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Authors: Sue Fortin

United State of Love

BOOK: United State of Love
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United States of Love

Sue Fortin

A division of HarperCollins
Publishers

www.harpercollins.co.uk

Sue Fortin

Lover of cake, Dragonflies and France. Hater of calories, maths and snakes. I was born in Hertfordshire but had a nomadic childhood, moving often with my family, and for a time I did actually think my name was ‘The New Girl’. However, having lived in West Sussex all my adult life, it does feel like home and I do now know what my name is! In my previous life, aka before children, I worked in various secretarial/PA roles before admitting defeat at juggling a career with four tiddly-peeps, and left the world of paid employment to rediscover my love of writing.

To my family, with all my love, for all your love.

Chapter One

It was her hair that caught his attention first: short cropped and blonde. White blonde. It was her neat little figure second, and it was the car coming up the road as she stepped backwards off the sidewalk that he noticed last.

Tex Garcia felt like he was moving in slow motion as he lunged towards her, grabbing her arm and hauling her out of the car’s path. She slammed into his chest, and in a reflex gesture he engulfed her in his arms as the car sped by, missing her by inches.

‘Whoa! You got some sort of death wish?’ He looked down at her. Staring back up at him were two startled and confused mossy-green eyes. ‘You just nearly got yourself run over.’

She looked up the road at the offending vehicle as it disappeared out of sight. ‘Th … thank you,’ she stammered. ‘I didn’t see it.’

‘You don’t say.’ He crooked a smile.

‘Well, I think the danger is over now, so maybe you could…’ She regarded his arms still firmly around her. ‘Perhaps release me?’

‘What? Oh, sorry.’ Tex dropped his hands and took a step back. Then, as a precautionary measure, put a hand on her arm and drew her away from the edge of the sidewalk and into the forecourt of the church building. He looked up at his new business premises, wondering what had distracted her. She had been gazing up at the building, poised with a camera in her hand.

She followed his gaze. ‘It’s going to be a pizza place.’ He didn’t miss the derogatory tone in her voice.

‘Really?’ He stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye.

‘Hmm. Apparently some Italian chef has bought it. Nico Garcia. Although I have to admit, I thought Garcia was a Hispanic name.’

‘You don’t sound too impressed.’

‘Ignoring the potential for noisy scooters whining up and down with their delivery boxes full of pizza, I dread to think what will happen to the building itself. I just hope that the planning department doesn’t let this Nico Garcia ruin it.’

Tex sucked in the corners of his mouth to repress the grin that was threatening to erupt. ‘What makes you think it will be ruined?’

‘Not being British, he may not appreciate how old this building really is. It’s got so much history and, okay, it hasn’t been used as a church for a long time now, but it has always retained its dignity.’ She wandered over to the entrance and reached out to touch the solid oak doors. ‘It would be awful if these were changed to some modern glass ones, or those gorgeous leaded and stained glass windows swapped for big, white plastic, double-glazed ones.’

This time Tex couldn’t censor his grin or the small chuckle. He had actually been thinking about changing those old windows with plain glass to let some more light into the place. She turned and looked at him, her eyebrows darting together. He swallowed down his laugh and put on a straight face.

‘You’re quite passionate about it, aren’t you?’

The frown lifted as she shrugged. ‘I love Arundel. This town’s got so much history. I work part-time as a tour guide so I suppose I’ve grown quite fond of some of the buildings, even if they don’t warrant a mention on the tours.’

He nodded, and as she looked up at the building again, he took the opportunity to appreciate a different view: her neat butt. She swung round too quickly for him to avert his eyes, and for a moment he wondered whether she was some sort of feminist who was about to slap his face. To his relief, it appeared she wasn’t. Instead, she began to inspect her camera and presumably the photos she had taken of the church.

He leant over her shoulder, peering at the small digital screen, taking time to breathe in the soft vanilla fragrance that floated around her hair.

‘What are the photos for?’

‘I like to keep a record of the town. Before and after shots of how things change and develop. I might make a book of them all one day.’

‘Social history in pictures.’

She turned to look at him. ‘Yeah, something like that.’ Switching off her camera, she moved slightly away. ‘You’re American, right?’

‘Sure am,’ replied Tex, tipping his forehead with his fingers in a slack salute.

‘On holiday?’

‘No. Actually, I’ve lived in the UK for five years now.’ He drove down the churning in his gut. It always happened when he thought about his move here and what he had left behind.

‘Oh, I see. If you were a tourist I was going to sign you up for a guided tour.’ She smiled at him. ‘My boss is always nagging me, so at least today I can say I tried. And speaking of which, I had better get on. I’ve got a tour in five minutes and I’ve got to get up to the cathedral yet.’

Tex was aware that a slither of disappointment eked its way through him as she made to head off.

She paused. ‘There’s an open evening here tonight. Get to meet the new owner.’

‘You going?’ he asked.

‘Too right. I need to check out the competition.’

Tex raised his eyebrows in question. ‘Competition?’ She looked so sincere, he almost felt guilty for his deception. Maybe deception was too harsh a word. More like withholding information.

She pointed vaguely in the direction of a building further along the road. ‘I also work in the tea rooms down there a couple of days a week, so I’m curious to find out if we have anything to worry about and what exactly this Nico Garcia has planned.’

He grinned. ‘You never know, you might be pleasantly surprised.’

‘I’m not holding my breath.’

‘I’ll be there tonight. Will be interesting to see your reaction.’ Had he blown it? She was looking at him strangely. He held out his hand, hoping to distract her. ‘My name’s Tex, by the way.’

‘Anna.’

As she put her hand in his, he couldn’t help noticing how small it looked and how soft it felt against his own rough fingertips.

Something akin to an electric shock zipped right through her when she shook his hand. The same something she had been fully aware of when he had leant on her shoulder to look at the camera. It was unnerving. Aware, too, that her heart was now doing its usual skippy thing it always did when she felt attracted toward someone. Anna made a supreme effort to walk calmly away from Tex. It only took several paces before her resolve weakened and she found herself turning round to look at him. He was standing there, hands stuffed in his jeans pocket, watching her.

‘Oh, by the way,’ she heard herself call out. ‘Thank you for saving me!’

He tipped his forehead in that lazy, mock-salute way he had done earlier and treated her to what she could only describe as a laconic Paul Newman smile.

As Anna walked away, she was already mentally going through her wardrobe wondering what to wear that night, and then chided herself. Of course, had he, Tex, not been going, she probably wouldn’t even be thinking about it, but now it seemed incredibly important that she looked nice. ‘Get a grip,’ she said out loud. ‘You’re thirty-five, separated from your husband and definitely don’t need another relationship just yet.’

Despite this pep talk, throughout the guided tour that afternoon, no matter how hard she tried to dismiss thoughts of him, her mind kept conjuring up images of the tall American. The dark brown eyes encased in thick lashes, the dark hair brushed back from his face, a few strands falling forwards. And all set off against a honey-toned complexion.

The main hall of the old United Reformed Church was beginning to fill up with guests, mostly local traders. It was probably out of curiosity rather than any real desire to welcome him into their community with open arms, but Tex wasn’t worried. This way he hoped he would be able to win them over. He had hired in a local outside catering company to organise the food and drinks, as a gesture of his willingness to fit in and support his new neighbours. The fact that the church kitchens were so primitive and in no fit state for him to be able to do justice to any food he cooked, was neither here nor there.

‘You all right, mate?’ It was Jamie, a long-established friend and former colleague of his. ‘Not a bad turn out, eh?’

Tex nodded, thinking yeah, sure it was going okay but shame there was no sign of the little blonde from earlier. Anna. Before he could commiserate further, Yvonne, Jamie’s wife, skipped over.

She gave him a kiss on the cheek before picking up a vol-au-vent from her plate and biting into it. ‘Hiya, Tex. I have to say this food is really lovely. I think this company could give you a run for your money.’

Tex gave her a look of mock reproach. ‘You hush your mouth there, little lady,’ he said, exaggerating his southern drawl.

Yvonne laughed. ‘I do love it when you go and get all cowboy on me, Tex.’

Jamie gave Tex a nudge. ‘That bloke over there, the one looking at your plans.’ He nodded towards the centre table where the architect’s drawings had been carefully laid out around a scale model and cross section of the new premises. ‘See him? I think I overheard him saying he was from the local Chamber of Commerce. Didn’t know if you needed to go and sweet-talk him.’

Tex followed his friend’s gaze, and sighed. ‘I suppose I’d better.’

Tiresome as it was having to suck up to the local hierarchy, he knew it was a necessary evil and so headed off towards the middle-aged, bearded man that Jamie had pointed out. It was then that he saw Anna coming in. He felt himself draw breath. She looked good – her hair styled a bit more choppy, fresh make-up, pretty soft blouse that showed off her tiny frame, skirt resting just above her knees, revealing a fine pair of legs.

She spotted him, broke into a smile and waved. He was aware that he waved back in some klutzy high school way. Damn it! Not only that, but she had noticed, judging by the giggle she made no attempt to hide. He walked over to greet her.

She was still smiling. ‘You made it then?’

‘Sure. Had no choice.’ He really should tell her, before it all got out of hand and she found out for herself.

‘Mr Garcia!’ Tex heard a voice behind him and groaned inwardly. Too late. Anna was peering about, no doubt trying to work out which one was Mr Garcia.

‘Mr Garcia!’There it was again, except closer this time. Then Tex felt a tap on his shoulder.

‘Argh, Mr Garcia, sorry to interrupt. I just wondered if we could have a quick word. I’m Richard Harrington, Arundel Chamber of Commerce.’ He was by the side of Tex now, holding out his hand.

Tex shook hands. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ He turned to Anna whose mouth was working but no sound coming out. ‘Could you just excuse me a moment, Anna? Maybe we can talk later?’ Her eyes hardened as she nodded. Computation complete. Oh yeah, she’d worked it out.

‘We certainly can talk later, Mr Garcia,’ Anna said, the smile now nowhere in sight.

So he thought he was clever did he? A proper smart-arse. Nico Garcia or Tex, or whatever his blasted name was. Anna glared at the American’s back as he chatted to the Chamber of Commerce guy. Despite her bad temper with Tex, she couldn’t fail to acknowledge the broadness of his shoulders underneath the crisp, dark suit. He looked even more attractive tonight, all spruced up, shirt and tie. He really did scrub up well. Stop! She must stop thinking like this about him.

‘Hello, Anna.’ It was Andy Bartholomew, the curator of the museum at Arundel Castle.

Great, just what she needed. Handy Andy, as he was unaffectionately known amongst the female tour guides, and it was certainly nothing to do with his DIY skills.

‘Hello, Andy,’ she replied politely as she shifted around him, looking for an escape route, someone else she could suddenly develop the urgent need to speak with.

Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on her side. Everyone’s attention now appeared to be focused towards the stage where Tex stood with a microphone in his hand. Feeling obliged to stand still and pay attention, Anna was dismayed to feel Handy Andy brush up alongside her.

‘Could I have your attention for one moment please?’ Tex began, flashing a killer smile around the room. Anna could almost hear the collective swoon of all the females there, his soft drawl was practically X-rated.

‘First, I would like to thank you all so much for turning up here this evening, it means a lot. Second, I must thank Forresters Outside Catering for the fabulous buffet they have provided. And my thanks also go to local architects Hanson & Williams for the excellent scale model in the centre there. Perhaps you could join me in a small round of applause.’

Everyone seemed more than happy to join in, Anna noted. Tex had obviously been working the room well leading up to this little speech.

‘You will see from the display,’ Tex continued, ‘that I intend to open a contemporary restaurant: high-class food for the working man’s pocket. Not a pizza delivery service with a horde of mopeds ‘whining up and down’ the road, as some of you might fear.’ A little ripple of laughter circulated.

Anna felt a flush race to her face as he fixed his eyes on her, a hint of amusement playing at the corners of his mouth. He so knew what he was doing. To her relief, he looked away and carried on speaking, telling the attentive listeners how he was looking forward to being part of the community, that there was enough room for everyone, and how pleased he was to be putting something back into the local economy, jobs for local people, and so on.

God, he was good. By the time he had finished, the whole audience was clapping and smiling broadly at him. Mission complete it would seem.

‘So thank you again for coming,’ he said as the applause died down. ‘I’m looking forward to getting to know you all much better.’ His eyes swept the room, coming to rest at Anna, as another flutter of clapping spread throughout the guests.

‘Smarmy Yank,’ muttered Andy, leaning into Anna and snaking his arm around her waist.

She resisted the urge to point out the irony of this statement, and attempted to wriggle free.

‘What say me and you slip away for a quiet drink at the Kings Head?’ Andy suggested, tightening his grip on her waist and running a finger down her arm.

Anna shuddered but tried to retain a degree of professionalism. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Andy. Thanks all the same.’

‘You’re not knocking me back again, are you?’ A frown folded over his face. ‘I wouldn’t want to have to complain to Howard about the lack of service.’

BOOK: United State of Love
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