never been happier.”

  For long, painful seconds Ian said nothing, then finally he straightened and focused on the mayor taking the podium on stage. “There are four TV news reporters in the back,” Ian said grimly. “At least three newspaper outlets. I’ll do what I can to help you, but I need you to help me as well.”

  “In Between doesn’t need you.”

  “Do you really want to test that theory? Because if you’re wrong, and you throw away my assistance, my connections, then you will have made an error that cannot be rectified—all for your pride. Because once this store gets the property, it’s over.”

  “We have an attorney.”

  “Where is he?”

  I had wondered the same thing.

  “You can’t sue Thrifty Co.,” Ian said. “Their legal team is bigger than this town. They’ll drain you of everything you have before you even go to trial.” His voice dipped low and deep. “Good press could save both of us. You need Thrifty Co. to look like a pillaging bully, and I need to look—”

  “Like the hero.”

  The microphone gave a screech loud enough to annoy the dead. Mayor Crowley tapped on the device, a weasle’s smile lifting the lips beneath his handlebar mustache. He’d been mayor of In Between since I was in high school, and while he was a terrible leader, no one else had ever wanted the job.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, good people of In Between, welcome to our town hall meeting.” The chatter diminished to a low buzz as the mayor looked upon the crowd, many of them ready to fight to the last breath. While some of them were just ready to get some discounted milk and toilet paper.

  The mayor took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his wrinkled brow. “Tonight we’re here to hear any concerns you might have on the Thrifty Co. purchase. It is a hard loss, to see familiar and beloved businesses go, but I b
elieve what we gain will be so much more. We have two microphones set up in the middle of the left and right aisle, and you may begin lining up to present your comments. Let’s remember we all have In Between’s best interests at heart. We want to keep this real nice and civil, okay? No yelling and sucker punches like the first meeting.”

  Beside me Maxine snorted. “So my arm just accidentally flew toward his face. Big deal.”

  “Didn’t you date him once?” I asked.

  “Sometimes you gotta kiss some frogs.” She leaned forward and shot a pointed look toward Ian.

  Another man joined the mayor onstage. “This is Bill McKeever,” the mayor said, “vice-president of public relations at Thrifty Co. He’s flown in all the way from Detroit to talk to us, to reassure us, and to hear what you have to say. He is a guest in our community, and we’re going to make him welcome in the way only we can.”

  Maxine sniffed. “Spit wads?”

  “Behave tonight,” I said. “James only left enough bail money for one of us.”

  Loretta tapped me on the shoulder and held out a notebook. “Here are our questions. I’ve got them in order of importance with possible rebuttals.”

  “Me?” I stared down at her scrawl. “But I’m barely up to speed.”

  “I still don’t get why I can’t be our spokeswoman,” Maxine said. “I won’t call the mayor a chicken-eating, pig-snorting nincompoop this time.”

  Loretta patted my back with her worn hands. “You can do it. Get on up there and show them city folks what you got.”

  “Be sure and give the press something to use.” Ian stood up, as if to go with me. “Be quotable.”

  “I don’t need you to join me.”

  “Humor me.”

  With no time to argue, I walked back up the aisle to the microphone, that skinny intimidator daring me to screw up, to make the committee regret putting this important moment in my hands.

  Mr. Denton, owner of the town’s only grocery store, stood on the opposite side of the hall and launched into his concerns of the chain store taking all his business. Mrs. June Smith spoke at my mic, telling the crowd that she was tired of paying exorbitant prices and looked forward to finally getting a break in her grocery bill.

 
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