Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Holiday  ➡  Romance  ➡  Christmas  ➡  Clean & wholesome

Under the Mistletoe

Under the Mistletoe

The McClains of Legend, Tennessee – Book 6

 

By Magdalena Scott

Under the Mistletoe

Copyright Magdalena Scott

 

 

 

 

Media > Books > Fiction > Romance Novels

Category/Tags: Contemporary Romance, romance series, sweet romance, wholesome romance, Christmas romance, holiday romance, clean romance, small town, Ladies of Legend, popular romance novels, Tennessee

 

 

Published October 2015 by Jewel Box Books

Previously published by Turquoise Morning Press, Dec. 2012. Revised and updated, Oct. 2013.

Originally published by Resplendence Publishing

 

 

Cover Design by Calliope Designs

Photo by http://www.thinkstockphotos.com/

 

Distributed by Shakespir

 

 

WARNING: All rights reserved.

The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in whole or in part, in any form, is illegal and forbidden without the written permission of the author, Magdalena Scott.

 

This is a work of fiction.

Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places, settings or occurrences are purely coincidental.

 

****

 

The town of Legend, Tennessee, and its residents live in the imaginations of its authors: Maddie James, Janet Eaves, Magdalena Scott, and Jan Scarbrough. The town and all characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

***

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Dedicated to

 

Jeanne Bedwell and Rebecca Marshall,

whose support and encouragement are unwavering and invaluable.

Table of Contents

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

 

Preview of The Holly and the Ivy

Dear Reader

About Magdalena Scott

Chapter One

 

 

Legend, Tennessee

Friday Night

November 28, 1975

 

“Ugh.”

Dorothy Robbins wrinkled her nose in disgust when her broom pulled a load of crud from underneath the table. People ate like pigs sometimes. Did they behave like that at home?

She shrugged. Some of them probably did. But a lot of people certainly treated Jim Bob’s Saloon like their own personal feeding trough. And they didn’t mind slopping their mess all over the floor so she had to clean it up. She was the only one here tonight who’d do it, that’s for sure. Lord knew Jim Bob’s daughter wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning up like this. Which is why Dorothy’s job was secure. That and the fact that she never complained when ending up with the rowdy tables, and the bad tippers.

Dorothy knew everybody, and could get along with all of them. There weren’t a lot of jobs in Legend, Tennessee available for somebody who didn’t have any skills, so she was lucky to have this one. She sure would like to make more tips, though. How else was she going to save up enough money in her Leaving Legend Fund to get out of town for good?

Ed and Fred Gentry, the most obnoxious twins Dorothy had ever met, started to noisily re-enact a skit from last week’s Saturday Night Live, a new television show that debuted about a month ago. Dorothy only got to watch the show by sneaking into the living room after her parents and her siblings had gone to bed. It was too risqué for the kids, and her parents didn’t approve of the content, but Dorothy thought it was the best thing that ever happened to television. Of course, when Ed and Fred did the skits, or pretended to be the guest hosts, it was horrible. But she tried to block out their voices and replace them with the people who’d really been on the show.

Hilarious! How could you help but like a show whose first host had been George Carlin? The man was cutting edge. Crude, but so intelligent. That was the thing with Legend. There wasn’t anybody interesting like that. If somebody was crude, he was stupid, like Ed and Fred. If a person was intelligent, they were deadly dull. And evidently that last group included Dorothy.

She scooped the last bits of the mess into the dust pan and went into the back to dump it into the garbage. Then she scrubbed her hands up to the elbows at the sink in the ladies’ room, adjusted her little apron along the waistline of her faded bell-bottom hip huggers. Her tee shirt was snug and black, with The Eagles printed on the front in puffy plastic letters. She loved that band. One day she’d get to hear them live—another thing she wanted to do when she got free of this sad little town.

Heading toward the front of the building again, she checked on her tables. Everybody liked the food tonight—the Friday night fish special was always a big hit—but it sure made them thirsty. Dorothy wished she got commissions for the beers she served. It would probably be better than most of the tips.

Stepping up to the bar, she gave a brief insincere smile to Lila Sue, who did the same. Jim Bob set mugs of foamy beer on Lila Sue’s tray and she pranced off to her big tipping table. Tonight she was doing especially well. She’d flashed a twenty dollar bill at Dorothy earlier before stuffing it into her bra. Dorothy wondered how there was any extra space in there at all, the way Lila Sue was built.

“Four more, Jim Bob.”

He turned to her and grinned. At least he was a nice guy, and decent to work for. His daughter was rotten, but neither he nor his wife seemed to notice, and it wasn’t because they also acted that way.

“You doin’ okay tonight, honey?”

“Sure, Jim Bob. We’re busy.” She pasted a happy look on her face, wishing his daughter would find something else to do with her time so Dorothy could make some money. Lila Sue was smart enough to go to college, but didn’t want to. Dorothy shook her head, watching Jim Bob pull the beers.

Imagine having the opportunity to better yourself, and not being interested. Lila Sue was just looking for a rich man to marry, and she’d tell you that to your face. That’s the only thing about her that wasn’t smart, because there wasn’t anybody like that in Legend. Jim Bob was one of the most prosperous business owners in town, and look where that got him. Working six days a week, breathing clouds of cigarette smoke and listening to the same country songs on the jukebox every night. His marriage seemed to consist of little besides work. Sylvie, his wife, was the cook. Even though they worked in the same building, they didn’t see each other much. Sylvie spent her time in the back of the building, in the big old kitchen, and Jim Bob was always behind the bar.

When she found a man—if that ever happened—not only would she not ruin it by getting married, she definitely wouldn’t try to run a business with him. The way she figured it, once she finished college and got a good job, she could afford to live on her own. If a guy came along, even if they moved in together, there’d be no stupid marriage certificate. That was just a paper ticket to misery. No, she’d keep things fun and exciting, and if that wore off, somebody would have to go.

Walking to her rowdy table for four with beer foam drooling onto her tray, Dorothy straightened her posture. Sometimes thinking about how to get out was overwhelming, but she couldn’t afford to be depressed at work. People sure didn’t tip extra if you were depressed. She forced a smile, and tried to ignore the subtle pounding in her right temple. How many times had Convoy played on the jukebox tonight?

****

Charles McClain turned up the collar of his leather bomber jacket as he crossed Main Street. He’d been walking for a while, trying to clear his head, after having a yelling match with his dad after supper. He wasn’t sure what the old man was angry about, but he was in rare form tonight. Most McClains—particularly the men—had hot tempers. It was part of the Scottish heritage, he’d always been told. They’d been lairds in the old country, evidently. And his dad still considered himself laird—lord—of everything he surveyed.

It was awkward for Charles, staying in his parents’ house after being gone all this time. He’d left for the Marines right after high school, served in Vietnam, and when he was discharged, stayed on the west coast and got a college degree in business. He worked as a loan officer in a bank, and hoped to keep heading up the ladder. But then the bank had trouble, and closed his branch. A few of his co-workers moved to other locations, but most of them, like him, were simply out of luck. Charles didn’t have much in savings, having sent a lot of his money home while he was in ‘Nam, to help out the family.

Dan, the oldest, a year older than Charles, was married. He and wife Sharon had a young son named Martin. The next in age, Anne, was a high school senior, and William a junior—two more reasons it was really hard being back at home. All that teenage angst, and the unrelenting hormones!

Since leaving Legend, he’d seen some of the world—a few beautiful places, like the beaches in Southern California, and some horrible, like pretty much everything in Vietnam. The war finally ended in April, but Charles doubted it would ever end for some of the vets. He’d been lucky and got out in one piece. Which made him more determined than the average citizen of Legend to do the most he could with his life. He’d seen too many promising lives end too early.

Turning another corner, a cold wind hit him full force. The feel of winter in the air was something he thought he was homesick for when he was in Southern California. No four seasons there. Now, in late November, it would be cool and dreary, but not really cold.

With an unintentional extended vacation, and very little money left over from unemployment checks after paying his half of the apartment rent in a suburb of Los Angeles, Charles was hardly a cheerful holiday guest. He hadn’t told his parents about losing his job, just called and asked if they’d like him home for the holidays. Now he almost regretted it. Thanksgiving was yesterday and he didn’t know if he could stand his family all the way until Christmas, which is what he had promised his mom. She thought the bank was giving him a huge vacation because he was so important and hard working. He hadn’t told her that—she’d made it up in her head. And it made sense, of course—he had worked hard, but the enforced time off was hardly a reward.

Charles grimaced. He had been sending out resumes and applying at all the banks in his area, but no solid leads yet. He had left his parents’ number with Mark, his roommate, in case somebody did call and want an interview.

If he were in L.A. tonight, he and Mark would be out on the town, acting very unlike the upstanding young businessmen they were. There were always pretty women ready to spend time with them, let the guys buy them drinks, dance, go to dinner. Et cetera. It was a great life, and of course Charles would be missing the night scene—movies being filmed, stand-up comedians who were sometimes funny and sometimes pathetic, and almost-famous singers wailing away on poorly lit nightclub stages and street corners. In Legend there was no scene at all—Friday and Saturday nights in Legend were pretty much like any other night.

Charles smiled to himself. One thing, though. He definitely felt rested. He’d slept on the plane, and like a baby ever since he got home. Nothing like his old twin bed with the squishy foam mattress, in the room he used to share with his brother Dan. The whole family was together for the first time in forever. His mom was excited about it, and had cooked so much food for Thanksgiving, the refrigerator could barely hold the leftovers.

In one way Legend should be the perfect break, because nothing here made him think of banking, or being unemployed. Unfortunately, though, there was nothing else in Legend to think about. After just three days in town, he was frustrated with his family and miserably bored.

“Hey! Watch where you’re goin’, buddy!”

Charles stepped back, giving the loud and very drunk man room to stagger back onto the sidewalk. Another guy who looked just like the first one was a couple of yards behind and catching up. Oh yeah, Ed and Fred. Looked like Fred—or was that Ed?—anyway, the second one was relatively sober at least, and when he caught up with his twin the guy leaned on him heavily. They continued down the sidewalk, and the strains of Convoy rolled through the open doorway of Jim Bob’s Saloon.

Charles stopped. Why not? What else was there to do in Legend at nine o’clock on a Friday night?

The place sure hadn’t changed. The room was filled with a dozen brands of cheap cigarette smoke that made a haze of the light coming from the big moss-green glass globes hanging from the high dark green tin ceiling. The old bar that ran along the left wall had seen a couple generations of Legend folk on one side and a couple generations of Jim Bob’s family on the other. Relatively clean beer mugs hung from tarnished brass hooks above the bar, and a few wooden tap handles were being put to use by good old Jim Bob. A couple dozen of Legend’s more interesting citizens were strewn about the place, some of them trying to keep up with the song on the jukebox and doing a poor job of it. There were no aisles, just narrow walkways between tables scattered as if nobody cared where they landed. Yep. Just the same.

“Hey there. You new in town?”

The gorgeous blonde had a killer body, and makeup she must have applied with a trowel. Hm. She almost looked familiar…

“That you, Chuck?”

Charles cringed. He hated the old nickname, and nobody beyond the county line ever called him that. Turning to Jim Bob, he stuck out his hand and got a big bone crusher handshake, spiced with sticky beer. Jim Bob and Charles’ dad went way back. They’d grown up together hunting and fishing in the mountains, often skipping school to do so.

“You met Lila Sue, I see.” Oh man. This was Jim Bob’s daughter? He remembered avoiding her as a brat kid. He turned and smiled at her and saw what was in her eyes. Okay. Definitely need to steer clear of this one. Mankiller alert. No need to get caught up with some female while he was in town anyway, and since everybody knew everybody, the chance of keeping anything quiet didn’t even exist.

“Yeah. Hey, Lila Sue.”

“Hey yourself. I didn’t recognize you at first. It’s been a while.”

The older man smacked the bar top. “Sit up here at the bar and talk to me, Chuck. The place is hoppin’, but I’m never too busy for one of Ray’s kids.”

Charles lowered himself onto one of the worn vinyl-covered stools and ordered a beer, expelled a long breath full of big city, and settled into the ambiance—if you could call it that—of the place. Just because I’ve been gone a while doesn’t mean I’m better than any of these people. I just need to lighten up and try to fit in while I’m in town.

The glass and oak front door opened again and a few more Legendarians blew in with the bitter cold air. The song changed—Freddy Fender launched into Wasted Days and Wasted Nights. That pretty much summed up this visit so far.

Someone bumped his elbow and he glanced around. Wow. Now here was something special. Stick straight blonde hair down to her waist, big blue eyes, very little makeup as far as he could tell, but she was beautiful. Her bell bottoms and black tee shirt fit like they’d been sewn on her.

“Hey there.”

“Hey.” She glanced at him, then away again. “Jim Bob, five more. It’s crazy in here tonight.”

Charles leaned toward her and said softly, “Holidays make people crazy. Are you too young to know that, uh…what’s your name?”

Her eyes narrowed as she turned toward him again, and he thought she might not answer. “Dorothy.”

An old-fashioned name, but somehow it suited her. “Well, Dorothy, holidays make people crazy. Especially family holidays. Brings out the worst in a lot of us.” He sipped his beer, watching her. “Are you actually old enough to work here?”

Her blue eyes snapped. “I’ll have you know I’m twenty-two years old!”

He couldn’t quite stop the chuckle. “Wow. That old?” Silky blonde hair whipped his shoulder and arm as she turned away from him again in obvious disgust. Jim Bob set the last of the mugs on her tray and she sashayed away with them to the other side of the room. Interesting girl. The total opposite of Lila Sue, except they were both pretty blondes. But this one… This one had something else.

“You not remember Dorothy Robbins?”

“No. Not really. I’ve been gone a while, Jim Bob.”

“I guess. Can’t even imagine that myself. You lose track of people, I s’pose. She’s Dale and Betty Robbins’ oldest. Lives up on the mountain.”

He shook his head. “Sorry. Still drawing a blank here.” Another swig of beer and Charles swiveled the stool to watch Dorothy move among the tables, writing down orders on a little pad, smiling.

“Dale and Betty Robbins. House full of kids, about fifteen minutes outside town. Dale carves stuff.”

“Oh! The sculptor!”

“That’s him. One of the younger kids had a real bad bike wreck, and insurance wasn’t what it shoulda been. Dorothy was in college but had to come back home.”

“So she’s supporting the family on what she earns here?”

“Oh no. That was a while ago, and I guess Dale sold one of those things he makes, so the money’s better now. Family’s taken care of, and the kid doesn’t even have a limp. It was rough on them all for a while, though.” He shrugged. “Dorothy’s a good girl. Good worker.”

“Uh huh. Looks like she works real hard.” Charles saw her cleaning a table that Lila Sue had pranced by, picking up the tip. Lila Sue seemed to stand around and visit with the customers a lot, or sit down at the tables and visit with them. Lila Sue threw her head back and laughed at something one of the guys said. Even in the noisy room her laughter was loud. Charles glanced at Dorothy, who subtly shook her head as the sound rolled over her.

Poor little Cinderella. She needs a Prince Charming. Well, he had a month here. Maybe they could have some laughs together. It would cheer Dorothy up, and give him a break from the family part of the time. Her prickly manner wasn’t fooling him. She was shy and lonely. All he had to do was get past the prickliness to the softness underneath.

Charles grinned in anticipation. Yeah, getting to the softness would be an enjoyable part of his holiday season.

Chapter Two

 

 

Dorothy untied her apron and wadded it up. Of course it stunk, just like the rest of her clothes stunk. And her hair. First thing when she got home she always showered and washed her hair because she couldn’t stand the idea of going to bed smelling like smoke and beer and the fried delicacy of the day.

“‘Night!” she called to Jim Bob and Sylvie, who were talking quietly in the kitchen doorway. They said the same, and waved. Jim Bob walked toward the front of the bar, ready to lock the deadbolt when she left. Lila Sue was sitting at a table, smoothing out the bills from her tips. She raised her hand in a half-hearted wave.

On the sidewalk, listening to the bolt click into place, Dorothy tipped her head back, closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the cold mountain air. A sharp breeze blew her hair around, and she reached up and grabbed it, tied the long tresses into a loose knot at her nape so she wouldn’t have to bother with it again. She started walking. Jim Bob didn’t want his customers to have trouble finding a spot to park, so her car was down the street a ways. Her big chunky heeled shoes felt heavy tonight. It had been a long one, and she promised herself to sleep in on Saturday. She hoped none of the kids would wake her up to watch Saturday morning cartoons with them.

“Hey there.”

A man stepped out of the shadows in front of her, and Dorothy halted, her breath catching in her throat. What in the world?

“Remember me? Charles McClain. We met in the bar a while ago.”

“Oh. So?” She started walking again, a little more quickly.

“So… I wanted to talk to you. It was too noisy in there, and you were busy. So I came back hoping to see you when the place shut down. Lucky me, huh?”

“No. Not really.” Having reached her car, Dorothy opened the door and slid into the driver’s seat. She put her key into the ignition and reached to shut the door, but he had hold of it.

“Let go of the door, Charles McClain.”

“Not just yet. I want to talk to you a minute.”

She sighed, shook her head. Of all the nights to have to deal with this kind of thing. “Let go of the door or I’ll wake up the town.” She paused, but his expression didn’t change. “I’ll blow this horn.”

“Now, Dorothy.” He smiled smugly. “You don’t want to do that.”

Smiling back at him, she laid her hand flat on the horn and pushed down. The car was old and big, and the horn was one of the loudest she’d ever heard. Until now, she’d considered it an embarrassment.

****

Dorothy woke the next morning smiling again, because the first thing she thought about was the look on that guy’s face last night. His smugness disappeared pretty quickly when he realized she was going to continue laying on the horn until he left her alone. That should take care of him.

She rolled onto her side, reveling in some well earned laziness. She could hear her siblings laughing at Tom and Jerry on TV in the small living room down the hall, but at least the kids hadn’t jumped on her and insisted she join them. Her sister Debbie’s poster of David Cassidy stared at her from across the room.

Of course, the guy last night—Charles McClain—was good looking. Really tall, and he had beautiful dark hair and gorgeous blue eyes. Dark hair and blue eyes was such a cool combination. All the McClains were good looking, so that definitely wasn’t a surprise. They were good people too. She vaguely remembered Charles from when he lived in Legend. He’d been on the high school football team—maybe even quarterback, but not being a sports fan, she wasn’t sure. He’d been good, though, and his name and picture had been in the Legend Post-Dispatch a lot back then. Then there was the picture of him in his Marine uniform, all his hair shaved off, and looking so deadly serious. She shivered, remembering her preacher’s weekly prayers for the safety of the Legend boys who’d gone to war.

By now Charles must be nearly thirty. Practically ancient. His attitude said he was all grown up and worldly, and she was nothing. Dorothy sure didn’t need that kind of grief from a guy. She was hard enough on herself without someone else picking on her.

She pulled a length of hair out from under her head and began to do mini braids while she thought about him again. His eyes were nice. They had a kind look, not harsh. The way he talked and what his eyes said were two different things. Frowning in concentration, she admitted to herself that he was just teasing her, and she’d overreacted. Jeannie, her best friend, always said when a guy teases you, that means he’s interested. Plus the fact of his staying late to see her… Well, Dorothy figured she had put an end to that with the car horn last night. She blew out a big puff of breath, sending more blonde hair scattering around her face.

Maybe she shouldn’t have done it. Maybe he just wanted to talk for a minute. That would have been okay. He might have eventually asked her out, even. But no. Now it was ruined.

Sighing, she unwound her flannel gown from around her waist where it had wadded up in her sleep, and got out of bed. Saturday meant helping Mom clean house, and making sure the kids got chauffeured back and forth from their activities in town or at their friends’ houses. Then she’d go to work and make a little more money for her Leaving Legend Fund.

****

“Oh no. Seriously?”

“Sure, honey. It’s the holidays. People expect it. Cheers ‘em up, too. You’ll see.” Sylvie was putting the last few silver icicles on a sad looking cedar tree stuck in a pot in one of the big front windows. A matching tree, unbelievably just as ugly, with its red mirror balls and silver icicles, was in the other window, and Lila Sue was slowly taping colored Christmas lights along the edge of each huge pane of glass. There was a can of “snow” on the end of the bar. Evidently someone was going to spray that on the glass after the lights were up. Dorothy hoped bad taste wasn’t a fire hazard.

Jim Bob was messing with the jukebox. “Did we get some new records?” Dorothy asked. That might make some of the rest of this easier to take.

“It’s Christmas music, stupid!” Lila Sue glared at her and noisily ripped the last piece of tape off the roll, then stuck it to the window and the green wire. She tossed the empty dispenser without looking where it landed. Dorothy knew who would pick it up later.

“Dorothy, honey, can you drag a chair over here? I wanna put up the mistletoe.”

Lord have mercy. In Jim Bob’s Saloon? With the clientele we serve?

“Oh Miss Sylvie, are you sure about this?” She carried a chair over to the doorway, knowing nothing ever changed Sylvie’s mind about anything.

Sylvie handed her the little transparent bag of dried green mistletoe with white plastic “berries” on it, and Dorothy stepped onto the chair and hung it on the hook. Judging from the coats of paint on it, the hook had obviously been put up years ago for just this purpose. Then she stepped back down and got a paper towel to wipe off the chair.

“Perfect!” Jim Bob gave her a thumbs-up from his project at the jukebox.

“What’s wrong with you, Dorothy? You have something against mistletoe? You have something against getting kissed?” Lila Sue’s pretty features contorted.

It was all she could do to be civil. “No, Lila Sue. I like mistletoe just fine.” She put the chair back in its place and shook out her newly laundered apron, then went to the ladies’ room to wash her hands before starting to roll the silverware in paper napkins for the evening.

I like mistletoe just fine. In fact, it had always seemed a bit magical to Dorothy. Her mother would hang it above the front door, and everyone who went into the house got a hug and kiss and was reminded of how special they were. In high school, some of Dorothy’s girlfriends—and even some of the boys—had been known to hang mistletoe on the rear view mirrors of their cars. That was just desperate, of course, and inappropriate for something so special. But the very best use of mistletoe was to accidentally meet underneath it with the man you loved. It had to be accidental, or it didn’t count. Hearts would pound, pulses race, and suddenly a swell of special music only the two of you could hear…

Brenda Lee began to belt out Jingle Bell Rock and the 1975 Christmas season got underway at Jim Bob’s.

Dorothy cringed and shook her head. Not that she believed in that kind of love—the forever kind. None of it mattered, anyway, because this was just boring old Legend, and mistletoe was just another way for the clientele of Jim Bob’s to embarrass themselves.

****

Sunday morning in church Dorothy had a hard time concentrating on the sermon, because the hairs on the back of her neck were standing at attention. Somebody was staring at her. In church, no less. She couldn’t imagine why. She was just Dorothy—why would anyone stare? The only person she could consider anything like an enemy was Lila Sue, and her family went to the Methodist church, not the Baptist. So what was up?

Do not turn around. Concentrate. Listen to the preacher.

Consciences were so useless. She knew what she was supposed to do. She even shook her head a little to clear it, and her brother punched her in the arm because a few strands of long blonde hair flew in his face when she did it. Great. Now I’m getting punched in church. Concentrate.

After a while the feeling dissipated, but didn’t quite go away. She was relieved when the service was done. She helped herd the kids toward the front door, the key being that someone had to serve as a brake so they didn’t simply bolt. When her siblings had been reasonably pleasant to the preacher and his wife in the receiving line, it was her turn…

She saw him as she started down the stairs toward the sidewalk. Charles McClain standing with his parents. He looked a lot like his dad. Tall, dark, and devilishly handsome. A younger version of the same look, Charles’ brother Will, was in a knot of teenagers down the sidewalk a ways. Strong genes. Charles was looking straight at Dorothy and she knew without a doubt he’d been the one staring at her in church. Guess he didn’t scare off so easily. Good. She reached the sidewalk and turned toward where Dad had parked the big old station wagon. But she didn’t walk quickly, and as she’d hoped, Charles was soon at her side.

“Dorothy Robbins, I believe.”

She stopped and turned, trying to look surprised. “Well. Charles McClain.”

“I’m flattered that you remember me.” He made a tiny mock bow. “Just wondered if you have a moment. I hope this setting is more to your liking than the dark street the other night.”

She smiled. “This is just fine. What may I do for you?” She was trying to sound like a Southern belle but assumed she was failing miserably. He did look so dashing and debonair.

“Well, Miss Robbins, I wondered if you would do me the honor of accompanying me on an outing tomorrow.” His blue eyes sparkled.

“What type of outing? You know I work nights, right?”

“It would be a daytime outing. Whatever you want to do, really. I’m here for a month, and completely without an agenda. I can pick you up…” His smile was replaced with a frown. “I can’t pick you up. Just remembered—I don’t have a car here. Okay, so I’ll borrow a car and pick you up whenever you like. If you’re interested.”

She adjusted the strap of the denim bag on her shoulder. “I have a car. It’s an old clunker, but it gets me where I need to go. I’ll pick you up, Charles McClain.”

He worked on that for a moment before smiling again.

“All right. That’s very liberated of you, Miss Robbins. Ten o’clock? Do you know where my parents’ house is?”

“Of course. I’ve always lived in Legend. You don’t forget McClains.” She stopped, sorry she’d said that.

“We’re quite a crew, aren’t we?” He smiled even more, and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Til tomorrow then?”

“Yes. Tomorrow.” Smiling briefly, she turned and headed toward the station wagon before her legs gave out from the excitement. She leaned against the car, trying to look casual. Tingling. She was tingling all over in anticipation of spending time with him, even if it was in her beat up boat of a car. Even if they just goofed around Legend, it was a date. She was definitely counting it as a date. He seemed nice, and smart. Somebody interesting had come to Legend, and he wanted to spend time with her. Cool!

****

“Mark? Charles. Yeah, hi. Uh…just wondering if I’ve had any calls. Well, yeah, I figured you would let me know, but in case you’ve been too busy with…you know…whoever. Uh huh. No, I don’t think I’ve met her. Of course she’s blonde. You don’t date anybody who isn’t blonde… No, you don’t. Mark, no, you don’t. No, dark roots don’t count because you don’t pick them for the dark roots… I don’t have anything against blondes, I’m just saying you always—uh huh. Right, sure. Yeah, just call. Thanks, man.”

Interesting conversation. Charles hadn’t meant to go off on that blonde tangent. His buddy never dated any woman with a hair color darker than golden blonde, even if it was from a bottle. He was so into looks, and never paid attention to who a woman really was inside. Mark was very superficial.

Charles slumped down into the living room chair where he’d used the only telephone in the house. He’d been sure to call when it was less expensive, too. He didn’t want to put too much of a financial burden on his folks while he was here. Dad had said not to worry about it, but Charles was used to being independent, and wanted to stay that way. Immediately after losing his job, he had found himself becoming more frugal. He hated having to think about where every penny went, but it was a fact of his life right now. Temporarily, of course. He had to believe something would turn up before long.

“Charles, honey, do you need anything before I go to bed?”

“No, Mom. Thanks, though. Good night.”

His mother walked over and kissed the top of his head. “Good night, honey. Sleep tight.”

He watched her walk up the slightly creaky steps to the room his parents shared. I want that. I want a long lasting relationship, the assurance that when I get up in the morning and go to bed at night, I’ll be next to the woman I love. Charles’ parents had been married for about thirty years. They were perfect together. Their relationship was as sure and solid as any he’d seen, no matter what the family went through—and with four kids and a huge extended family, there was always something. Although he’d met and spent time with plenty of women in his new hometown—if you could call anything in the Los Angeles area a town—he’d not met that certain someone. He thought he had once, and had been on the verge of asking her to marry him—but before he could do it, she dumped him and wouldn’t even return his calls. He was enough of a romantic to believe there was a perfect match for him if he would just look hard enough and wait long enough. Of course, he wasn’t so very far from thirty years old, and recently he’d begun to wonder if his right woman had ended up with the wrong man. What then?

He didn’t want to spend his life alone, or with Mark as his roommate. No, definitely not. Well, at least tomorrow for a while he could get his mind off the gloom of being unemployed and unattached. Spending time with Dorothy Robbins should be a good change of pace. Even if she was obviously a small town girl.

****

Dorothy parked the big Oldsmobile in front of the McClain house at precisely ten o’clock a.m., and killed the engine. Wiping sweaty palms down the front of her jeans legs, she stared at the white frame house with Christmassy red ribbons wrapping the porch posts, and wondered whether to honk the horn or go to the wreath-decorated door. Ooh, maybe not the horn. Maybe the horn would be a reminder of the other night.

Opening her door, she swung her legs out just in time to see Charles bounding down the front steps. He looked like a movie star, with the winter sun shining on his dark hair and beautiful white smile. He zipped the brown leather bomber jacket as he walked. One of Dorothy’s hands strayed to the other sleeve of her puffy pink down-filled jacket with fake fur around the hood. It had been expensive for her even on sale, but she’d never regretted buying it. Now she was even more pleased. Maybe she wouldn’t look as much like a hick to him with the cute jacket and darker pink mittens.

Then again, mittens…

Charles opened the passenger door and slid in. “Hey, Dorothy.”

She pulled her door closed. “Hey.” Have mercy. He was so delicious looking, and smelled so much better than her dad’s Old Spice. The big car suddenly seemed small and incredibly intimate. “I hope you’re okay with me driving.” Surely he wasn’t a male chauvinist.

He put his left arm along the back of the bench seat. “I’m fine with riding shotgun.”

“Okay. Great.” Breathe. Starting the engine, she looked over at him again. “Where to?”

“Lady’s choice.” That dazzling smile again, and that cute crinkling at the outer corners of his eyes. She expected to be able to drive with this sitting in the front seat with her?

She cleared her throat. “Well, Charles McClain, the lady chooses to let you choose. You’re the one who hasn’t been home in a while, right? I get pretty much everywhere in the county in a week’s time, driving kids around, so I really don’t care.”

“That’s the way it is, huh? Okay, then. How about we drive up to Lake Lodge? I always liked the view from up there.”

She put the car into gear and checked the rear view mirror before pulling out. “Okay. It’s closed, you know. Has been for a couple of years.”

“So I heard. Last time I was up there it was looking kinda sad, and that’s when it was still open. I wish somebody would buy it and fix it up.”

Dorothy shrugged. “Not likely, is it?” She turned onto Lake Road and headed out of town. “The lodge was a big deal back in the days when Legend was some kind of quiet vacation destination. Now it’s not any kind of destination. Just a dead end.”

“That’s a little cynical, isn’t it?”

“It’s the truth. Nothing is happening here, except that Legend is dying. I can’t wait to get out before I die with it.”

“Wow. You are jaded. Why so down on our little burg?”

“I feel suffocated here. There’s nothing for me to do. I mean, I have a job, and I’m grateful for that, but—”

“But you don’t want to wait tables forever?”

“Preferably not. Or if I have to, at least someplace nicer.” She smiled a little and glanced at him. “Someplace Ed and Fred don’t hang out.”

She saw him cross one ankle over his knee, pulling it up to get situated. No doubt he’d be more comfortable if she pushed the bench seat back, but she might not be able to reach the pedals.

“So, Dorothy, what is it you want to do with your life?”

“I’m going to be a pharmacist.”

She glanced over to see the look on his face. As anticipated, it was priceless. He’d probably expected something like kindergarten teacher. Dorothy knew she wouldn’t last ten minutes in a classroom full of five year olds.

“I’ve never seen a girl pharmacist.”

“And you live in the big city?”

“Yes, Miss Smarty. But I don’t exactly hang out in drugstores. So—you have a year of college in?”

“Um. Three and a half, actually. I need to get some money together to go back and finish. It’s hard for my parents, especially because of the younger kids.”

“Good for you for trying, though. There are probably grants and scholarships available. Do you have good grades?”

“Good enough.” Straight A’s in fact, but it seemed like bragging to say so.

“Well then. What are you waiting for?”

“I still need to get some more money saved up. I have a fund.”

“I’ll bet you do. You’re very organized, aren’t you?”

“I guess. Are you making fun of me, Charles McClain?”

“Not really. I’m impressed at your initiative. I wonder if you’re too independent for your own good, though.”

“A woman has to be self-sufficient in this day and age. The old model of a man taking care of a woman—that’s history.”

She turned off Lake Road and into the old empty parking lot, avoiding chuckholes in the pavement as best she could. In a moment they pulled up to the big old timber building, which sat in quiet repose overlooking Lake Legend.

Charles got out and walked to her side of the car, but Dorothy was up and out before he could get there to open the door for her.

“Yep. You’re an independent little thing.” He chuckled and walked toward the lodge, then up the steps.

“You can’t go in there.”

“Right. It’s closed. Gotcha.” He took out a handkerchief and polished a smudged window, then put his face up to the glass. “Pretty dark and empty.”

“Did you expect something different?”

He straightened and looked at her. “I don’t know. Sometimes people just abandon a property, and leave a lot of stuff behind. I’ve seen it in repos.”

“Repos?”

“Houses that are repossessed. You know. Or even cars. I’ve had to mess in some of that at times. It’s unpleasant.”

“Well, no doubt! You’ve repossessed people’s cars—and houses?” What kind of guy was he anyway? Sounded like a Class A jerk.

He didn’t even seem to notice how upset she’d become. Or maybe he simply didn’t care.

“That’s part of it. I just do the job.” He walked to another window, one of the big ones in the dining room, wiped the glass and looked in.

“What kind of horrible job is that?”

“I worked—work in a bank. You know, we make loans—”

Of all the arrogance. Dorothy stared at his disinterested broad shoulders. “I know what a bank is, Charles McClain. What I don’t understand is how you can be so heartless.”

“I’m not—”

“You stand here and tell me you take people’s houses from them, and it’s obvious you have no remorse. That seems pretty darn heartless to me.” A cold breeze blew in off the lake, chilling her to the bone.

He turned and stared down at her. “It’s my job.”

“What an awful way to make a living. I’d rather work in a bar the rest of my life than do something like that.”

“I make loans to people who ask for them. I don’t force them to come in and apply. Sometimes things happen and they don’t repay the bank, and obviously our only recourse—”

Dorothy had heard enough. She turned and stomped back to the car, furious. Slamming her door, she started the engine. She’d seen his kind before, back when little Tully had his accident and the bills had sent the family finances reeling. The Robbins family had been in danger of losing their house, and if it hadn’t been for a big fundraiser organized by their preacher, the family probably would have been homeless. It’s my job simply didn’t cut it. You were human or you were a machine, and evidently Charles McClain was the latter.

For good measure, she gunned the engine.

He opened the passenger door. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Stupidity, I guess. I should never have agreed to go out with you.” She shot him a quick look. “Get in, or get left.”

His face turned stony, but he slid into the seat and closed his door quietly. “Fine.”

Chapter Three

 

 

“Well, of course she got upset, butthead. Her family nearly lost their home just a year or so ago. You don’t know what it’s like being on the other side of it.” Dan McClain spoke softly—hardly more than a whisper—but since they were sitting shoulder to shoulder, Charles heard him just fine. Thin, pale light from the east signaled dawn. “You just let your mouth run when you shouldn’t have. Of course most of us McClains do that. The men anyway.” He shifted a leg that had been in the same position for a long time. “Sharon’s pretty good at cutting me off when I’m going to say something I’ll regret. It’s like I have a certain look on my face or something, and she holds up a hand and says, ‘Count to ten, think about it, and then decide if you want to say it or not.’” He shivered. “Man, I tell you, it’s uncanny. I imagine it’s headed off a lot of fights between us, though.”

“You and Sharon fight?”

“Not much. Like I said, she sees it coming and usually we avoid it. Weird, but good.”

“She knows you. She just knows you real well.”

“Yeah. Yet she stays with me.” He winked at Charles. “And we’ve got a good start on our branch of the family tree.”

Charles looked away from his brother, scanning the woods for movement. “Marty’s a cute one. Very good start there.”

“Uh huh. He’ll be a big brother soon.”

“What?”

“Quiet. You’ll scare away every deer in the county. I said Marty’s gonna be a big brother. Early July. We haven’t told anybody yet. At least not that I know of. But I wanted to let you know while you’re here.”

Sure. Because in a month he wouldn’t be anywhere near. Wouldn’t get to watch Marty grow up or see how he took care of his little brother or sister. Dan had always been protective of Charles when they were kids. The perfect big brother. Now Dan was settled back in their hometown, a successful dentist, with a beautiful loving wife and growing family. He could hunt and fish by driving a few minutes outside town instead of having to drive for hours to get to the mountains like Charles sometimes did. And although it was nice there, it wasn’t the Smokies. It wasn’t home.

“So Chuck, this girl. She’s under your skin, huh?”

“Why do you say that?”

“You haven’t talked about any particular girl –except that one in California—since we were both in high school. Dorothy Robbins is under your skin.”

“I don’t know her that well. She’s interesting.”

“And pretty.”

“And smart.”

“And local. You’re not gonna stay here and marry a local girl. Be realistic.”

“She doesn’t want to be local. She wants out of Legend.”

“Another one.” Dan shook his head. “I don’t get it. This town has a lot to offer—or it could have if people like you and Dorothy Robbins would give it a chance. Just what is it that you’re looking for, Chuck?”

They were talking too much. No way was a right-minded deer going to come within a mile of them at this rate. But when else would they talk? Dan was usually pretty quiet, plus he was a busy guy. Today Charles decided the talk mattered more than the deer. He didn’t really want to have to drag one out of the woods anyway.

“I guess I want to show I can be successful on my own. I mean, I enlisted so I could get out of town, and then college gave me a reason to stay out. When I got a position at the job fair my senior year, it just seemed like it was meant to be. I needed to do things my way. Around here… Now, don’t take this wrong. But around here you can’t mess up very badly because your brother or dad or cousin—”

“Or mom. Or wife.”

“Yeah. Somebody’s going to help you avoid the mistake. Or help clean you up after you fall on your face. Much as I’m grateful for what you and everybody always did for me, I needed to get out and do some things on my own.”

“Which you have. Mission accomplished. Successful banker in the big city.” He elbowed Charles. “We are proud of you, butthead.”

“Nice. But don’t be too proud.”

“Why’s that?”

“I lost my job.”

“No! When?”

“Pretty recent. Nobody’s going to hire before the first of the year, so I decided it was a good time for a visit.”

“Huh. Well, you could look for a job here.”

“As what? Dog catcher?”

“I swear, Chuck, you really need to lose that attitude. We do have two banks—remember? Even if they’re not hiring, there might be some in Knoxville that are. Ever think of that?”

No. He hadn’t. He’d been so focused on continuing his life where he’d relocated, that he hadn’t even considered relocating back home.

“Well?”

Charles looked at his older brother. “I’ll give it some thought. Now shut up and let’s act like we’re deer hunting.”

****

Typical Saturday night. Half the crowd came in already three sheets to the wind. Dorothy pocketed a tip and started cleaning the table. Typical, but maybe a little busier. She was tired, and it was only ten-thirty. Part of the problem, she knew, was that she’d missed a lot of sleep since that morning at Lake Lodge almost two weeks ago. She’d also spent time getting all worked up about things she should have said to Charles McClain. His cavalier attitude toward repossessing houses made her livid, but at the time she’d been too emotional to think straight. Now she had a speech all ready for him, if only she had the chance to use it. It was unlikely he’d turn up in the saloon again. He didn’t seem to have friends here before. Only Jim Bob had talked to him. Well, no wonder—the man was obviously a troll. A very good-looking, nicely built troll, which was a pure waste. Jim Bob had said he was just here for a visit, that he’d be going back to California. That made sense. Legend folks wouldn’t act that way…

She stopped in her tracks, and the jukebox wafted one of its remaining non-Christmas songs to her. Mel Street, Smoky Mountain Memories.

No, Legend folks wouldn’t act that way. Much as she wanted out of town, she knew this was true. It hadn’t been a Legend banker who’d started foreclosure proceedings. It had been a place in the city where her dad financed expensive tools. He had put a second mortgage on the house to pay for those, and when he couldn’t pay, the business had not listened to reason, nor cared about little Tully’s accident. They just referred it to a lawyer, and things quickly escalated.

Thank goodness for the preacher, the congregation, and, well, much of the county’s population, who chipped in to help. Even old Mr. Finley, President of Legend Bank & Trust, had been a participant at the fundraiser. She distinctly remembered him doing the cake walk, because he had seemed so incongruous in his dark suit.

She straightened, threw her shoulders back. That was history, and certainly didn’t mean she wanted to stay in Legend. It simply meant that not all bankers in the world were as heartless as Charles McClain.

“Hey! Dorothy, come here!” Jim Bob shouted and waved the telephone at her. What in the world? Something must be wrong at home!

She dodged people and chairs to get to the phone behind the bar. Her hands were shaking like a head of foam as she grabbed the heavy black receiver.

“Yes?”

“Dorothy. This is Charles McClain—Don’t hang up!” He shouted it just as she was about to do so.

“You scared the time out of me. What do you want?”

“Seems obvious enough. I want to talk to you. Can’t find you anywhere else. You dodged me after church last week, and when I saw you walking down Main Street, and—”

“I was in a hurry. And I’m in a hurry now. I’m working!”

“You were avoiding me then, and you’re brushing me off now. I want to talk to you.” He paused. “Need to talk to you. Okay? I called so at least our conversation can be more private than we could have if I were sitting at the bar right now. Can I meet you after work?”

“It’s a free country.”

“I don’t want to scare you again by stepping out when you’re not expecting me. Can I meet you at the door when you get off work tonight?”

“You didn’t scare me. You just surprised me. But, it’ll be late…more like morning.”

“That’s fine. Just tell me when, and I’ll be there.”

It sounded secretive and exotic. Meeting a handsome man after work, in the middle of the night, in the dark…in Legend. Well, okay, it was Legend, so forget exotic.

She did want to see him again. To give him the speech, she reminded herself. The speech about not being a heartless banker. But not right here, where Lila Sue could watch. Dorothy turned so she had as much privacy as she could manage.

“Not here. By my car. You know where I park.” She told him what time, and hung up.

The rest of the night dragged unbearably, though she was no longer tired. I am not excited about seeing him again. I’m looking forward to telling him off, that’s all.

****

She stepped away from the front door as Jim Bob locked the deadbolt, and walked toward her car. There was her visitor, leaning against it, arms and ankles crossed. A cold wind sliced its way up Main Street and Dorothy secured the top button of the old navy peacoat she wore back and forth to work. She didn’t want her pretty pink jacket to smell like Jim Bob’s. But now she realized this wasn’t the way she wanted to look or smell for this meeting.

Oh well, the decision had been made.

“Hey, Dorothy.” He pushed himself upright and walked toward her. He looked delicious and a little dangerous in the dim illumination of an evergreen-shaded street light.

“Hey, Charles McClain.”

“Why do you always do that?”

She hugged herself, wishing the wind would die down. “Do what?” Pulling an elastic band out of her pocket, she tied her long hair into a knot to stop it from whipping into her face.

“Why do you always call me by my first and last names?”

“I don’t know.” To keep a distance between us? To remind myself you’re not really here—you’re just temporary? The thoughts surprised her. “So it bothers you?”

“A little.”

“Good.” She smiled up at him. “Then I’ll keep doing it.”

“Somehow I thought you might. Man, it’s cold out here! Can we sit in your car and talk?”

“Well…”

“I promise not to accost you.”

“I promise not to let you.” She walked to the driver’s side. “Get in.”

She started the engine and hoped the heater would do its thing quickly. Then she turned to him.

“There’s something I need to say to you.” They spoke the words simultaneously.

“You first, Dorothy.”

“Well. I need to tell you that the other day when you were talking about throwing people out of their houses—”

Charles held up a hand. “Okay. Please. I am so sorry about that. I didn’t know what your family had been through.”

“You’ve been talking about me to other people?”

He smiled. “Hey, it’s Legend. What else is there to do?” She swatted his arm. “Okay, but it was just my brother Dan. I told him how one minute everything was fine, and the next minute you hated my guts. I had no idea what I’d done wrong. He told me about your little brother’s accident, and the foreclosure lawsuit. I’m sure it was awful.”

“Yes, it was. You obviously never thought about it before, which is pretty darn sad, Charles McClain, if you go around repossessing things. Do you think people don’t care?”

“It was my job. I was just doing my job.”

“What kind of job is that, if you’re hurting people?”

“I’m not there to hurt people. I’m there—I was there—to help them. I helped people get loans so they could buy things they wanted.”

“Or needed.”

“Yes. Or needed.”

“And then they’d get behind on payments, and you were all over them.”

“No. It wasn’t like that.” He reached out and took her hand, gently prying her fingers off the steering wheel. He held her hand in one of his and pulled off her knitted glove, then gently rubbed her hand while she stared at the process. “Dorothy, I am not a villain. You’re right, I didn’t always give the debtor as much thought as I should. But if it hadn’t been me, someone else would have done it. I tried to be kind. I told them what they might be able to do to get out of the mess, and sometimes that helped. Sometimes they were in so far over their heads, they couldn’t get out in any good way.”

He looked out the windshield to the darkness beyond. “I don’t know what happened then. If the loan went into foreclosure, it was out of my hands.”

“Hmm. Well, at least you’re thinking about it now. Maybe you’re not a complete troll.”

“I didn’t say troll. I said villain.”

“I was thinking troll. But like I said, maybe you’re not.” She peered into his eyes. They were such a lovely blue. “Okay, Charles McClain. I’ll consider forgiving you. Let me sleep on it. I’ll drop you at your parents’ house on my way home.”

Chapter Four

 

 

“He’s so cute, Dorothy!” Jeannie Adams held the Vogue magazine to her chest and sighed, flopping onto her pastel quilt. “I just can’t stand that he’s so cute, and he’s so darn handy, and you’re here with me instead of somewhere with him! You need to get out!”

“What? Like you’re an example to me? You seem to be here. We hang out together all the time. If that makes me a loser, it sure doesn’t make me the only loser.” Dorothy was tired of talking about Charles McClain, and deathly ill of thinking about him. She wanted him out of her head. “And besides, looks aren’t everything. I still think he’s a bit of a troll.”

“Define troll.”

“Lives under bridges, preys on unsuspecting innocent bystanders.”

“Got no clue what you’re talking about, Dorothy. The man’s family lives just down the street, nowhere near a bridge, and as far as I’ve heard, no unsuspecting bystanders have come up missing.” Propping her head on one palm, she stared at her friend. “I think you’ve got the hots for him.”

“Absolutely not. He’s a troll and a creep and a—a—banker!”

“Oh. Banker, huh? And he hasn’t been hanged by the neck yet? I should probably call the sheriff’s office and let them know there’s a loose banker running around.” Jeannie giggled. “Do you realize how silly that is, Dorothy?”

“I don’t think it’s silly at all. You know what nearly happened.”

“Nearly happened, but didn’t. It worked out.”

“It was awfully close.”

“Maybe. But come on, Dorothy, you can’t punish everyone in a suit because your dad got a loan with some weird credit place in the city. Did our boy Charles have anything to do with it?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Then let it go. Give the guy a chance. Remember what happened a few years back when Grant Winchester came back to Legend, and ended up marrying Kathleen Fields? Who knows—maybe you can convert Charles. Maybe he’ll give up the banking life and become something worthwhile.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno, Dorothy.” Jeannie started paging through her magazine again. “But I know you well enough to realize you like the guy. I guess you have to decide what’s a worthy enough job for him to have.”

“That makes me sound awfully sanctimonious.”

“Huh. Imagine.”

Dorothy stuck out her tongue, then sighed. “He hasn’t called since that night after work. I guess he found somebody else to antagonize, and I’m not going to worry about him one way or another.” She sat down in front of Jeannie’s makeup mirror and pulled her hair up into a messy cascade atop her head. “Listen. Let’s talk about something else. Guess what I’m doing Friday night.”

“Let me see…not going on a date with the handsomest bachelor in Legend, Tennessee?”

“No. I mean… Stop it, Jeannie! What I’m doing Friday night is helping chaperone the dance after the basketball game. It’s the holiday dance, and they need extra chaperones. Mr. McCarty called and asked me. He said I’d be a good influence.”

“Ooh. High praise from a chemistry teacher.”

“I guess. He’s a chaperone too, of course. Several of the teachers are. But they’re trying to steer away from asking parents to help. Give the kids a little freedom without mom and dad breathing down their necks.”

“Yuck. I don’t want to think we’re old enough to chaperone dances.”

“Don’t think of it as a matter of age. Think of it in terms of maturity. And maybe you’re not mature enough. But evidently I am.”

Jeannie lobbed a pillow at her friend. “You’re missing a night’s work to do this?”

“Yeah. I need the money, but I couldn’t turn Mr. McCarty down. He’s one of the reasons I got into pharmacy.”

“I know. He’s cool. So, you’re hanging out with the teachers Friday night after the Legend Dragons blow the competition off the basketball court.”

“Yep.”

“I take back what I said about you need to get out. Honey, you desperately need to get out.”

****

Charles watched the basketball game, yelling his lungs out. His brother Will was playing brilliantly tonight. The kid had talent. And he wasn’t completely cocky about it—actually played a good team game. He’d been pretty selfish not so many years ago, but obviously that had changed. The camaraderie with his teammates was obvious, and that, more than the athletic ability—or at least as much as the athletic ability—made Charles proud.

He turned to his sister Anne and started to remark on the game, but realized what a waste of air that would be. Anne was watching somebody in the crowd, paying no attention at all to basketball. She was dressed in her best jeans and a snug tee shirt, and her long dark hair gleamed. Charles wondered if she’d been wearing that much makeup and perfume when they left the house, or if she applied more after they arrived at the school. Their parents were a dozen yards away, and down near the gym floor. Maybe Mom wouldn’t notice. Maybe. Charles figured if she did, Anne would catch some grief. But she was nearly eighteen. Not much Mom or Dad could do about anything now. In just a few months Anne would graduate and head out on her own life’s path.

She must have felt him looking at her because she turned toward him. “What?”

“Oh. Nothing. Just…thinking how grown up you are.”

She brightened. “Good. I’m almost eighteen, you know.”

“Yeah. Just thinking about that, too.”

She pushed her hair back behind her shoulder. “Mom won’t give me a break. She wants me to be a baby.”

“No. She wants you to grow up, but it’s hard on her. Probably harder since you’re the only girl. Give her a break, Anne.”

“Why? It’s my life. She just needs to back off and let me do my thing. Dad, too. I’m finished with all this small town stuff. I’m ready to move on. Can’t wait til I graduate. That’ll be the last time Legend sees me.”

Sounded a lot like Dorothy Robbins. Also sounded a lot like things he had said a few years ago. Now, watching the animosity in his own sister’s face, it struck him hard.

This is what Legend kids, at least many of them, did. They convinced themselves that if they could get out, life would be better. He happened to know that wasn’t necessarily the case. Anne rolled her eyes and looked away again. She was zeroed in on some guy a few rows ahead of them. The guy looked back briefly and winked at her, and Charles felt, rather than heard, her sigh.

Great! Hadn’t even occurred to him that he might have to step into the middle of something tonight between his sister and some Romeo. Why had he agreed to chaperone the dance? Oh yeah—she and Will had asked him to, saying having him there would be so much cooler than having parents around.

The final buzzer sounded, and the Legend Dragons and what seemed like half the town celebrated noisily. After a moment of watching Will jump around, high fiving his teammates and some of his buddies from the crowd, Charles nudged Anne out of the bleachers and along toward the cafeteria. He probably should have been there earlier to get instructions if there were any, but hadn’t wanted to miss even a minute of the game. He was going to watch Will play every chance he got while visiting home. Who knew when he’d get another opportunity? Next year he’d be a senior, and Charles had only seen him play a handful of times since he’d first taught the little guy how to play H-O-R-S-E at their family’s backyard goal.

Kids streamed along the wide polished hallway. Charles kept Anne ahead of him along the way so he wouldn’t lose track of her. She shot him some dagger-sharp looks a couple of times when he put his hand on her shoulder. Evidently he was acting too uncool for her taste. So sorry. He was big brother, after all.

The movement slowed to a crawl and he glanced ahead to the cafeteria entrance. Some teachers were there, eyeballing everybody who went in. Checking ID? Looking for smuggled alcohol? Charles didn’t even try to stop the grin that spread over his face. Banking was so much easier than being a teacher. Give him an office, some forms, and a stack of ledgers any day over this.

Eventually Anne was allowed in, and John McCarty looked up at Charles.

“Hey, Chuck! Heard you were fool enough to join us for the evening. Welcome!”

“Hey, Mr. McCarty. Yeah, my little brother and sister talked me into it. What’s a big brother to do?” He shook hands with his former teacher and entered the gym, looking for another teacher who could tell him what to do. McCarty was too busy checking the incoming horde. Anne was at the far end of the room, approximately an inch and a half away from the guy she’d been exchanging looks with during the game. Could be a long night. But to find another teacher—

“Well, if it isn’t Charles McClain. You make a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom?”

Recognizing the voice, Charles smiled and turned around, looked down at a very cosmopolitan version of Dorothy Robbins. She was even more beautiful than usual.

“Hm. You sound like someone I once met, but you look like a movie star. I like the hairstyle.”

She raised a hand and smoothed the side of her upswept hair. “Thanks. This is my first time to chaperone, and I didn’t want to look like one of the kids.”

“Good plan. You’re young and pretty enough. I wouldn’t doubt some of these teenage charmers will be coming on to you. I’d offer to help out, but I know you’re well able to handle any eventuality.”

“Got that right. So, you’re chaperoning?”

“Don’t look so shocked. My kid brother and sister begged me. They wanted somebody cool.”

“Uh huh. Have you been through the briefing yet?”

He laughed. “No. Just got here. Been watching Will play. He’s a talented athlete—like his brother, of course.”

“From what I recall, your game was football though, wasn’t it?”

It pleased him more than it should that she remembered. “Sure was.”

“Well, here’s the deal on chaperoning. Keep moving, don’t let anybody come back into the room if they’ve gone out, watch for alcohol and anything suspicious.”

“Come on, this is Legend. What are we, prison guards?”

“You’ve been gone too long. Legend isn’t without its problems. Some of the kids here tonight may be drinkers, or even into drugs—they’re in the schools, you know.”

“In Legend?”

“Yes, in Legend. Most of the crowd is probably fine. Just be watchful.”

“I can’t believe anything like that goes on around here.”

“Grow up, Charles McClain. The rest of us have had to.”

Two hours later Charles still hadn’t seen evidence of the demise of small town values. The kids behaved except for the occasional discreet groping which he was unfortunate enough to happen upon. At least he didn’t catch his sister or brother doing anything they shouldn’t.

There was a huge crowd on the dance floor when the DJ played KC and the Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way I Like It. Charles watched Anne and her guy dancing, and felt uncomfortable about the looks on both their faces. Will was leaning against a far wall, cutting up with a couple of his buddies.

Still scanning the room, Charles saw Dorothy, arms folded over her chest, the picture of disapproval. Charles smiled. Just how did Dorothy like it? Not at all, or just not in public? She saw him then, locked gazes with him, frowned, and looked away.

Dan was right—she was under his skin. He wanted to walk through the crowd of kids and pull her out onto the dance floor, see if she’d dance with him as opposed to making a scene to avoid it. Would she fit in his arms as well as he thought she would? She was petite and he was six-one, but Charles imagined her curves would fit him just right. Of course this wasn’t the kind of music you could really hold a woman and dance to. This particular song moved too fast, and Charles definitely didn’t want to move too fast with her. He’d already made her angry up at the lodge, and hadn’t totally repaired the damage yet.

“Hey, folks!” the DJ said too loudly into his microphone. “Let’s get the chaperones out on the floor, okay? Why should the kids have all the fun?”

There was a groan of complaint mixed with cat calls. Charles wondered if he himself had groaned. This was his chance though, wasn’t it? As a chaperone, he was practically obligated to get out there and show the kids the right way to do this.

“Okay, everybody. Kids off the floor, and chaperones—head out there. I’m looking for something slow for ya. Gimme a minute.” He shut off his mic with a crack and sorted through stacks of records as the chaperones slouched into the center of the room.

Dorothy’s eyes were wide. What? Didn’t she know how to dance?

He walked over and spoke quietly into her ear. “May I please have this dance?”

She surprised him with a relieved smile.

“Yes. Thank you.”

****

Dorothy sighed. She’d been afraid none of the chaperones would ask her to dance. There were a couple more women than men, and she wondered if the extra female chaperones would dance together, or if some high school boys would step out to even things up. Both possibilities would be embarrassing. This wasn’t quite as bad—dancing with Charles McClain. At least he was male, and old enough. Not to mention tall, and…

Well, it would probably be okay. But when the music started she wondered if making a dive for the ladies’ room would have been a better idea. The DJ had selected John Denver’s I’m Sorry. Denver often brought her to the edge of tears with his songs that were so obviously from the depths of his heart. Being at the edge of tears in Charles McClain’s arms probably wasn’t a good idea. But she was committed now.

Charles’ left hand swallowed her right one, and his right hand was warm on her waist. Wow. This felt way too good. And the words were perfect. She was sorry. Sorry that she’d jumped down his throat at the lodge the other day, sorry she’d avoided even driving down his street, and had been short with him this evening. She was sorry they couldn’t start over.

“I’m sorry too.” His breath was warm, and tickled her ear and neck. “I’m sorry you and I got off to a bad start, because, you know, I’d hoped maybe we could get to know each other. We have a lot in common.”

“We do?”

“Sure. Leaving Legend, for one thing. I left, you want to leave. Both of us are just here temporarily, and it’s a shame we can’t make the most of it.” He danced them around Mr. McCarty and somebody’s mom who were having an awkward go at dancing. “If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, Dorothy, I will. I’d love for us to be able to start over.”

Whoa. Don’t put that four-letter “L” word in there. “I’d like to start over too, Charles McClain. I may have overreacted the other day.”

“May have—” He cleared his throat. “Hey, that’s in the past. Let’s say it never happened. In fact, let’s say we just met. That work for you?”

“We just met here on the dance floor?”

“Yes. Just a minute ago, when you looked up and smiled like you were actually glad to see me. That’s a good start.”

She let herself lean into him a little. “Mmm. It is a nice start. My name’s Dorothy, by the way.”

She felt his low chuckle. “And I’m Charles. So glad to meet you.”

The rest of the evening was nice. They still had their duties as chaperones, of course, but every once in a while Dorothy would glance Charles’ way and he’d smile at her. The dance ended and all the chaperones stayed around, some going out to make sure nobody got crazy in the parking lot, and some helping the janitor clean up the cafeteria.

Dorothy said good-bye to Mr. McCarty and told him she would chaperone again sometime if he needed her. At the door she looked back, but Charles was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, she pushed open the big metal and glass door and walked to her car.

“Hey there.” He’d been leaning against the old car, in the shadows, but stood up as she approached.

“I thought you’d left.”

“I made an exit, but I let Will drive the car home—he had buddies to deliver—so it’s either bum a ride or walk.”

“Oh my. And it’s, like, five blocks for you.”

“Yeah. Something like that. Plus it’s cold out.” He blew out a big puff of white vapor. “See my breath?”

“Please. You don’t do ‘pathetic’ very well. Just get in the car.”

“Not going to honk the horn, are you?”

She laughed. “No, you’re fine. Get in, Charles McClain.”

“I guess you’re going to take me straight to the folks’ house.”

“Um, I guess. Where do you want me to take you?”

“Loaded question. Do you have time to talk?”

“Some. I’m used to being up late, for work. Where do you want to talk?”

“The lodge?”

She shrugged off the memory of their last trip up there. “Sure.”

“Do kids go up there to make out?”

“I don’t know. I doubt it. There are better places than that.”

He put his hand along the seat back. “Oh yeah? What better places?”

“If you don’t remember, I’m not going to tell you.”

“Miss Robbins! I’m shocked!”

She wished she could watch his face while he was being silly like this, instead of having to watch the road. “You are not.”

“I absolutely am. I thought you were this fine, upstanding young woman, a chaperone, after all…”

“And you thought I’d never made out in a car? Come on, Charles McClain.” She adjusted the heat down some. It had gotten warm in here quickly.

As expected, the lodge parking lot was empty.

She shut off the car and looked at him. “You want to sit in here and talk, or freeze to death on the veranda?”

“If you’re shutting off the engine, we’d just as well be outside.”

“Must conserve fuel. Oil crisis, you know.”

“I believe I have heard something about that. Okay then, walk with me.” He opened his door and got out, and was quick enough this time to reach Dorothy’s door before she emerged. He held out his hand, and she put a dark pink mittened hand into it.

His hand was bare, and its warmth through the heavy crochet mitten felt good. He didn’t let go when he’d helped her out of the car and shut the door, but squeezed her hand just a little as he led her around to the lakeside veranda. This was nice. What did he want to talk about, if anything? Was he going to try to kiss her? And if he did try, would she let him?

He chuckled. “I guess it was too much to hope for chairs. Okay to sit on the floor here?”

“Sure. Jeans’ll wash.” They sat in a little alcove created by a bay window. It offered some protection from the breeze, but they could still see the lake.

He breathed deep. “Man, it’s nice here! I’d forgotten how pretty the lake is at night.”

“You don’t have anything like this in Los Angeles, I take it?”

He looked hard into the distance. “Nothing there is like anything here, really. Not a lake, not a mountain, not a little street full of shops run by people you know. I love L.A.—don’t get me wrong—and I miss the warm weather, the excitement, and a reasonable drive to the beach.”

“So it’s nothing like here. Did you want it to be like Legend?”

“No. I wanted anything but Legend.”

“Just like me.”

“Yes. Just like you.”

“When do you go back there?”

“Huh?” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Oh, sorry, I was drifting a bit. I’ll go back soon after Christmas.”

“That’s a long vacation.”

“Yeah.” He sighed.

“What’s wrong?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t. What?”

He turned to her, no teasing in his eyes for the moment. “I don’t have a job back there. Nothing. My bank branch closed and I’m out of work. Something will come along, I guess, but for now…it’s a concern.” He took both of her hands. “I haven’t told my parents because Mom’ll worry and Dad will get boisterous, at the very least. Telling them would ruin the holiday for everybody. So I’m here trying to be cheerful, and doing a lousy job of it because this thing is constantly in the back of my mind.”

“The basketball game was a nice break from worrying, I bet.”

“Yeah. The game was great. So was the dance.”

The look in his eyes almost made her lost her train of thought. “Don’t get too down about the job. Who knows what might come along for you? Maybe something better than you’ve ever had before. Maybe it was meant to happen, so you’d be available for this new thing that will be just what you need.”

The wind pulled at her hair and Charles pushed tendrils out of her face, touching her skin gently. Her breath caught for a moment before she could go on. “Cheer up, Charles McClain. This could be the beginning of something marvelous for you.”

As she said the words, she wondered at their meaning. Then she lowered her eyelids, watching as he leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. It was the lightest of kisses, but sent tingles all through her body. She wasn’t sure she was still able to breathe. After a moment he slid his lips along hers, gently teasing, tugging. Dorothy ran her hands up the arms of his leather jacket to his neck, wishing she didn’t have mittens on, so she could feel his thick, dark hair. He cupped her face in his hands and looked deeply into her eyes. She couldn’t have looked away if she’d tried, but she managed to tug her mittens off and drop them to the floor.

She ran her hands through his hair then, and gently traced the shape of his face with trembling fingertips. Thank goodness for the moon, or she’d have to go entirely by feel. Well…maybe thank goodness for the moon.

Mmm. Could this please go on forever?

Chapter Five

 

 

Charles walked down Main Street, adjusting the black wool scarf his mother had wrapped around his neck as he left the house a few minutes earlier. He had protested then, but was glad for it now. Almost wished for one of those dorky plaid caps with the flip-down ear warmers.

To warm up, he remembered being with Dorothy the other night at the lodge. Watching her beautiful mouth as she lectured him. He wanted to believe what she said made sense. That his job had ended so he could move on to something better. He found himself wondering if that something better was returning to Legend. Coming home so he could meet this beautiful young woman who made him lose his temper and gladly apologize afterward. She was full of fire and spunk, and way sexier than she probably realized. He hadn’t wanted to stop the other night. He’d wanted to make love to her right there on the frozen veranda of Lake Lodge, or in the back seat of her big old car.

But Dorothy deserved better than that. She deserved time, for one thing, which was something he had in short supply. It drove him crazy to think of what would happen after he left to go back to L.A. She’d be working in that saloon, being hit on by Ed and Fred and whoever else. Not that she couldn’t handle herself. He knew she could. But one of these days she’d tire of all of it, wouldn’t she? Then what—she’d just drive that big old car out of town and find a job somewhere else? He wanted her to be able to finish college. He wanted to see her finish, and see her working as a pharmacist. He could picture the glow on her face as she put on the white coat in her first pharmacy job. Yes, he wanted to see all of that. He wanted to be part of it—making it happen, and watching the results.

Dorothy Robbins wasn’t just under his skin. She was sashaying her way into his heart.

He shook his head, surprised how sentimental he’d become. Now he’d been in Legend for a few weeks and reconnected with his family—even his obnoxious teenage siblings—it seemed like home to him again. He didn’t miss L.A. much at all—not the traffic, the pollution, or the noise. In comparison, the verdant green mountains, Lake Legend and smaller lakes around seemed almost like the Garden of Eden.

And maybe for him they were. Well, if Legend was his Garden of Eden, then he wanted Dorothy Robbins as his Eve. He couldn’t help picturing her, slender and lovely, her long straight blonde hair hanging down her back, over her shoulders…and not even wearing a fig leaf. Hey—it was his version of Eden, right? He’d thought fleetingly of asking Dorothy to return with him to the west coast, but except for some ugly furniture and the rest of his clothes, there was literally nothing for him there. He didn’t have a way to support her, and he knew her independent streak wasn’t fake. She needed and wanted to work, have her own career. If he tried standing in the way of that she’d run him over, he knew.

So instead of standing in the way of it, he wanted to help her make it happen. But without any income, what could he do?

Charles opened the door to his brother’s office and closed it quickly behind him so the cold air wouldn’t freeze patients in the waiting room. They both looked familiar and spoke to him, but he couldn’t put names with the faces. Stepping over to the sliding glass window, he leaned down and smiled at the receptionist.

“Dan left something here for me?”

“Yes, Mr. McClain.” She handed him a thick envelope. “Dr. McClain asked that you take this as soon as you can. He’s with a patient.”

“Will do.” He gave her a little salute, waved to the unknown Legendarians, and stepped back into the cold, with the envelope in hand. Dan had called the house a while ago, and asked if Charles would pick up an envelope and deliver it as soon as possible. Sounded mysterious, but since their mother had taken the message and delivered it to Charles, he hadn’t had a chance to grill his brother about it.

A few blocks later he opened a glass and metal door and stepped onto the polished granite floor of Legend Bank & Trust. Mom had told him to deliver the thing directly to old Mr. Finley, not leave it with the receptionist or a teller. The elderly banker was at his desk, in his glass-walled office, and whoever was with him was getting up to leave. Charles told the receptionist his name and asked to see Mr. Finley.

“Certainly. Just wait a moment.”

The fellow who’d been meeting with Finley came out.

“How you doin’, Chuck?” The man grabbed his hand and shook it.

“Doing great. How are you these days?”

“Pretty good, considerin’.” He gave Charles a gap-toothed grin. “Well, gotta go. You know how the missus is when I’m late. Catch you later, Chuck!”

“Yeah. Later!” No idea who that was. He’d sure forgotten a lot of people over the years.

“He’ll see you now.”

Charles had been following the progress of the guy he’d been talking to, as he walked out the doors. Kind of hoping the way he walked, or maybe the sudden appearance of “the missus” would jar his memory. Oh well. He brought his focus back to the receptionist.

“Okay. Thanks.”

Smiling, he walked into the bank president’s office, a place he’d never seen the inside of before. It reminded him of an old movie—dark wood, green shade on the desk lamp, ancient bespectacled man looking at him. The two shook hands and Mr. Finley waved Charles into one of the black leather chairs.

“Good to see you, Charles.”

Finally, somebody who called him by his real name.

“Good to see you too, sir.” Charles slid the thick envelope along the glass top of the mahogany desk. “My brother Dan asked me to bring you this.”

“Ah yes.” The older man picked up the envelope and put it into his desk drawer. “Now tell me how you are doing, Charles.”

“Um. Fine. Just doing fine.” Whoa—smooth.

“You enjoy banking?”

When I was doing it, yeah. “Yes, sir, I do.”

“Good, good. Do you consider it your calling?”

“Calling, sir?”

“Yes, it is for some of us. The job gives us a certain amount of power, and carries a huge responsibility. Those who consider it a calling concentrate on the responsibility and are ever vigilant not to be caught up in the power.” He looked at Charles searchingly for a moment, then at his watch. “It’s time for me to go to lunch. Will you walk with me?”

Having nothing else to do with his day, Charles gladly obliged. Mr. Finley wrapped a thick black muffler around his neck, shrugged into a heavy black wool overcoat, and pulled on lined leather gloves.

“Back in an hour or so, Rachel,” he said to the receptionist as they passed her desk.

The next forty-five minutes Charles had a lesson in banking he would never forget. The two of them walked one side of Main Street and then the other, often stopping in to chat with store owners. In between, Mr. Finley gave Charles a short history of the ups and downs of each business’s financial condition, and the owner’s family. Finley seemed to know everything about everybody, and more than that, he cared what was happening in each person’s life as well as their business. He asked about the baby who’d had a bad cough last week, the mother-in-law who’d fallen off her favorite horse. And he answered questions about finances for the couple of people who asked them. At fifteen minutes before one o’clock, they stopped into the Piggly Wiggly and had a couple of sandwiches made, grabbed a bag of potato chips and returned to the bank.

Finley smiled, and Charles saw a twinkle in his eye. “Join me in the executive dining room, Charles.”

They went past the tellers’ cages and through a doorway into a back room. A couple of tellers and some people from bookkeeping were sitting at a long, well-worn oak table eating lunch and chatting.

“Coffee?” Finley served Charles, topped up the mug of a white haired bookkeeper sitting next to him, then poured himself a cup. After some initial awkwardness, everyone began chatting again, and those who remembered Charles reminded him of their names, who they were related to, and where they lived. It all clicked into place. Of course he remembered the receptionist too, now that the white haired bookkeeper told him who her “people” were.

The small group disbursed one by one and Charles and Finley were left in the room alone. The coffee pot was nearly empty. “Do you want more, sir, or should I shut it off?”

“No more coffee for me, Charles. But dump the dregs and make a new pot, will you? Afternoon breaks will start soon.” He rose and retrieved his coat and muffler from the coat rack. “I’ll be in my office when you’re done.”

****

When Charles left Legend Bank & Trust, he possessed three things he hadn’t had when he entered a couple of hours earlier—a changed outlook on banking, a job offer, and a renewed appreciation for his brother’s devious nature.

Never had he imagined coming home to Legend to continue his career. And Finley had been supremely clear about the fact that the job offer was his only if he looked at banking the same way Finley did—not the big city way. As for the deviousness, Charles wasn’t sure how to reward Dan for sending him to the bank with an envelope full of last year’s Timmy the Tooth wall calendars. It was just a way to get him into Finley’s office, to have the conversation Dan had set up with the bank president. Had their mother been in on the set-up, too? Probably. That was McClains, and that was Legend. Everybody looking out for each other. It sure wasn’t something he felt like fighting, though.

When he was younger, that kind of interference drove him nuts. Now he recognized it for what it was. Love. Concern. Neighborliness. Yeah, he could get behind that. He could see how his career as a banker could benefit his hometown in a thousand ways, not just benefit his own bottom line. Isn’t that what he wanted when he left—to make a difference, and do it his way?

Turned out the best way was to come home. He wondered if Dorothy would think this was the reason he’d lost his job, so he could come here and settle back into their hometown.

His smile wavered. Suddenly he and Dorothy didn’t have Leaving Legend in common anymore.

****

Saturday afternoon, Dorothy pulled up in front of Ray and Wilma McClain’s house.

“Why we’re stoppin’ here?”

Dorothy turned around and looked at her brother Tully. “Why are we stopping here.”

“I dunno. You’re drivin’ the car!” Tully laughed and elbowed their sister Justine, who punched him in the stomach.

Dorothy glared at both of them. “Stop that. You know what I mean. Use correct English, Tullis Addison Robbins. And both of you behave yourselves! You’re going to be the big kids this afternoon. Little Martin will look up to you. So act like you’re ten and eleven, instead of two and three.”

They stuck out their tongues at her, crossed their arms, and stared out their respective side windows. For the most part they were good kids. She knew they were being difficult now because they picked up on the fact she wanted them on their best behavior.

Her palms were sweating. Why had Mom dumped them on her this afternoon? She’d already been nervous knowing she and Charles were taking his nephew to the park so Dr. McClain and his wife Sharon could have some time alone. She’d seen the two together, still very affectionate after several years’ marriage. She and Charles were baby-sitting Martin so his parents could…

She shut the heater’s blower off completely. When had it started behaving so erratically? This car used to take forever to warm up.

She looked up at the house. The outside Christmas lights were on. The day was overcast, but the lights were cheerful. Clicking on the radio, she hoped for a song that hadn’t been ruined for her by Jim Bob’s jukebox.

“Blow the horn,” Tully suggested helpfully.

“No thanks. They’ll be out in a minute.”

“You want me to go knock on the door?”

“We’ll wait a minute.”

But Tully had already scrambled out the door and was sprinting to the house.

“He never listens.” Justine crossed her legs demurely and began to chew her fingernails.

“Don’t do that.”

“Debbie chews hers all the time. You don’t yell at her.”

“I wasn’t yelling at you. I just said don’t do that. I say the same thing to Debbie.”

“Well, you’re not our mom. We don’t have to do what you say.”

Dorothy sighed. “When you’re with me, I’m in charge. You do have to do what I say. If I need to remind you of that again, Justine, you’ll regret it. Understand?”

Justine crossed her arms over her skinny chest and looked at the house. Dorothy followed her gaze—the three guys were headed toward the car. Tully had Martin’s red-mittened hand in his, and both of them were laughing. Martin was practically running to keep up with the ten year old’s stride. Charles followed along, shaking his head and smiling.

Thank goodness for the park. All three kids piled out of the car as soon as she shut off the engine. The boys headed for the sand pile first thing, of course. Tully had brought some little cars and trucks with him, and he and Martin delighted in making roads for the cars to run and crash on. Justine saw a friend and they went to the swings, to twirl around and probably gossip about classmates. It was chilly, but the air was still—quite pleasant for this time of year.

Dorothy and Charles sat on a picnic table with their feet on the benches.

“Christmas is just a week away.”

“So I hear.” She smiled at him when he took her hand and removed the dark pink mitten, stuffing it into the pocket of his jacket. They linked fingers and she scooted closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. This was getting to be a habit, and very comfortable. She hated to think about what would happen after Christmas, when it was time for Charles to leave.

“I’ve been invited to a holiday open house tomorrow afternoon. I know it’s short notice, but would you like to go with me?”

“Oh!” She’d rather spend time just with him, but would take what she could get, like today. “Where’s the open house?”

“At the Finleys’. Silas and… I’m not sure of his wife’s name.”

“Clara.”

“Okay. Silas and Clara Finley’s house. It’s the big white one—”

“Mmmhmm.” She looked at his hand, rubbed her palm back and forth on his, and felt the tingle that always resulted from touching him. “Beautiful house. I was there once, for some kind of an event. Elementary choir, and we sang for…maybe a garden club. I was very impressed.”

“Haven’t been in it before, but it’s a big place, isn’t it? So you’ll go with me?”

“Yes. I’d like to.” She refused to slip and say things like “I’d love to” because she didn’t want to let anything show on her face.

Like the fact that she’d love to go nearly anywhere with Charles McClain, because she loved him. It had crept up on her these last few weeks, and scared her to death. He’d be leaving soon, and leaving her far behind. It would take years before she could finish school and save enough money to move to California, and she had no idea if he was seriously interested in her. He was old enough, he’d want to settle down right away.

It was tempting to think of settling down with this big, sweet, handsome man who could make her angry and make her laugh all at the same time. But first she had to graduate, and get her career started. Even if he were interested in her now, how patient would he be about that? As much as she considered herself somewhat of a feminist, she wasn’t sure how to bring up the topic, or if she should. It might turn out very badly—the memory of being turned down might be worse than just letting him leave.

Chapter Six

 

 

Sunday blew in cold and grey. The weather forecasters warned of snow showers and up to four inches of accumulation. Dorothy blamed the weather for her dark mood. She sat with Charles in church, or rather, he sat next to her in the row with her family, helping keep the kids quiet just by his presence. It was so nice to have him hanging around with her brothers part of the time. They could use another good male influence, and Charles was certainly that. He was the same with everyone, never talking down to someone who was younger, or not as well off financially. Good thing they’d finally got that “banker” issue dealt with, or she’d have missed the opportunity to get to know him…to fall in love with him…and eventually, to lose him when he went away again.

After church they separated, Charles squeezing her hand as he left her at the family station wagon.

“See you soon.” There was something different about him since he invited her to attend this event. She felt as if she were already losing him, and didn’t know how to stop it.

At the Robbins house half an hour later, Dorothy drove her sister Debbie out of their room and shut the door so she and Jeannie could work.

“Help me! I’m a basket case!”

Jeannie frowned and took Dorothy by the shoulders. “Lord have mercy, what’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know. I’m afraid I’m losing him.”

“Honey, relax. I’ve seen the way he looks at you. Even in church, if you don’t mind me saying, it’s pretty obvious he’s fallen for you. You’re okay, Dorothy. Calm down. Breathe.”

“I’m trying to breathe, but I think I’m hyperventilating. Is this what hyperventilating looks like?”

“You’re the science genius, my friend. Now quit dramatizing and let’s get to work.”

Dorothy sat on her bed, drawing her legs under her. “I love when you beat me up. It really helps me focus.”

Jeannie made a face and slid open Dorothy’s side of the closet, then began to rifle through her clothes. “You’re welcome. I think you should wear your hair up for this, don’t you?”

“I guess. I want to look older.”

“I can paint wrinkles on your forehead. You know what a great job I do on makeup at Halloween time.”

“Yeah, thanks. Maybe I’ll just stick with the updo.”

“If you think it’s sufficient.” She sighed and turned back to Dorothy. “There’s nothing in here nice enough to wear to Mr. and Mrs. Finley’s house. They’re upscale.”

“Like I don’t know that? But he only asked me yesterday. I didn’t have time to go anywhere and shop. And even if I had… Good grief. I feel out of my league.”

“It’ll be okay,” Jeannie said, looking less sure than she tried to sound. She turned back to the closet and started at the opposite end, pulling out each item as she went this time.

A soft knock sounded on the bedroom door, and Dorothy’s mother stepped into the room. “Honey, have you decided what you’d like to wear this afternoon?”

“Oh Mom, I don’t have anything good enough.”

Her mother frowned dreadfully. “That’s the last time I ever want to hear you say that, Dorothy Francine. That’s awfully close to saying you are not good enough, and we all know better than that.” She took a deep breath. “Now. I brought you something you might be interested in. If you don’t like it, that’s all right. You won’t hurt my feelings.” She held out a turquoise dress of velvet, A-line with velvet-covered buttons from V neckline to hem, and satin lapels in a darker shade of turquoise.

“Oh, Mom! Oh my gosh, this is beautiful! Is it yours?”

She nodded. “From eons ago. I made it when your dad and I were first married.” She smiled. “After you came along, I never quite squeezed into it again, but couldn’t bear to part with it either. I got it out last night and gave it a good freshening. Try it on if you like.”

It took Dorothy just a moment to shed her church dress and slide the beautiful turquoise on. It felt exquisite. She turned to the mirror and, sure enough, it fit perfectly.

“Wow, Dorothy. You look like a million bucks.” Jeannie ran her hand down Dorothy’s forearm to feel the plush velvet. “Of course, everybody else will be wearing red and green.”

“Jeannie, do you want to be like everybody else? I sure don’t.” She turned and gave her mother a big hug. “Thanks, Mom! You’re a life saver!”

Her mother squeezed her back and then sat on the bed. “Yes, I’ve been in that business for twenty-two years. Now, what about your hair?”

****

Charles remembered the feeling he’d had when playing a pick-up game of basketball a couple of months ago in the neighborhood gym back in L.A., and some huge guy elbowed him away from the basket and onto the floor. The breath knocked out of him, Charles could do nothing at the time but lie there and stare.

This was a lot like that, except Dorothy Robbins had knocked the breath out of him when she took off the long dark coat and handed it to Silas Finley in his front entryway. Wow. She looked like the movie star he’d teased her about at the dance a few weeks ago. He’d never seen a dress quite like it before—it was so perfect in every way, it could have been made for her. The color was unexpected, the fit…

Yeah, the fit was really good. Her hair was swept up in some kind of fancy ‘do and she had tiny sparkling stones in her delectable earlobes. She smelled like vanilla and brown sugar, and made him hungry as a Smoky Mountain black bear.

He finally found his voice as they were ushered into the dining room for the buffet. “You look fantastic, Dorothy. You’re doing things to me. Not fair, because I have to be on my best behavior.”

She giggled, a sound he’d seldom heard from her. “I’m so sorry. Should I put the coat back on?”

“Ha. Try it. I don’t think I’m the only man here who would cry.”

She laughed out loud then, and kissed him lightly on the jaw. He was surprised at the show of affection here because she’d seemed so nervous in the car.

“You’re feeling okay? I know this is a different scene for us, but we’ll be all right.”

“I’m fine. Silas and Clara are such wonderful hosts. And there’s something about this house—as soon as I stepped inside, I felt completely at home.”

He cleared his throat. “I kind of meant to let this be a surprise, I guess because I’m not sure how to tell you, or what your reaction is going to be, but—”

“Charles! Dorothy! Bring your plates into the living room so we can make the announcement.”

Dorothy followed Silas but looked back at Charles. He shrugged. It was too late now to whisper the news to her. He was back to Plan A of letting it be a surprise, and wondering what her reaction would be.

They crowded into the large living room, which was nearly overflowing with cheerful bank employees and an eight foot blue spruce strewn with tiny pale blue lights, silver garland, crystal ornaments, and topped with a lighted crystal star. The announcement went well, and was met with enthusiastic, if unsurprised reaction from all the people of Legend Bank & Trust.

Dorothy Robbins was the only one who didn’t congratulate him on his new job as assistant vice president, as of January first. She smiled and made small talk with the Finleys and, it seemed, everybody else. But she didn’t say much to Charles. People drifted into other rooms then, chatting in smaller groups and revisiting the beautiful buffet. Charles took Dorothy’s plate to the kitchen when she’d finished, and returned to her side with a glass of red wine for each of them.

“Dorothy, dear, have you seen the house?”

Clara Finley, a tiny white-haired lady in a brilliant red silk pantsuit, smiled up at both of them.

“No, not really. I’d love to, though. I’ve always admired it.”

“You sang here for my garden club many years ago. Do you recall?”

“Oh! Yes, I do. I’m surprised you remember, though.”

“How could I forget? My, you were so outstanding in the group. A pretty voice, of course, but you always had a way about you. Something different. I knew even then that you would do something special with your life. That you’d be someone Legend could be proud of.”

Dorothy smiled and blushed.

Clara took her free hand and led her out of the living room and through the dining room, then the kitchen. Charles followed, not because he’d been invited, but because he wanted to hear what other unexpected things Clara Finley might say.

They went up the back stairs and looked at the beautiful bedrooms and baths, then came down the front stairway which was festively decorated with fresh evergreen garland, tiny blue lights, and tied with a fat silver bow at the newel post. Then they toured the rest of the main level—Silas’ home office, the family room, Clara’s sewing and sitting rooms. They peeked out at the back screen porch that led into the sweeping back yard with its towering trees. Then they walked to the end of the hall, and Clara led them through the double walnut pocket doors.

“This, my dears, is my pride and joy.” The library was amazing. Floor to ceiling shelves all around the large room were filled with beautiful volumes, and occasional what-nots of brass or stone. Dark brown leather couches and chairs were set in conversation groups, and the window seat in the large front window had a gold velvet cushion. A garland similar to the one on the staircase lay on the fireplace mantel, and crystal candlestick holders held pale blue candles which reflected in the square beveled mirror affixed to the chimney. Another spruce tree, decorated like the one in the living room, sat in the far corner, and underneath were strewn more than a dozen Christmas themed books. Charles easily made out the titles of A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi.

“Wow.” He and Dorothy said it in unison, slowly scanning the room. After a moment their gazes met.

“I’ll leave you two alone, shall I?” Clara’s eyes absolutely twinkled. She walked soundlessly across the thick forest green carpet and slid the pocket doors closed.

“Charles McClain, we need to talk.”

Uh-oh. That didn’t sound good.

Chapter Seven

 

 

Charles walked over to the large fireplace and leaned against the mantel. “Shall I light a fire for us?”

“Too late for that.” He’d lit the fire for her weeks ago—the night he first teased her about being old enough to work in the bar. Uncertain of how to begin the conversation, she sat on the edge of a couch and cleared her throat.

“So. You’re giving Legend a second chance.”

He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his dark suit pants, and shrugged. “Looks that way. Or maybe Legend is giving me a second chance. I didn’t exactly go looking for it. My brother Dan set me up.”

“That was a good thing, though, I guess.”

“Yeah. I used to hate when family interfered. But this feels right, Dorothy. Finley is a great guy. He’s got a big heart—for a banker.” He gave her a crooked grin.

She thought back to old Mr. Finley doing the cake walk to help raise money so the Robbins family didn’t lose their home.

“Mr. Finley is a sweetheart. He should be good to work for.” She crossed a leg and leaned her elbow on the thick arm of the couch, smoothing her upswept hair. “I admit not all bankers are heartless. Even you seem to have some redeeming qualities.”

He came over and sat next to her, brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her face and tucked it behind her ear. “That’s about all the encouragement I need.”

“You took a job in Legend.” She shook her head, trying to get the idea settled down in there.

“Not sure if I took it, or if it took me. But we seem to have each other. I imagine I’ll be working there till I retire. A very, very long time from now. I’ll be able to help Legend folk. I will always remember what happened to your family, and be sure that when people come in for a loan, everything is explained to them in such minute detail, they think I’m a moron.”

“You’d look like a moron for me?”

“Absolutely. For you, and for my friends and neighbors.”

“Huh. Well, that’s awfully decent of you. I can’t get over it—you’re staying in Legend. So… I’ll see you sometimes.”

“Sure will, until you head back to school in the summer. If you work at it, you should be able to get four classes out of the way in a couple of summer sessions.”

“But I don’t have the money for school yet.”

“You have part of it.”

“Yes.”

“And I have the rest. Or I’ll have saved it up by then.”

“I am not taking money from you, Charles McClain.”

“I’m not giving it to you. I’m going to send it to the school in your name. So there. Get over your confounded contrary independent streak. Let somebody help you once in a while, Dorothy. I’m betting you were raised better than that.”

“You don’t know anything about how I was raised.”

“You were raised to be a good person and care about others. It goes both ways. Let others care about you once in a while. Make sense?”

She shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Well. However you manage it, you will finish college. I believe that. Then—leave Legend forever? Is that the plan?”

“You’re kidding, right? I can’t wait to leave! Once I get out and get my career started, this town won’t see me again!” It sounded hollow to her, though. After all the times she’d said it, and meant every syllable, suddenly it didn’t ring true.

“You don’t mean that,” Charles said. “What about your family?”

She shifted in the soft seat, uncomfortable. “I’ll visit them, of course.”

“And you have friends here, surely.”

“One best friend, Jeannie.”

“Nobody else in Legend you care about?”

She thought about the preacher and his wife. They’d been so good when things were rough for the Robbins family. She’d probably want to keep in touch with them. And there were several families in the church, and yes, from school days. Kids she had grown up with, who had siblings her siblings were growing up with. So many connections. And now Charles McClain. How could she leave Legend if he was staying? A month ago such a possibility wouldn’t have occurred to her.

“I… I’ve always planned to leave. Remember? I’ve always planned to leave.”

Charles took her hand, held it in both of his. “Ever think of getting a pharmacy job in Legend?”

“No! Legend?”

“The town does have a couple of drug stores, you know.”

“Yes, and pharmacists to staff them.”

“Everybody needs a day off once in a while.”

“That’s not very steady work though, is it?”

“Hm. I dunno. If you worked a day off for each of them, and maybe a couple days in city pharmacies, that would be a decent living, I think. Am I wrong on that?”

“Oh, well, probably not. But there’s no telling if…”

“No. But it would be worth asking about, wouldn’t it? Maybe even talk to them now, and let them know when you expect to graduate. Why not work some during the day there instead of always working at the saloon?”

“I thought about it before, but got nervous about asking. I haven’t told many people what I want to do. And I figured the saloon would be better money than clerking at a drug store.” She folded her hands and looked at them, shaking her head. “But really, a lot of times it’s not so good.” Not to mention smelling like beer and fried food every night. “It being Legend and all, they probably won’t consider hiring a woman pharmacist.”

“That doesn’t sound like you, Dorothy. You’re putting up your own roadblocks.”

She sat up straighter. “I suppose you’re right. I could ask. It wouldn’t hurt just to ask, especially about a part-time job now.”

“No. It wouldn’t hurt at all. You might be surprised what happens when you give Legend a chance instead of assuming it has nothing to offer.” He kissed her gently, and she melted into his arms. “Please don’t assume there’s nothing for you in Legend, because I’m here to tell you at least one person will be very sorry if you go away forever.”

The pocket door slid open loudly and a few of the bank people, laughing, apologized for intruding.

“We just wanted to look at the library,” said one of them. “Clara said she’d redone part of it. Sorry—”

“Hey, no problem.” Charles got up and pulled Dorothy gently with him. “We were just getting ready to leave anyway. Have to get Cinderella home before midnight, you know.”

A husband of one of the tellers said, “Good luck with that, Charles. You’ve only got,” he consulted his watch, “six and a half hours left.” He laughed and patted Charles on the shoulder, and smiled at Dorothy. “Keep an eye on him, Cinderella. You know how these princes are. Sometimes they turn out to be toads.”

They went back down the hallway and found Silas and Clara, seated in matching upholstered royal blue high back chairs, in the midst of another group of guests. The Finleys looked like the king and queen of something—it was adorable.

“Excuse us, Mr. and Mrs. Finley. We’re just ready to leave, and wanted to thank you for your hospitality.”

“Oh—please don’t get up!” Dorothy protested when they did just that.

“Nonsense. Be right back, all.” Silas Finley put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and walked with the younger couple to the entryway, where he retrieved their coats from the large closet.

“Thank you so much for inviting me—us. It was a lovely party, especially the house tour!” Dorothy said, sliding into her coat.

“You’re very welcome, my dear.” Clara smiled and patted her hand. “I’m so glad you appreciate it. The house is a bit out of place here in Legend. When we sell and move to Florida in a few years, I’m not sure what will become of it.”

“Move?” Charles looked alarmed.

“That’s right, son,” said Silas. “I know everybody thinks I’m older than dirt, but my plan is to actually retire at age seventy-five. That’s four years away. Clara and I are looking at property along a canal in south Florida. It’s been our dream for decades. We’ll have a little boat dock, and the kids and grandkids and great-grandkids will make us their southern vacation destination.” He smiled. “We’ve raised our family here. This big old house has served us well.” He patted the door frame. “She’ll be somebody else’s dream home before long.”

Goosebumps popped up on Dorothy’s arms. This house would be for sale in just a few years. This wonderful, beautiful house with the big lawns and bedrooms and marvelous library. She glanced at Charles but he was just smiling and saying something chatty to Mr. Finley.

“Good night then.” Their host opened the door.

“Oh! Wait!” Clara stopped them before they stepped outside. “The mistletoe. I forgot all about the mistletoe earlier! You must kiss her, Charles.” When he pulled a silly face, she persisted. “Mistletoe is magical, you know. Especially when you step under it without intending to. Now kiss her, and something wonderful is sure to happen.” Her elfin face beamed as she made the pronouncement.

Dorothy giggled as Charles made a great show of being disappointed at having to kiss her. But when he pulled her gently into his arms, lowered his head, and touched his lips to hers, she heard it. The sound was faint, but clear and sweet. She heard music!

After a long, lovely kiss she opened her eyes and they moved apart. No one else seemed to have noticed anything unusual. The Finleys smiled and said good night, and Charles and Dorothy, holding hands, dashed into the flurry of snow that had begun while they were indoors.

Chapter Eight

 

 

“I did it.” Dorothy hurried up to Charles, who was standing at the edge of Lake Legend, throwing dry bread crumbs to the noisy ducks paddling around.

He gave her a quick, sweet kiss of greeting. “What’s that?”

“I marched myself into Main Street Pharmacy and spoke to Mr. Baker about a job. Actually, I told him I’m working toward my R.Ph and that I’d be interested in volunteering. He said if I wanted, I can work as a pharmacy tech a couple of mornings a week. Depending on how it goes, he might be able to hire me, at least temporarily, because his tech is expecting a baby in late January. He seemed excited about the fact that I’m going into pharmacy. Asked me why I hadn’t let him know sooner. He even said, if he can’t hire me, I should try over at Legend Drugstore because they might. I’m so excited, and I have you to thank! I’d been afraid to try it.”

“If you’re serious about thanking me, you can do it in several ways. Should I enumerate them, or would you like to guess?”

She swatted his arm. “Come on, be a little bit serious!”

“Miss Robbins, I am entirely serious. Okay, if you don’t want to guess, I’ll tell you how to repay me.”

“Fine. I’m listening.” She walked over to a picnic table and sat on the top, Charles following her. Dorothy enjoyed his silly teasing, so decided to let him go at it.

“It’s simple, really. Finish college, starting this summer.”

“I told you, I don’t have enough money saved yet.”

“And I told you, I’ve got it covered, or will have by then. The money will be taken care of. All you have to do is work your tail off to get through four summer classes, and finish up by next spring.”

Dorothy wasn’t afraid of hard work. Never had been.

“But that’s a lot of money. What do you expect in return?”

“Nothing. Not for the money. I want you to finish college because you have the desire and the ability. You need to be able to look back and say you did this amazing thing. First in your family to finish college.” He hesitated, slid his gaze from the lake and met her eyes. “There is just one tiny matter.”

She shook her head, bracing herself for the teasing. “I figured. What is it?”

“You’re going to need to marry me.”

Her heartbeat sped up. “That’s a crazy thing to say. I need to marry you?”

“Yes. You have to put me out of the misery I’ve been in ever since I first saw you in Jim Bob’s Saloon.”

“What kind of misery is that?”

“Wondering what it would be like to make love to you. To spend the whole night touching you and tasting you, and loving you—and waking up next to you in the morning just to start all over again.”

Her breath caught. “You wondered that the first time you saw me?”

“Yeah. For a banker I have an active imagination.”

“So you’re going to marry me and send me away to college.”

“That was my first plan. But then I realized it’s probably better to do it the other way around. Send you to college and then marry you. That way I get all of your attention and don’t have tough competition—like chemistry books. You start back in the summer, and by this time next year you’ll only have one semester left. Right?”

She was stunned. “Uh huh.”

“And when I come to your graduation I’ll bring the engagement ring.” He linked his fingers with hers. “You’ve got til then to decide if you want to marry me. You’ll know me lots better by then. Lots better.”

“And if I say no?”

“Big mistake, I’m here to tell you. There are dozens of girls in this town who’d stand in line for a chance to marry me. Well…maybe not dozens. But possibly several. If you say no, it will be the biggest mistake of your life. I’ll be working on you between now and then to make sure your answer is yes.”

“And if it is?”

“We get married as soon as possible. Leave the graduation exercises, drive to a bridal shop, you get a dress, and we set a date with the pastor. That’s when even more fun begins.”

“The non-stop lovemaking?”

“Not non-stop. I’m only human.”

“Hm. Sounds like both of us will be exhausted.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be good training for when the kids start coming along. Chasing kids takes a lot of energy.”

“Kids? I already have kids—my brothers and sisters.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll wait a while. You finish school and get settled in your career, and then we can start having kids.”

“And then I’ll quit working, right?”

“If you want. Or our moms might want to help out. Plus my brother Dan’s wife stays home with little Martin, and she’s expecting again—but it’s a secret right now,” he whispered. “She might babysit. No reason the cousins shouldn’t spend a lot of time together. Don’t you think it can work? Because I really do. I can picture it right now.”

“And what does it look like?”

Charles threw out the last of the bread crumbs, and the ducks waddled over to the picnic table. “Looks like us in a big white colonial house outside town—I think you know the one.”

She sighed. “I love that house.”

“I know you do.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “By the time the Finleys are ready to move, we’ll have money saved up for a big down payment.”

“The library! Oh, Charles, it’s so pretty! Won’t it be wonderful to have our own library?”

“Sure thing. Absolutely. Uh, Dorothy, do you realize what just happened?”

“You sucked me into your dream?”

“Well, yes. But you also called me by just my first name. Wonder if you’re going to keep doing that.”

“Hm. Maybe. It’s not a bad name even by itself. I suppose I could get used to that. If I get that library.”

He smiled. “So you’re giving serious consideration to my offer.”

“Well… It’s kind of intimidating to think of marrying into the McClain clan of Legend, Tennessee. There’s no turning back once you’re a McClain.”

“Absolutely no turning back. But I don’t think you’ll want to. I think we’ll be happy, us and the four kids.”

“Four? Only four?” She put her arm through his and snuggled closer.

“Well, to start out.”

“And every year at Christmas time we’ll have everybody over—your family and mine.”

“Going to have to add onto the house for that.”

“Okay, you’re right. Maybe two separate nights. And there’ll be mistletoe hanging above the front door, so everybody who comes in will be sure to get a big hug and kiss. No better way to start a family get-together.”

He chuckled. “You hang anything you want over the door, Dorothy. I’ll be kissing you three hundred and sixty-five days a year from now on, unless you figure out a way to make me stop.”

She leaned into him. “Well, I haven’t figured it out yet, so I guess really, the fact that there’s mistletoe growing in the tree branch above us is beside the point.”

He glanced up. “Yeah. It’s beside the point. But since it’s Christmas Eve… I guess we ought to do right by tradition.”

Which was the last thing Charles McClain said for quite a long while.

 

 

THE END

or is it The Beginning?

The Holly and the Ivy

Copyright Magdalena Scott

The McClains of Legend, Tennessee – Book 7

 

The Blurb:

 

Christmas season, 1978

 

Jeannie Adams has a pain in her neck, and its name is Eli McClain. The school board is honoring him at a big community dinner, and Eli has done nothing to deserve all the fanfare. Nothing, that is, except leave their hometown of Legend, Tennessee right after high school, and become a nationally known singer. Why make a big deal over somebody who walked out on everything that’s important?

For Eli, Christmas in Legend is a way to placate the family he left years ago, and impress the very impressionable people of Legend. As far as they’ll know, Eli has everything. But at twenty-five years old, he’s feeling burned out with fame and fortune, and doesn’t understand why life is so hollow.

All through school, Eli and Jeannie were the bane of each other’s existence. Yet the fleeting kiss he left her with right after graduation has never quite faded for either of them. Like a lost pair of warm winter gloves, their happiness will be in the last place they look for it. Back home in Legend.

And just in time for Christmas.

 

Chapter One

 

Christmas Season, 1978

 

“Sour grapes. I know that’s what you’re thinking—I can see it in your eyes.” Jeannie Adams shoved a dress hanger along the clothing rack in the big Knoxville dress shop. “You think I’m being silly about this, but you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care what anybody thinks! The whole thing is just plain wrong.”

Dorothy McClain smiled. “You’ve never cared what anybody thought, Jeannie. Why would you start now?” She picked up a hanger and held an emerald green dress at arm’s length, shook her head at the tiny waistline, and replaced it onto the rack. “Why go to the dinner at all? Or if you go, just wear whatever you want. Jeans and a sweatshirt. Not like you’re trying to impress anybody.”

Jeannie slid a look at her friend and let out a quick breath. “You’re trying to bait me. Stop that. I thought you’d be on my side.”

“I don’t understand why there are still sides at all, after so many years. Eli comes to town, everybody makes a big deal about him, he leaves. So what?”

“So what?!? So everything. You graduated summa cum laude, for gosh sakes! And I was second in the class. Eli was only third. He had that rotten grade in chemistry.” She smiled, remembering how good it had felt to razz him about the bad chem grade. She hadn’t missed a single opportunity during senior year.

“This isn’t about grade point average, Jeannie. It’s about—”

“It’s about power. Plain and simple. The McClains—”

“Whoops. Don’t go there. Remember, I’m one of the McClains.”

“No you’re not. You only married into the clan. That doesn’t count. You’re still a normal person, basically.”

Dorothy laughed. “Gee. Thanks for that.”

“You know what I mean. Eli had everything he ever wanted, growing up. Now he’s rich and famous. So the school board is making a big deal of him; he’ll come to town and lord it over everybody and disappear again. The school board makes some money off the meals because the whole population feels like they have to go to this stupid thing. Everybody buys new dresses and shoes, pays an outrageous price for a ticket to the catered dinner, and has to listen to Eli give a speech.” She cringed. “He never was that good in speech class.”

“Jeannie.” Dorothy turned to her friend and gently held her arms. “You need to put high school into the past. We’ve been out since seventy-one. A lot has changed.”

“Some things have changed. You’re married and have a good job. You contribute to the community. A lot of us are just doing our own little part in keeping Legend alive, as well as we can. It stinks to invite somebody from outside for this honor dinner. We ought to be honoring you. Eli is a singer, of all things. So what.”

Dorothy patted her pregnant tummy. “Honestly, I couldn’t care less about being honored. I’ve got enough going on as it is. Life is good.”

Sometimes when Dorothy said things like that, Jeannie got irritated with her best friend. Sure, she was married and crazy in love with her husband Charles. But it had been a rude awakening for her to find out early in their marriage that Charles had a son in Southern California. He had fathered the child with a girl he loved; she hadn’t told him she was pregnant and just disappeared from his life. After she died in a car wreck, her parents contacted Charles, and he had immediately done the right thing—brought baby Joe to Legend, gave him the McClain name, and Dorothy had become his adoptive mother. From the way she treated him, you’d have thought she was his natural mother. It really was beautiful. Joe was six now, and David a year old. Charles and Dorothy were expecting their third child, and Dorothy never once complained about morning sickness, fatigue, balancing her job as a pharmacist with home life—any of it. Sometimes it was tiring to have Mrs. Perfect as your best friend.

What Jeannie didn’t say, of course, was that nothing had changed for her. She had never left Legend. Her mom had been ill, and Jeannie had been willing to stay close to home and help her dad and siblings instead of heading off to college like most of her friends. When Mom improved, Jeannie had time but not inclination to go to a college campus on her own. Instead she entered the family business. She’d taken some grief about it at first, but before long people realized she was good at what she did and cared about her customers. Now that so much time had passed, her excitement about the future was gone—completely. She was doomed to live in Legend, Tennessee for the rest of her life. Looked like she might do it as an old maid, too. But Eli McClain, that jerk, had left everything and everybody behind in his rush to make his mark on the world. And all of Legend would turn out to congratulate him for it. It was just not fair.

The fact that all this was happening right at Christmastime somehow made it even worse. The department store’s loudspeakers were playing Christmas songs, everything here in the city, and everything in Legend, was decorated to the nth degree for the holidays. Jeannie loved Christmas, but Eli’s coming to town was going to ruin it for her. Figures. Eli always ruined everything.

****

Eli McClain drove his expensive sports car around a curve in the crazy mountain road and saw it. Legend, Tennessee spread out below him like a perfect diorama. He pulled onto the wide gravel overlook he’d frequented as a kid when he had a date with a pretty girl. The cold December temperature didn’t keep him from rolling down the window glass and getting a first breath of clean, crisp mountain air. God, the pine smell was almost intoxicating!

Inhaling deeply, eyes closed, Eli went back a few years to the day he left Legend. His mom and dad had been giving him a rough time for saying he’d never return, but Eli hadn’t cared. He hadn’t cared about much of anything or anyone. It was his future that concerned him. Legend was his past, and best forgotten. He’d done a good job of that, too. College had been okay, but he’d chucked it after a couple of years. A summertime job in a Nashville recording studio doing back-up vocals got him noticed by the right people, and he was on his way. His McClain charm and self-assurance had garnered some important contacts, and before long he was on a fast track to fame.

Since leaving Legend, Eli had made the most of what he had. Take no prisoners was his personal mantra, and it had served him well. To the tune of a very nice bank account, features in national magazines, and important friends pretty much everywhere. Not to mention a long line of beautiful brokenhearted women.

It was no surprise that the school board in Legend had chosen him as this year’s distinguished alumni. He was distinguished. But it had taken him a while to decide whether or not to make the trip to accept the honor. After being gone all these years, he hated to ruin a perfect record by returning to the little burg. Finally the school board had told him he could choose the time the event would occur, and he decided to go for it. Set it at Christmastime when Legend was at its most festive. This timing would gain him some brownie points with his family for being home at the holidays. Should help ensure an even bigger crowd for the event, too. No doubt the powers that be had advertised in Knoxville and maybe even Gatlinburg. Wire services might have picked it up as well. The school board would make a ton of money, and Eli would make an unforgettable impression on the extremely impressionable people of his hometown.

His parents were thrilled about the whole thing—Eli’s time in Legend would be full of family. He was the fifth of six kids, but also had innumerable cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most of them still lived in Legend or the surrounding county and were fine, upstanding, if boring, citizens. Eli figured he would have gone crazy if he’d had to stay in Legend. By the time high school graduation rolled around, he was more than ready to cut and run. In fact, he’d had his shined-up, souped-up car packed and ready to leave as soon as the ceremony was finished. He’d signed up for college classes that summer, and had a couple of jobs lined up so he could pay his own way through school. Nothing could slow him down from making a bee-line out of Legend.

Nothing, that is, except Jeannie Adams. She had been a thorn in his side all through school, but senior year was the worst. Of all the things about Legend that Eli was glad to leave behind, Jeannie was the biggest. It was amazing serendipity that just as Eli was rounding a corner on his final walk through a deserted back hall of Legend High after the commencement ceremony, he’d met Jeannie. Startled, she stared at him momentarily, all wide-eyed. Her face was pink because it had been hot in the gym with those stupid graduation gowns on. She was still zipped into the ugly gown and was wearing the ridiculous mortar board, being too much of a ninny to throw it up in celebration like a lot of the kids had done. Black bobby pins secured the mortar board into her auburn hair. Her National Honor Society cowl was a little askew, probably from hugging her nerdy girlfriends, and the sash that showed she was Magna Cum Laude was hanging crooked. Without a moment’s thought, Eli grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a big wet kiss on the mouth. She melted against him for a minute, then started to struggle. Eli released her and strode away. Before he went out the door he called back to her, “See ya, Jeannie Adams. Have a nice life.”

There had been times over the last few years that he’d replayed that scene in his mind. He had heard someone talk about life’s defining moments being those that you can remember vividly even years later. He wondered why that would be one of his defining moments, but it sure seemed to be. Probably because it was the last thing he remembered prior to leaving town. It was definitely not because it involved Jeannie Adams, whom he had dubbed Obnoxo-Brain when she overcame his GPA due to a lousy chemistry grade. Still, Eli couldn’t help wondering if he might run into Jeannie while he was in town. She was probably fat and had a half dozen kids. It would serve her right, after what she’d done to him years ago.

One of his cousins had started teasing him about being hot for Jeannie, and Eli had gone into a tirade about what a crazy idea it was—then spent a sleepless night thinking about her in an entirely different way. Somehow everything he knew about chemistry went out of his brain—except the kind of chemistry between a guy and a girl. He had flunked the test big time and blamed Jeannie for it. Yeah, she’d always been a problem for him. He hoped she had a big wart on her nose along with being fat. Who would have married her, anyway? Eli felt the hairs on his neck rise.

Shaking his head to get the teenage Jeannie out of his mind, Eli started the powerful engine again. It purred just the way it was supposed to. You could depend on cars. As long as you took good care of them, they’d take care of you. Women, though—women were just the opposite. If you took care of them, they’d expect more and more. Eli had successfully kept women happy in the short-term and was careful never to stay around for the long-term. Worked great. Checking his mirrors, he pulled back onto the winding road and headed toward his parents’ house. Might as well get the first wave of hero worship taken care of.

 

Please look for The Holly and the Ivy at your favorite ebook vendor.

Dear Reader,

 

Thank you so much for reading Under the Mistletoe!

 

It was loads of fun to write this prequel and imagine what Legend was like back in 1975. I had fun remembering the songs that played on the jukebox in those days—Convoy played in my head quite a bit while I was writing this novella.

 

The second prequel is The Holly and the Ivy, as you’ve seen. As of this moment, that’s the only other prequel I’ve written.

 

But if you haven’t already read the contemporary stories, I think you’ll especially enjoy Midnight in Legend, TN, which is Book 1 of the series. Midnight Shelby buys a big empty building to turn into a store selling locally made arts and crafts. Have you guessed the history of that building? Yep, it had been Jim Bob’s Saloon back in the day. I don’t know about you, but I’m really glad Legendarians don’t tear down old buildings helter skelter. It would have made Midnight’s story more difficult to write if she hadn’t found the perfect building.

 

And it would have made Chloe and Greg’s story, Building a Dream, quite impossible.

 

As you can see, sometimes Legend seems very real to me.

 

I hope you enjoyed your excursion to the imaginary town of Legend, Tennessee. I feel very blessed to be able to write these stories and share them with you.

 

If you’re inclined, I would so much appreciate a review of this book. A good review is gold for authors, and can be helpful to prospective readers as well.

 

Please visit my website to sign up for my newsletter. That’s the best way to keep up to date with new releases. I send a newsletter monthly-ish, so don’t worry about being flooded with email from me. You can also connect with me on social media, read my blog, and browse my books at my website: www.magdalenascott.com

 

****

Each of my Legend, Tennessee romances has a McClain as either the hero or heroine. The McClain family tree is quite lush with characters.

 

Here is a list of my Legend stories:

 

Legend Contemporary Romance

Midnight in Legend, TN

Christmas Collision

Where Her Heart Is

Building a Dream

Second Chances

 

Legend Prequels

Under the Mistletoe

The Holly and the Ivy

 

I hope you’ll visit Legend again soon. Thank you for reading!

MORE BOOKS BY MAGDALENA SCOTT

 

Serendipity, Indiana series

 

Small Town Christmas

Emily’s Dreams

Christmas Wedding

The Blank Book (2016)

The Road Not Taken (2016)

The Ring (2016)

A Piece of Her Soul (2016)

 

Please sign up for the newsletter to stay up to date on Serendipity and other book releases.

http://www.magdalenascott.com/

ABOUT MAGDALENA SCOTT

 

Magdalena Scott lives in her own fantasy world of Magdalenaville, Indiana, and spends her time writing stories with small town settings.

 

As a lifelong citizen of small town America, Magdalena knows that life in a “burg” is seldom dull—if you’re paying attention. There is mystery, romance, scandal, and the occasional unexplained occurrence.

 

Step into Magdalena’s world and find out what’s hidden just below the surface of those tiny dots you can barely see on the map.

 

Website: http://www.magdalenascott.com/


Under the Mistletoe

USA Today Bestselling Author Magdalena Scott invites you to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of small town life in Legend, Tennessee. Each title in the series, The McClains of Legend, Tennessee features a member of that big, bull-headed McClain family as either the hero or heroine. Each story is sweet romance (also known as wholesome romance). Readers enjoy being able to share the stories with daughter, mothers, and granddaughters. So pop some corn, pour some sweet tea, and settle into your comfy chair for a relaxing read. UNDER THE MISTLETOE (SERIES PREQUEL) Christmas Season, 1975 Dorothy Robbins is working hard to build up her Leaving Legend Fund. She wants to finish college, become a pharmacist, and never see her boring little hometown again. But her source of income is a meager hourly wage and tips at Jim Bob’s Saloon, where the only thing worse than the tips are the songs on the jukebox. Charles McClain has been gone from Legend for years—first serving in Vietnam as a Marine, then finishing college and getting a job in Los Angeles. But his new life hit a snag, and suddenly he has time for a long holiday visit with his family, back in the beautiful mountains of Eastern Tennessee. Too bad there’s nothing interesting going on in Legend. But it’s Christmas... The air is cold, hearts are warm, and mistletoe is overhead when you least expect it. Besides, sometimes the path that leads you away can also bring you home. **This title was previously published by Turquoise Morning Press.**

  • ISBN: 9781311795281
  • Author: Magdalena Scott
  • Published: 2015-10-22 16:05:43
  • Words: 23981
Under the Mistletoe Under the Mistletoe