Slimy, creepy, asshole.
I slammed the packet down on my bed with as much force as a handful of papers could have landing on my fluffy comforter. I grabbed the pillow and screamed into the memory foam until my throat hurt. With a sniff, I dried the cursed tears that fell despite my best efforts to hold them in.
They were ones of frustration and anger. A small voice at the back of my mind tapped annoyingly to remind me that it was so much more than that. Fear stood as a solid force, driving me to cry. Fear I’d let down my sisters. Fear my aunt and uncle’s legacy wouldn’t be fulfilled. And that every bit of that would be because of me.
I squared my shoulders and crossed over to my closet crammed with power suits and business attire that I used to wear daily However, they hadn’t seen the light of day since coming back to Willow Falls.
Green, gray, red, black.
I ran a finger over the crimson suit, considering it for a moment before passing it up. That was a color of strength and power, but I needed to be charming. Demure. I snorted as ‘demure’ was not a word typically used to describe me.
Some of the adjectives used to describe me when I stepped into a new company played through my mind as I considered my wardrobe. I’d heard the muttered curses and epithets meant to be derogatory that I ate up like Wheaties for breakfast.
No one appreciated an outside management consultant coming into their business—especially those who had been there for years or decades—and going through all their records, implementing new strategies, and basically telling them their practices sucked. But I was okay with being the bad guy and typically managed to leave every assignment with at least the respect of the teams I had worked with, occasionally a little admiration too.
I pulled out a light-gray ruched button blazer dress that managed to make my girls look about a cup and a half size bigger than they really were and my waist just a little smaller. A necessary feat with Ryann seemingly hell bent on creating a new calorie-laden confection every day.
I fought the urge to grab the fire engine red heels. Color was such a basic thing, but it conveyed so much tone silently. And Mason Richmond was a stuffy, grumpy old bastard—at least he was in the image in my head—and likely wouldn’t take well to a woman asserting herself, even only with a bold shoe choice.
Instead, I slipped my feet into the soft pink kitten heels I so rarely wore and turned to the full-length mirror. It felt like I’d slipped into another me. Moving back to Willow Falls was a culture shock despite the fact I’d spent so much of my childhood and my last two years of high school here.
Gavynn and Ryann slipped right back into the inn like the home it was, but I wasn’t quite as comfortable with the slower pace. However, Gavynn’s proposal to come back home came right at the perfect time, as my personal life exploded with the revelation my fiancé—no, ex fiancé—had been cheating on me. Even though the man was driving me mad with his repeated requests for more information that delayed our ability to reopen the inn, donning one of my power suits and marching my happy little ass into the county courthouse gave me a small thrill.
Mason Richmond might be my current arch nemesis but inwardly, I was relishing the opportunity to spar with him a little. And putting on the right outfit would go leaps and bounds toward getting him to finally see things my way.
My hand fell on my bare neck as I turned to make sure that my backside looked just as good as my front. Pearls. The sexist old bastard probably loved to see a woman in pearls. I dug through the jewelry box on top of my dresser and pulled out a pair of small stud earrings and a matching necklace.
“So this is the real reason why you pushed me back to Cade? You’re hoping to use my bedroom as a dressing room and overflow closet since you clearly have too much shit to contain it all in this space.” Gavynn stood in my doorway with her shoulder leaning against the frame. She held up her hands, palms out toward me, the platinum band on her left hand catching the light as she did. “Not that I’m complaining, but clearly you weren’t just being an altruistic fairy godmother. Although it clearly backfired since he’s been here more than I’ve been at his place.”
I threw her a smirk that held an air of confidence I certainly wasn’t feeling, but was hoping the drive in would give me time to build up. “That wasn’t my primary goal, but it would be a happy side benefit. Is that your clever little way of telling me you and Cade are moving out?” Popping my brows several times in rapid succession, I turned my expression hopeful, a complete juxtaposition to the fear churning in my gut at the thought.
She was one hundred percent right that I’d lovingly shoved her stubborn ass back to the boy she fell in love with when she was a teenager. Gavynn had mothered Ryann and I—more Ryann than me, admittedly—our entire lives. She’d been a stronger maternal influence than the one who gave birth to us. Having the prince I knew she’d never forgotten be the leading man for her happily ever after was something she deserved.
Even though I wanted to see her happy, I secretly feared the changes certain to come as she and Cade built a life together. Gavynn was like the other half of me. The calmer, more reasonable, and slightly more likable half.
She snorted at my question. “Hell, no. Cade and I both love this place too much. Whenever we make that move, he will come here.” She dipped her chin and pinned me with an intent stare. “But, of course, you know that you and Ry will both be a big part of that decision. We chose to come back to Willow Falls as a team, we chose to reopen the inn as a team and any major life changes will be done as a team.”
I released the breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding and collected my purse and black leather case from my bed. “Hey, I have no idea what you and your knight in shining flannel have in mind. Speaking of, does Mr. Wonderful have any intention of fixing the holes I am pretty damn sure you’ve put in your bedroom wall? Because I’d like to kindly suggest an extra layer of insulation for some soundproofing benefits.”
Gavynn’s creamy skin turned bright red in half a second and she dropped her gaze to the floor briefly. “You’re exaggerating. We aren’t that loud.”
Dipping my chin, I pinned her with a disbelieving stare. “Says the woman who doesn’t share a wall with the happy couple.” I crossed the room and kissed her on the cheek. “But I love you and Cade and I love how good he is for you so I don’t complain. Much.”
I straightened and headed toward the entrance as Gavynn followed. I hiked the strap of my purse a little higher on my shoulder. “Wish me luck as I try to chop down the proverbial beanstalk to keep the giant from destroying our inn.”
She held the front door open as I loaded the passenger’s seat of my vehicle with my stuff. “I don’t think that metaphor hits the way you want it to, but good luck. I know you can do it.”
With a wave, I hopped in my car and pointed it in the direction of town. The serenity that the seclusion of the inn provided was a welcome one… in slightly smaller doses. We’d only been here a few months and I was already getting that restless vibration in my bones. I was craving just a bit more stimulation than a quaint inn located in a wholesome small town could provide.
Even pulling into the small two-story parking garage beside the courthouse gave me a modicum of excitement. I groaned at myself getting my jollies from the sparsely populated town. I barely paid any attention to the political signs dotting the periphery of the brick sidewalk, until I saw a very familiar name.
Mason Richmond for State Representative.
I halted in my tracks and nearly dropped my case along with my jaw. So the asshole making my life a frustrating hell and burying me under mountains of duplicated paperwork was running for office?
The corner of my brain reserved for somewhat more devious use flickered to life. I pulled out my phone and googled his name. The immediate results from the county’s largest newspaper were less than glowing. Mason might not have had a terrible reputation with the public, but he also didn’t seem to have endeared himself either. Based on everything not said in the article and comments below, was clearly seen through a cautionary lens as an outsider.
I took a seat on the bench beneath the large oak tree and scrolled through a few choice pieces. Sadly, none had decent enough pictures to prepare me for the creepy, slimy weasel waiting for me. It was pretty obvious from the handful of articles I skimmed that Mason wasn’t a favorite to win. The incumbent representative had held the seat for two decades and his family had been a staple in northern Maine for damn near a hundred years.
A quick glance at his bio indicated that Mason was from Virginia and I snorted. That fact alone was likely to take votes away. He was more than qualified to hold the position with a law degree from Yale and a private practice in Willow Falls that had been open for seven years before he transitioned into his role as county program manager for the past three. However, based on the tone in every report and the county social media group I’d perused, he just wasn’t liked.
I tapped my phone on my chin and stared at the concrete building before me. A new idea took shape in my far too excited brain and a huge smile spread across my face. Confidence infused my spine as I stood and made my way into the courthouse, through the metal detectors, and down the emerald-green carpeted hallway leading to the door with a placard outside: Mason Richmond, County Program Manager.
I gave the brunette sitting at the desk just inside my name, wracking my brain for hers as it had been too many years since I’d seen that face.
She gave me a thorough once over before smiling. “Blake Alden, it is so good to see you. I heard you girls moved back to take over the inn.” A shadow darkened her brown eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss. Matti was the greatest treasure Willow Falls had.”
Swallowing back a lump of emotions I most certainly didn’t need before doing battle with the giant, I ducked my head. And then promptly glanced at the nameplate on her desk, unable to place her no matter how hard I tried. “Thank you, Nancy. We miss them both desperately, but we are going to get the inn back in business soon.” I offered a sardonic grin I hoped was equal parts charming and discretionary. “That’s why I came to speak with Mr. Richmond.” I lifted a shoulder and ducked my head. “I don’t have an appointment, but I’d really appreciate it if you could give me five minutes with him.”
She gave me a conspiratorial wink before picking up the handset on her phone and pressing one of the intercom buttons. “Blake Alden is here for your meeting.” Replacing it in the cradle, she looked up at me. “He rarely pays attention to his schedule, so he’ll never know. Go on in. And don’t let him get to you. Mason’s bark is worse than his bite. Er, Mr. Richmond.” She rolled her eyes as she corrected herself.
My new plan firmly at the forefront of my mind, I dipped my chin in silent thanks and crossed to this thick oak door, pausing with my hand on the knob just long enough to take a deep breath before pushing it open. I nearly stumbled as I entered, taken aback by the tall, dark-haired man standing beside the desk running a hand over his stubbled jawline.
He wore a light blue button-down shirt tucked into tailored slacks that accentuated a lower torso no man had the right to possess. The sleeves rolled up on each forearm revealed muscles that were further hinted at as the material hugged his biceps.
“I’m sorry, I thought Mr. Richmond would be waiting for me.” Words spilled from my mouth of their own accord as the man narrowed his sapphire eyes at me. “I have a meeting scheduled with him to discuss my inn.” I barely stopped myself from speaking before I offered to come back at another time if they were busy. There wasn’t a chance in hell of that happening.
He closed the distance between us with swaggered steps oozing arrogance that was far too enticing and held out his right hand when he was close enough. “Good afternoon Ms. Alden, I’m Mason Richmond.”
I shook the proffered appendage in a stupor I hoped I covered with the bright smile I summoned out of sheer stubbornness. I’d prepared myself for a balding, middle-aged man who’d openly ogle my legs and could be sweet talked into finally granting our licenses and even allowing me to take a stab at his election campaign. The all-too-brief internet searched hadn’t yielded an image clear enough or recent enough to prepare me for the fine specimen that was my cursed reality.
With a level of acting I was certain was worthy of an award nomination, I affected my own level of excessive confidence I’d possessed just moments prior that now had evaporated. “Good afternoon, Mr. Richmond.” I offered him a Cheshire cat smile and told my long neglected libido to ignore the small dimple that appeared on his cheek as he grinned in return. “I came to review the Willow Falls Inn reopening with you. And hopefully more.”