Spiritual malaise permeates the hearts of the residents of a scenic small town with a troubled past, tenuous present, and an uncertain future.
Up until she learns of developer Travis Collimore’s plans to destroy the Townsend Barn, a cherished town landmark, and build a strip mall in its place, Maryanne Lynch is pleased with her life as a television journalist in Sterling Lakes. Maryanne’s determined to stop Travis, but will his plans for the future prevail over her attachment to the past?
Revised and re-issued 2020
GENRE: Contemporary Inspirational Romance ISBN: ebook: 978-1-922066-90-9 ASIN: B00CVN84HK Word Count: 50, 035
“That’s a wrap, everyone. Thank you. Another great show.”
Reviewing the studio audience anxiously, WMAS television host Maryanne Lynch started to remove her earpiece as usual and roll the wire into a neat coil. This time, though, the enormous stone on her diamond engagement ring snagged the strands of her sleek black bob, tangling up the wire and interrupting her thoughts. She freed herself only to have the ring hitch again, this time catching the jacket pocket of her cappuccino business suit as she tried to slip her earpiece impatiently inside it.
Kirk Blackstone, her producer, approached her at the worst possible moment. “Maryanne, there are a bunch of Girl Scouts here in preparation for our coverage of the organization later this week. They need your expert opinion to complete their badge for media careers. Can you meet with them?”
“Sure, in the conference room. Just give me one minute, okay?”
She moved through the studio, scanning the crowd while remaining intent on her purpose. “I had to wear a pencil skirt today,” she muttered at her slow pace.
One of the many guests in the studio audience today while her show was being filmed had looked familiar, but she hadn’t been able to put her finger on who he was while she was on stage. She hurried to catch up with the audience. When she turned the final corner before the studio exit doors, she spotted him. With his tall frame and blond hair, he stood out in the crowded lobby area.
“Excuse me, sir!”
He turned back, seeing her waving at him, then made his way over to her. “Can I help you?”
“Thank you for visiting the show today, sir. While I’m never unaware of who’ll be on-stage with me at any given time, I don’t always get time to talk to the audience in advance. It was my producer’s idea to do an impromptu opinion piece from the general populace and those involved in the Sterling Lakes renovation. You offered several opinions during the taping that I wanted to follow-up with you about.”
As though helpless to prevent his own attention, his brown-eyed gaze traveled over her lithe figure that she worked on so hard with yoga and salsa dance. “No problem.”
“Everyone’s all worked up about the renovations to St. Luke’s Church and the new face of Sterling Lakes. It’s a hot topic,” she managed, hoping to draw him out.
“It’s good the town folks are interested.”
“They’re more than interested. They’re reborn! This is the new lease on life Sterling Lakes has needed for so long. You can’t imagine what it means to citizens.”
“Heartwarming sentiment. Truly.”
His tone was genuine, though Maryanne couldn’t help wondering if he wasn’t being sarcastic. He again moved to turn away, clearly eager to leave when he threw a last bit of politeness her way with the words, “Now if you’ll excuse me?”
Maryanne had done enough interviews to know his tone probably meant he wasn’t really interested, but then why had he been here at all? She refused to let him leave until she found out.
She took a step closer to him. “There’s just one other thing to clear up. If the strip mall being put in is developed the way that was described in your general commentary and leading questions while my show was being filmed today, it means the Townsend Barn will need to be razed.”
“Townsend Barn currently stands in the middle of the land that’s being developed into a strip mall, leading to your correct conclusion that the barn will have to go.”
“That can’t happen.”
His lips twitched. “Unfortunately, the architect’s designed it to happen exactly that way, Miss Lynch.”
“You certainly know an awful lot about it.” In frustration, she launched her unfiltered opinion at him the way she couldn’t while she’d been on stage, “The people of Sterling Lakes love that barn. It has an angel weather vane. That’s very rare, you know. You can’t just discount the history it has in Sterling Lakes.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. The plans’ve been drawn up and approved.”
Maryanne arched one eyebrow, fighting an inner tug of war she was sure made her body language scream ‘We’ll see about that!’. “Really? We all know plans are made to be broken.”
He didn’t speak. And yet…
Was he trying not to laugh at her?
“Some of us do realize plans are made to be broken. Especially you, Miss Lynch.”
Starting at his sudden, obvious intention to make this personal, she gasped out, “Me? What do you mean that, Mr.–?”
“You really don’t remember?” The side of his mouth curled up slightly in a smile that astonished her. She floundered, feeling as though she’d entered this discussion sans half the facts. “I lived in Sterling Lakes way back when, Maryanne,” he told her. “I’m the guy you stood up for the Senior prom.”
Studying his face, she exhaled slowly as pieces fell into place. Unfortunately, they didn’t fall neatly–in part because she couldn’t decide if he sounded mad, like he was nursing a grudge over something that’d happened “way back when”, or if she’d been correct earlier in wondering if he was trying not to laugh at her. “Oh…I remember that night. Travis Collimore. Back then you called yourself T.J. You just blindsided me.”
He broke into a broad smile that took her breath away. “Good, then we’re even. Just took me a few years to catch up to you, Maryanne, that’s all. What do you say we talk about those good old days over dinner?”
Maryanne thought quickly. This could be a good lead and, frankly, she wanted to know why he remembered her so readily. They’d never dated, though she had accepted his request when he asked her to the prom. She’d been so embarrassed about standing him up that night, so distressed. Oddly, that did feel like a million years ago. Surely they could laugh about it now?
She nodded. Pushing back the evening with her fiancé, Elwood, wouldn’t be a problem. He was used to a journalist’s hectic schedule. “Just give me five minutes and we’ll go, okay? The Girl Scouts are here, needing information. I promise it won’t take long.”
“You got it.”
“Great. Be back in a jiff. By the way, do you still go by T.J. or is it Travis now?”
“Travis,” he told her.
Maryanne thought she saw a warm glint in his expression but couldn’t be certain. She hurried off to the conference room, dialing Elwood on her cell phone as she hastened down the corridor.
T.J. Collimore–now Travis–back in town. Unreal, she thought, waiting for Elwood to pick up. When her call went to his voicemail, she left him a brief message and moved into the conference room. A smiling sea of bright-faced Girl Scouts greeted her. Giving them the scoop about her thriving media career was almost as easy as breathing for her. After ten minutes, she’d satisfied their curiosity and emerged from the conference room.
Re-tracing her steps, she found Travis still waiting for her in the lobby. “You made it,” he greeted her as if he thought she’d intended to stand him up yet again. “How did it go with the Girl Scouts?”
“A merit badge was in the offing and I couldn’t refuse to play my part. The girls are fabulous. I’m doing a piece on the organization later this week on my show as well. Getting my executive producer to go along with it wasn’t easy.” As usual, her brain was going a hundred miles an hour.
“Somehow I think you had no trouble being convincing.”
She glanced at him, unsure how to interpret the look in his eyes. “Are you making fun of me? I’ve gotten the impression since I caught up with you that you were trying not to laugh at me. And you were in an awfully big hurry after having dominated my show with your far-too-knowledgeable comments from the audience.”
“I guess I wasn’t sure if a reunion was wise just now. But, listening to you talk about the town renovations, I remembered how tenacious you were as a teenager. And I also read up on you and how you got the station to back you for the talk show,” he said. “You seem to be a woman who knows how to get her way.”
They left the studio.
“It’s good you know what you’re dealing with upfront, Travis,” she informed him, not liking that she was about to wipe the nostalgic expression off his face but needing him to realize she’d been serious earlier. “This barn thing isn’t a joke.”
He pushed his hands into the pockets of his slacks as though resigned to a discussion he wasn’t sure he wanted once it was taken off-stage. “I can imagine how the folks feel, but you just told me they’re reborn with this project. Surely you…and they…know growth is impossible if you always keep things the same way they’ve been. Change is good. It’s progress. It creates opportunities and jobs–“
“The issue isn’t as black and white as you’re painting it,” she insisted, halting and facing him.
“Actually, it is. That’s all it comes down to, period.”
She narrowed her heated gaze on him. “Specifically what does it all come down to in your estimation?”
“Money, of course.” He sighed. “Look, let’s talk about this over dinner, all right?”
Maryanne looked at his well-made suit and shiny, expensive shoes. Head to toe, he radiated wealth and polish. A far cry from most folks in Sterling Lakes.
Warily, she asked, “All right. Where are we headed?”
“I noticed on the way to the studio that Sterling Lakes Diner is still in business. Can’t resist that.”
“Just as good as ever,” she managed in a grudgingly companionable tone. “I’ll meet you there.”
She hopped into her convertible and watched Travis’ long legs and broad back disappear into a nearby minivan while putting her cell phone in the hands-free holder on the dash. She imagined the SUV was a rental because it wasn’t the sort of vehicle she could picture him choosing.
Once she’d eased out of her parking spot following him and left the studio behind, she sped up. The wind felt good against her skin after being cooped up inside all day. She couldn’t resist passing him in the old-man SUV once they made it to the road, waving as she darted ahead of him.
Her cell phone interrupted her slightly vengeful actions. Glancing at the screen, she saw Elwood’s information displayed there. “You got my message?”
“I did. You’re hung up at work again?”
Chuckling, she said, “You sound like Alfred Hitchcock. Come on. I won’t be long.”
“You know this dinner’s important to me. The Club only honors one member a year.”
“I know. I’ll be there fashionably but not seriously late. I promise.”
“Okay. You do what you need to do. I understand.”
His tone was anything other than understanding, yet she chose to ignore it. “Thanks. Really, I’ll be right along.”
“See you soon then,” he all but signed a contract with his tone.
She hung up and rubbed her temple with her free hand, certain a headache was on its way. Forcefully, she reminded herself that Elwood was a wonderful man. After being single for so long, she’d never expected to enjoy anyone’s company as much as she had his since they’d hosted the Charity Gold Classic together last spring.
Neither Elwood’s money or status in the community had won her heart. She had plenty of both herself. That he was a widower many years her senior clinched her decision to get involved with him. She was nowhere near ready to settle down and she’d anticipated, after what he’d been through, considering his long marriage to a woman who’d been a pillar in the community, he wasn’t either. Her career was the focus of her life to the exclusion of all else. Unfortunately, too many men before had tried to get her in a noose she wasn’t suited to wear. She had no idea whether she’d ever be at that point. With Elwood, there was no reason to feel rushed into anything.
But, months after accepting his proposal, she kept coming back to the question: How could she have been so wrong about what he might want in a relationship after losing his first wife? Had Elwood changed? The engagement felt heavy now because he’d been making so many demands. She wasn’t sure how long she could hold him off, give him what he needed, all without compromising her own goals in the process.
She’d found wearing the four-carat diamond impossible as well. It snagged her pockets, hair, earrings, and her purse virtually every time she turned around. But the ring did keep off unwanted suitors, even if it was in all other ways a nuisance. Much to Elwood’s displeasure, she continued to hesitate over setting a wedding date.
The steeple of St. Luke’s Church rose across the pasture on her left, drawing her attention. After pulling into the parking lot of the Sterling Diner and turning off the engine, Maryanne stepped out of her car and stretched. The SUV pulled in a few seconds later, making her realize Travis had kept up to her brisk pace after she passed him.
“Long day?” he asked when he got out, catching her yawn. She followed the arch of his brows and planes of his face with her gaze, finishing on his full lips that parted in a genuine smile. Was he this handsome when we were teenagers?
“You read my mind. Very long day.”
“One of my lesser-known but equally outstanding talents.” He tilted his head towards the diner. “Shall we?”
“Sure. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
He was the first to reach for the door, and she noticed his broad shoulders moving with the kind of strength that ought to come with a warning label.
“Thanks.” She passed him and, a moment later, slid into the only empty booth along the wall.
“What, is all of Sterling Lakes here tonight?” he asked in surprise once he was seated across from her.
Maryanne laughed, raising her voice over the din. “Ya gotta love it, right? It’s home to so many who live in the community.”
“Don’t tell me you still live in Sterling Lakes? I find that hard to believe.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
He chuckled. “Come on, a woman like you? So accomplished and sophisticated? In this hick town?”
A teenage waitress dropped two menus on the tabletop and greeted her with a tired smile. “Hey, Maryanne. Drinks?”
“Diet cola, Sherry,” Maryanne answered.
Travis told the waitress to bring him the same, and she asked if they wanted to look at menus or if they were all right with the fish and chips. They both ordered that special. Maryanne had missed lunch and was starving. She’d have to make something up to Elwood later, when she attended the banquet honoring him and skipped the obligatory meal.
“So, back to why you live in this progressive town,” Travis said as soon as Sherry left with their orders.
“You used to live here, too. It’s not that bad. We have an industrial parkway with the TV station, two insurance companies, and three manufacturing offices where lots of the locals work. And the apple pie you can get at this diner totally rocks. It’s worth living here just for that.”
Travis laughed with her, but then he said in a more serious tone, “I’m sure you don’t remember, but Sterling Lakes didn’t like me or my family. Apparently there’s something wrong with having a dad who’s a used tire salesman.”
Maryanne was completely unsympathetic. She’d decided long ago that the teenage years weren’t important ones, weren’t anything to get muddled up in when life was meant to be lived in the here and now. “Maybe they weren’t nice to you, but kids are cruel all over, Travis. They tease each other mercilessly, relentlessly. Sterling Lakes isn’t unique in that regard.” She didn’t add ‘Get over it’ but she had the feeling he heard the sentiment anyway.
“I know that now, but I didn’t know it then.”
Sherry brought their drinks, too busy to linger during the dinner rush.
“You didn’t actually grow up here though, did you?” Maryanne recalled. “Your family moved in when you were already in high school, and you moved out right after graduation. You really didn’t live here long enough to be scarred by how people treated your family.”
“We moved here when I was a Junior. Leaving Sterling Lakes was one of the happiest days of my life,” he informed her. “You still live here. I don’t get it. What could possibly have kept you here when the rest of the world awaits?”
She sighed, deciding it was confession time. “Well, actually, I live in Wellesley now, a section of Boston.”
His expression might have been obscene relief. “I knew it,” he said with a hearty chuckle.
“But I still own property here in town. My parents decided to sail around the world ten years ago, and they wanted to sell the old family homestead. Too many bad memories they never really recovered from. I couldn’t bear to have that happen. Those same memories were… Well, I couldn’t lose them with the house. So I bought it.”
“Where are your parents now?”
“They settled in Southern California. Sailing wasn’t really their thing after all.”
“Nice. So you just rent the old house out? Or do you live it whenever you’re in the area?”
“I rent it out.” Abruptly, feeling she needed to get this confession off her chest as well, she leaned across the table. “Look, Travis, I really was sick the night of the prom, you know. I suspect you don’t believe that, but I had a fever and a sore throat. I wanted to go with you. More than anything.”
“All these years later, I still say! Remember, my mother called you and invited you over when I was well? I cried for days because you wouldn’t visit. Look, we never even dated. But I liked you. I wanted to go to prom with you, but you were like some jilted Romeo about the whole thing. I still don’t understand why you were oversensitive about that. But I guess it didn’t matter. Life went on. We graduated. Went our separate ways.”
“Teenage drama,” he insisted, trying to laugh the ridiculousness of the past off. “I went to the prom anyway and had a blast. I should note that earlier today, you didn’t even know who I was. Forget it, really. No hard feelings. It’s ancient history and good for a laugh about old times. I’m okay.”
She wasn’t entirely sure she believed him–if he believed himself. But she relaxed a bit anyway, leaning back while commenting, “I’d say you were doing more than okay, Travis–formerly the very touchy T.J. Collimore. You look like you’ve done pretty well for yourself.”
Just then another waitress approached them, carrying two steaming platters. “Fish and chips. Hi, Maryanne. How are you doing?” She set the identical dinners on the table before them.
“Hi, Nancy. Doing just fine. This is Travis Collimore. He was at Sterling Lakes High with us for about a year and a half before we graduated. We called him T.J. back then. Travis, do you remember Nancy Romney?”
Nancy jammed her plump fists into her apron and squinted at Travis. “The tire guy? My stars. You used to be really scrawny. Now look at you. Grew up to be a looker.”
That was Nancy. No tact, no filter, no shame.
“Late bloomer, I guess,” he managed, looking a little surprised by her honest reaction.
“What do you think, Maryanne? Filled out pretty good, didn’t he?”
“We all look better than we did in high school,” Maryanne answered a little stiffly, deliberately avoiding Travis’ eyes.
“Aw, sure. I’m totally ravishing,” Nancy called. “Hey, Dickie, you hear that? I’m a Diner Goddess! Gotta get busy. Great to see you again, T.J. Later, Maryanne.” Her laughter carried all across the room as she waddled away from their table.
Under this breath, Travis admitted, “I don’t remember her. Was she in our class?”
“She was in typing with me. I don’t know if you ever had any classes with her. What about you, though, Travis? How did you make out after your family left Sterling Lakes?”
“Guess I didn’t do too bad. Went to school for business, met a ton of people. The usual route. Landed in New York. That’s about it.”
“You must be a master-level Tweeter, jamming twenty years into that short blurb.” She swirled a French fry in a blob of ketchup, her gaze on him scolding.
“Like I said, I do all right,” he answered as he ate his own dinner. They both applied themselves to inroads in the meal.
He doesn’t seem to want to talk about himself. What he does for a living specifically. But he knew an awful lot about the Sterling Lakes renovation. Too much to simply be an innocent bystander in the studio audience. Maryanne allowed herself a devious smile. I’ll discover your secrets, Travis Collimore. Don’t let yourself believe for one solitary moment I won’t. But you can keep them…for now.
When she looked up at him, the smile lighting up his face made her glad she was sitting down. His brown eyes were potently warm and rich, like dark coffee. For a moment, she wondered if he knew her thoughts–and relished them. She shifted, feeling the heat all of a sudden, as if she sat in a direct beam of sunshine.
“You can’t forget the famous Sterling Diner apple pie,” she reminded him when they both finished up the last bites of the best fish and chips anywhere. “Sherry?” She made a gesture to the young girl toward the dessert case.
When she turned back, Travis was studying her with interest. His expression made it clear that he liked what he saw, and she shivered in pleasure at the knowledge.
He hadn’t been the most popular kid in school any more than she’d been. But maybe she’d had a few boys interested in her. Back then, she’d had no more appeal toward what everyone else thought was worth pursuing than she did now. She’d liked Travis the times they’d talked. She’d agreed to go to the prom with him when he asked for just that reason. When she’d felt herself getting sick just before, she’d downed orange juice, tried to sweat the flu out of her, anything to be able to go. She’d had her prom dress on, planning to drive herself to the school to meet up with Travis there, just like they’d planned, that night. But her mom had forced her to call it off and sent her up to bed to rest and recover.
“Tell me about what’s new with you, Maryanne. Are you still friends with anyone from around here? I remember one girl you hung around with, but I forget her name.”
“Cascade Preston,” she reminded, “my best friend then and now. She’s doing the stained-glass windows for the church renovation. I also had another friend–Laura, if you remember her.”
“Sorry. Not much. Seems like I’ve heard of Cascade, but I can’t put my finger on where I remember hearing about her.”
“You probably have read about her if you know anything about architecture. She’s very well-known for her art. She lives in Boston and she’s recently engaged.”
Sherry placed two heaping dishes of apple pie smothered in vanilla ice cream in front of them and disappeared fast again, with other tables waiting for service around them.
Travis grinned at the decadent dessert. “Just look at the hot springs of life we have happening here with this apple pie.”
“The ice cream is melting really, really fast.” Maryanne laughed. “Dig in or live with your regrets.”
“That’s my life motto, completely.”
After a moment of mutually savoring their desserts, Travis said, “You mentioned Cascade is engaged, but I see you have a nice ring there yourself, Maryanne. Is that an estate piece your grandmother handed down to you, or are you also engaged?”
For the first time, she didn’t believe admitting the truth would get her out of an awkward situation or bring any relief.
Before she could answer, her phone rang, and she knew ahead of time it was Elwood. She heard the agitation in his voice when she excused herself to answer. “I’m coming right along,” she insisted. “It shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes, okay?”
When she hung up, Travis asked, “Duty calling?”
She swallowed, feeling strangely guilty at letting the excuse become convenient fabrication. “Constantly. Overlaps day and night. When don’t we all have someplace else to be? It gets crazy sometimes. Unfortunately, I don’t even have time to finish this blissful pie.”
“And I couldn’t eat another bite of mine if I wanted to. So, when’s the big day?”
She felt heat flood her cheeks that he’d pursued an answer to his question. “We haven’t nailed one down yet,” she managed, getting out money to pay for her meal.
Travis didn’t slow her escape by insisting on paying for both of them. “Guess there’s no big rush. Getting married’s not something you want to rush into if you’re not ready.”
The implication that she wasn’t ready to marry Elwood or anyone else was there in his casual statement. After all, if she was ready, wouldn’t she be eager to set a date? She didn’t want to respond to any of it. She placed her money with a generous tip on the table, standing, but he was already getting up beside her, adding his own money and tip to the pile.
Wordlessly, they walked out of the diner together and moved toward their vehicles. “Nice night,” he commented.
“Beautiful. Sterling Lakes has some of the sweetest evenings I’ve ever seen. Cascade and I used to ride our bikes back and forth to our jobs here during high school.” She turned toward him, halting near her car. “I’ve been to a lot of places since then and no place is perfect. But you’re right that Sterling Lakes was and is a town with its fair share of troubles. You didn’t live in Sterling Lakes for too long, Travis, but maybe you remember how much the barn’s meant to all of us here, and for generations. It’s got a lot of sentimental value. That’s why we don’t want it torn down for a strip mall. You’ve made a point of trying not to specify your role, but I know you’re involved somehow in all that.”
He sighed, his hands again thrust into the pockets of his slacks. “Okay, I admit it. I’m the developer on the project. I don’t want to destroy the barn, but the architect has already finalized the plans. It’s out of my hands. And we’re on a tight schedule. There’s no time to debate something that’s already done, or will be soon.”
She felt her entire body stiffen. “I was afraid you’d say that. I have to get going now, but this isn’t over. I’ll do everything in my power to save that barn.”
“There’s really nothing you, I, or anyone else can do about it anymore. Please believe me. I would if I could.” He reached for her hand and shook it. “It was great to see you and catch up on old times, Maryanne. Good luck to you.”
She pursed her lips, but then offered sincerely, “You, too, Travis.”
Maryanne watched him drive away. The setting sun painted a colorful vista before her with sweeping, feathery cirrus clouds like angel wings tinged magenta, gold, and indigo.
Whether Travis had intended to or not, he’d issued her a challenge she wouldn’t turn tail and run from. Far from. She suddenly felt more alive than she had for years. Glinting on her right was the cross high atop St. Luke’s Church.
Someone from the past could impact the future of the town she’d grown up in and loved. What could she do about it?
She intended to find out.
* * *
Situated on over four hundred lush, emerald rolling acres, the Birchwood Country Club in nearby Clark’s Falls was one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs in the east. Maryanne drove up to the massive wrought-iron gate, providing her credentials. While she waited to be approved, she mused at the contrast between Clark’s Falls and Sterling Lakes. Like night and day in some ways.
She reached for her phone, intending to call Cascade, but then remembered she was on a job in California. Luckily for Maryanne, who longed to talk to her about everything going on lately–and usually did during their salsa dancing nights–Cascade was due to return in a couple weeks.
Once through the gates, Maryanne pulled over before reaching the main entrance of the club and touched up her lipgloss. She checked her eye makeup and hair, thinking about her reunion with Travis and all the feelings stirred up inside her as a result.
Cascade would tell me to be true to my heart, but I’m not sure where my heart is right now. Travis and I weren’t some great love story. I liked him, enjoyed talking to him. He took my inability to attend the prom with him badly. We drifted. His family moved right after graduation. End of story. So why did it seem to bother him so much, like he’s not over that yet? And why does he still interest me so much?
Maryanne sighed. I just like him too much.
The last rays of the setting sun glinted off her diamond engagement ring. She twirled it, distracted.
A jumble of thoughts raced through her mind…each one of them focused on Travis, even inadvertently. Also making appearances were the barn, the church, the town, the renovation. Travis is the developer of that cursed mall. I should have realized who he was during the show today based on the things he said from the audience.
Looking at her reflection in the mirror again, she realized none of her thoughts had gone to Elwood. Was that good? After all, their relationship wasn’t in conflict the way everything else in her life seemed to be. But it doesn’t feel good that he’s not even a consideration in all the stuff going on.
She had to go inside to the banquet. Elwood would be waiting for her, insisting he was being patient, as always, when he was anything but. In his own opinion, he’d never been anything less than kind, patient, understanding, and appreciative toward her.
She pulled up under the marble portico, putting her car in park. “Miss Lynch.” The dapper young valet opened her car door. “Mr. Stewart is expecting you in the Gold Room.”
“Thank you.” Stepping onto the graveled entryway, her stiletto heel stuck between some pebbles and she nearly lost her footing. Laughing, she caught herself, bracing herself on the side mirror, then she pushed ahead into the expansive foyer leading to the open patio overlooking the hills in the distance. Photographers and catering staff circulated amid the well-dressed guests spilling out onto the terrace.
“Here you are, darling!”
“Elwood, Community Service Award recipient.” She smiled at him. “How distinguished you look in your tuxedo.” Though he’d put on a few pounds since his wife died and his kindly housekeeper fed him too many comfort meals, he still looked dapper in a tuxedo.
“You look gorgeous, as always. Thanks for not keeping me waiting too long.”
“It’s your night. You deserve the best.”
His eyes shimmered. “I’ve got that right here.”
Maryanne found herself breathing a mental sigh of relief that he hadn’t reacted badly to her being so late.
A fellow carrying a camera approached them. “I’m from the Clark’s Falls Register. Photo?”
“Of course.” Elwood held Maryanne snugly against him. “I don’t want any pictures of me without you in them,” he said as the photographer walked off through the crowd.
Maryanne’s head started to pound. Why do I feel so unsettled and distressed? Not just because of the Townsend Barn being torn down… That was an issue she could get on first thing tomorrow morning.
Travis. Seeing Travis again.
She forced the image of his handsome face out of her mind and turned to Elwood. His smile brought a lump of guilt to her throat she didn’t want to define. Reaching up to straighten his tie, she noticed his thinning hair had been trimmed since the last time she’d seen him.
“I’m really happy for you. You deserve this award.”
She could feel the tension rolling off him because there were so many high-society people in the room. “Why don’t we go to our table?” he suggested.
They took their seats amid streams of well-wishers stopping to congratulate Elwood. The salads were already at each place. Father Greene, the priest at St. Luke’s, said the blessing before dinner. The head of the town council made a toast to Elwood, then the band struck up a smooth jazz tune.
Maryanne made a show of pushing the salad around on her plate until Elwood noticed she wasn’t eating. “I only had time for a late lunch today,” she offered apologetically. “I’m not really hungry.”
When the waiter came by to clear the salads about ten minutes later, she informed him she wouldn’t be eating anything more that night. She noticed Elwood’s disapproval grimace when she turned back. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “Everything all right, Maryanne? Do you feel all right?”
She swallowed, sensing he was becoming more upset with her but keeping his tone carefully controlled because of those around them. “The topic of my show today was ‘The New Face of Sterling Lakes’.”
“I remember how excited you were about that the opinions of the community concerning the Sterling Lakes renovation.”
Maryanne nodded and took a sip of club soda. “Yes, but they want to knock down the Townsend Barn and build a strip mall to raise more money. I know I’m not the only one who loves that iconic building, who considers it a part of Sterling Lakes that can’t be destroyed. It has an angel weather vane. Those are so rare!”
He looked at her in amazement, obviously shocked about her almost desperate nostalgia. “Maryanne, the Townsend Barn is an old, rundown shack and a tinderbox, probably filled with rats. It’s not really worth saving.”
She swallowed, feeling her own ire rising. Glancing around them, she had to make a supreme effort to keep her voice even. “You didn’t grow up in Sterling Lakes, so I don’t blame you for not getting it. But that barn means a lot to some of us.”
“It’s a barn.”
“A barn that lots of people see as the symbol of our town. A barn with incalculable character and sentimental value.”
“You know what they say: Sentimental value has no place where progress is concerned.” Seeing how disturbed she was, he added in a gentle tone, “You want the town to have a new face and experience a rebirth, not to be held back, don’t you, darling?”
She realized his endearment was getting on her nerves. “Of course I want that.”
“So let progress move forward and welcome the future. You might even want to help them tear the barn down, rip some beams off. Show Sterling Lakes you believe in their future.”
Maryanne sighed, her jaw clenched. “I do believe in the future, but we don’t need to destroy part of the past unnecessarily in the process. We build up on where we came from. No, I have to figure out how to fight this. I hoped at least you would understand.”
Elwood lowered his voice even further, leaning closer to her. “What I understand is that I want my wife be aware of my social status, including my role as a business investor. It might interest you to realize that I sanctioned that strip mall. It’s a good idea and a solid way to raise money for Sterling Lakes. Surely you must understand that.”
Chills ran up and down her spine. His words and the way he said them made it clear he expected her–as his fiancée–to get onboard with his plans, his career, his life, even his work ethics.
Maryanne straightened, realizing this wasn’t the time or the place for this discussion. But her doubts about who she was engaged to tripled. What had once seemed safe for her now felt anything but.