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Authors: carol Rose

Always

BOOK: Always
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Always

 

By

 

Carol Rose

 

 

 

 

Copyright Carol Rose 2011

 

 

Published at Smashwords

 

 

Cover image courtesy of Daniel Sroga & Dreamstime.com

Cover by Joleene Naylor

 

This ebook is for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be sold or given away. If you would like to recommend this book, please show that person how to purchase their own copy from smashwords. Thank you for respecting the hard work the Author has put in.

 

~~~********~~~

 

To Alison Hart, my mentor

To Sylvia, Shelley, Kathy, and Lesa, my comrades in the trenches

To Dwight and Craig, who supported me with all their considerable resources,

To Roger, my love

~~~********~~~

 

One

 

All the rough spots in Elinor Prescott's life could be traced back to the same source: money. And here she stood, face-to-face with it.

Across the street, the pale, gleaming limousine sat arrogantly ensconced in the No Parking zone in front of town hall. A highly polished symbol of conspicuous consumption that stood out in the small town of Bayville, Louisiana, like a diamond amidst pebbles.

Elinor felt her hackles rise. No doubt about it, Cole Whittier had come back home with a splash.

She punched the crossing button on the utility pole again, willing the signal light to change. Everything seemed to be conspiring against her today. Even the early-afternoon air held an unusual winter bite, tugging at her skirt and slicing through her sweater. If that darned light didn't change soon, she'd be late for the council meeting.

She didn't even know the man, but she wasn't happy with Cole Whittier. Because of him, the grapevine had buzzed all morning, the phone interrupting her work repeatedly. Clients called on the slim pretext of checking their tax records from 1990, and friends called on no pretext at all.

The light changed, and Elinor hoisted her bulky briefcase, stalking across the intersection.

"Mornin', Miss Elinor!" An elderly lady waited on the other curb, her wrinkled face bright with excitement. "You goin' to the council meeting?"

Elinor sighed to herself. The last thing she wanted to hear was more speculation about Millionaire Whittier. But she didn't have the heart to snap at Mrs. Thibadeaux.

"Yes, ma'am," Elinor responded. "I am."

"I hear that sweet boy, Cole Whittier, is in town." The elderly woman sighed gustily. "He always was such a gentleman."

"So I hear." Elinor smiled, shifting her briefcase to her other hand.

Mrs. Thibadeaux leaned forward conspiratorially. "They say he has lots and lots of money these days," she said in lowered tones. "Did you see that beautiful car?"

A sudden gust of wind sliced through Elinor's sweater. "Yes, ma'am, I did," she said, shivering as she glanced in the direction of Mrs. Thibadeaux's nod.

The older woman clutched her coat tighter. "My, my, that wind's terrible. You should be gettin' inside, honey. I'm sure the meetin' will be starting anytime."

"I know," Elinor said, a hint of irony in her voice as she waved good-bye and turned to walk swiftly to the town hall.

The whole town was buzzing with the news. Hometown boy Cole Whittier was back, and he'd come back a millionaire. The gossips seemed to forget that Elinor hadn't lived in Bayville when Cole Whittier had gone off to seek his fortune fourteen years ago.

She'd only come back to her father's hometown two years before, and only then because her mother had died. Respect for Mama's feelings had kept her far from Bayville, but with Mama gone, she'd felt rootless. Coming back to the place that had sheltered her father's family for generations had seemed a natural choice. Seeking out her grandfather, her only living relative, couldn't hurt Mama now.

The small, unremarkable town of Bayville in northeastern Louisiana had felt like home, even though she'd only visited here once before. And now, for the first time after throwing herself headlong into community life, Elinor felt a twinge of regret. She wasn't looking forward to today's town council meeting.

The last thing she wanted to do was watch Mayor Stephens making a fool of himself drooling all over Cole Whittier's millions.

Elinor pulled open the glass door gratefully and walked past the vacant secretary's desk. Mrs. Nutt would be in the council room, placing neatly stacked agendas and notepaper in front of each place.

Wishing fleetingly that she had time to freshen her tumbled hair and warm herself, Elinor went swiftly through the hall to the council room. It was better to be wind- tossed and red-nosed than to walk in after the meeting had begun.

The council chamber buzzed with noise as Elinor slipped through the door and unloaded her briefcase into the nearest chair. A cluster of people stood at the back of the room where Mayor Stephens's boisterous voice rang out.

Elinor frowned as she approached the group reluctantly. Beside the mayor stood Cole Whittier. It had to be him, she reasoned, because she knew everyone else in the room. But more than that, he carried the indefinable aura of wealth and power.

He wasn't particularly tall, probably around six feet, with dark-blond hair that emphasized his healthy tan. His charcoal-gray suit reeked of money and fit so well, it only gave hints of Cole Whittier's lean, muscular build.

Cole stood at the back of the chamber, greeting a local businessman, his friendly gaze focused intently as he listened. A confident smile sat comfortably on his face as if he weren't often without it. As Elinor watched, his laugh rang out, deep and genuine.

She felt a zing of awareness zip through her body, his laughter rippling over her like a caress. A sensation of regret shimmered briefly in her. Not only was Cole Whittier loaded with loot, he was also a hunk and a half.

As Elinor slowly drew nearer, Cole Whittier's gaze shifted, slicing past the group around him, to focus on her. The full impact of his scrutiny hit her like a shock-wave. He met her eyes as if homing in on her, as if he'd known she was there all along. Almost as if he'd been waiting for her.

Feeling riveted to the spot, Elinor gazed back, her mind registering his strong features. Her earlier observation had been right; he did smile a lot. The laugh lines bracketing his strong, sensual mouth indicated that. His features were even and pleasant, but his eyes left her wanting to gasp.

They were a deep blue, pure and soft. The kind of eyes women raved about. Movie star eyes. Eyes a woman would remember forever.

But that wasn't all that left Elinor stunned. Beautiful men were nice to look at, but this man was something else. In that moment, with his gaze pinned on hers, Elinor had, for the first time in her practical, down-to-earth life, a brush with ESP.

She knew, absolutely and without reason, that despite his affable exterior, Cole Whittier had a purpose here in Bayville. Without a doubt, he was a man to be reckoned with.

Elinor would have loved nothing more than to forget the formalities of being introduced to the wealthy Mr. Whittier. But the man had seen her standing there and she darned well wasn't going to turn tail and run now.

"Bob . . ." Cole Whittier's voice snagged the mayor's attention. "Introduce me to the lady."

"What?" Mayor Stephens seemed to see Elinor for the first time. "Why, of course. Excuse me, Elly."

Elinor stepped forward, feeling the need to stiffen her backbone in the face of danger.

Mayor Stephens laid a hand on Cole's shoulder. "This is Cole Whittier, Elly. He grew up in Bayville and went off to make his fortune."

"And succeeded very well from what I hear," Elinor murmured before she could stop herself.

A lazy, satisfied smile dawned on Cole's face, his eyes fastened on her once again as the mayor went on with the introduction. "And this here is Elinor Prescott. Elly's one of the Oakleigh Prescotts. You remember Oakleigh, don't you, Cole? Big old antebellum house out near 65? Must be almost a hundred and fifty years old."

"I remember the house." Cole's remarkable eyes darkened. "But I don't seem to recall Elinor." The hesitation before her name was infinitesimal and heavy with inference.

His eyes never appeared to stray from her face, but Elinor had the impression that he could have described her in the fullest detail, from her apparel to her measurements. The thought irritated her.

"Oh, Elly's like you, Cole. A lost sheep returned to the fold." The mayor laughed heartily. "Only she didn't grow up here. Her papa, Jeffrey Prescott, left right after Elly was born. She just moved back here a few years ago."

The older man hugged Elinor affectionately with one arm. "But even though she didn't grow up here, our Elly's all Prescott. Why, she fits in as if she'd lived here her whole life."

"Thank you, Mayor," Elinor said, his compliment warming her even as she struggled with embarrassment. Cole Whittier couldn't be interested in the comings and goings of the Prescott family.

Cole reached out to take her hand. "It's very nice to meet you, Elinor." Her name rolled off his tongue as if he enjoyed the syllables.

She shook his hand, schooling her features into a pleasant, meaningless smile. "Lovely to meet you, too, Mr. Whittier."

A flash of amused comprehension lit his face. Elinor suppressed the urge to bite her lip. Darn him. He'd picked up on her prickliness and apparently wasn't holding it against her.

Retaining possession of her hand, Cole shook his head with mock mournfulness. "How cruel of your father to deprive us Bayville boys of your charming presence all those years ago."

"I'm sure you wouldn't have found me charming, Mr. Whittier. I was a very ordinary child," Elinor retorted.

"Now, that," he said with raised eyebrows, "I cannot believe."

Elinor did bite her lip then. Something about this man made her want to laugh even when she knew she shouldn't. His smile invited her to laugh with him, which was pretty ridiculous when she could see that he was laughing
at
her.

The mayor stood watching their interchange, his astute gaze flying back and forth between them. "I must agree with Cole," he joined in, bantering. "Such a remarkable woman as Elly must have been a lovely child. Did you know, Cole, that our Elly runs an accounting business?"

Cole shook his head, still smiling at her as she tugged her hand free.

"Yes, yes. She keeps half the town's books straight," the mayor joshed.

"That must be quite a job," Cole said.

"Not really," Elinor denied, longing for a bolt hole to avoid the intensity of his scrutiny.

"Well, why don't we all sit down," the mayor suggested to her relief. "Cole, you sit here at this end. The rest of you find your places."

The other council members hurried to their seats, their faces excited and hopeful. Elinor slid into her seat, puzzled. What reason did Cole Whittier have to sit in on the council meeting? She'd assumed the mayor had merely invited him by to show off. Millionaires weren't common in northeast Louisiana, and Mayor Stephens's political aspirations were well known. Bagging a local millionaire as a supporter would be quite a coup.

"Okay, everyone," the mayor began. "Let's deal with our regular agenda so we can get to some very exciting news." He beamed, his smile growing wider as it stopped on Cole.

In the next half hour, the mayor, acting with unusual efficiency, raced the council members through the items on their agenda. When the last item had been addressed, he cleared his throat impressively.

"Because Cole here is a loyal Bayville son, and because our little town has a lot going for it..." The mayor paused before continuing. "... we have the possibility of a new Whittier Incorporated factory being built in Bayville."

An excited babble erupted around the long table. Elinor frowned. She vaguely remembered hearing of Whittier Incorporated, but she couldn't remember what the company produced.

The mayor launched in. "Cole's looking at a piece of land, the old Lanier property, down by the river. And if he decides on that land, he'd like the town council to consider some zoning changes. But before we do that, we'll need to see what kind of tax incentives we can offer Whit- tier, Inc. I think with the kind of revenue a project of this size would bring to Bayville that a sizable property tax reduction is reasonable—"

"Mayor?" Elinor broke in as the older man took a breath. "Before we get down to tax reductions, don't you think Mr. Whittier should give us some more information? Like how large a factory? How many workers he'll be employing? Exactly
what
the factory will produce?"

Several other council members around the table nodded their agreement as she spoke.

"Of course, of course, Elly," Mayor Stephens agreed testily. "We'll get to all of that. But I think we could make some tentative offers in good faith. After all, Cole grew up here. He's not likely to do a dirty deal on his own hometown."

Elinor straightened the papers in front of her. "I wasn't suggesting that Mr. Whittier was attempting anything underhanded. I'm simply interested in looking at the impact on the town before we commit ourselves to anything. Bayville isn't exactly impoverished. We have a very rich agricultural base here. And with that in mind, it's important to look at any possible environmental concerns."

BOOK: Always
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