Jud Garlett leaned back in his leather swivel chair and stared at the closed door. Annette Jackson was waiting outside. Facing her and setting that ghost to rest would be the highlight of his return, even better than having Augie James, Tom Blythe, and Les Jackson come petitioning for his indulgence and goodwill. The last time he’d seen that bunch, they’d beaten the tar out of behind the school gym for having the nerve to speak to Annette, and shoved him in Will Jackson’s trunk prior to dumping him in the parking lot of the Eternal Rest Memorial Gardens.
Jud tapped manicured nails on his polished, rosewood desk. He had far better things to do with his time than play power games with the populace, but this town owed him and it was time for them to squirm a bit. Let them feel powerless for a few weeks, just as his mother had been powerless all her sad life. And the cream on top was knowing Miz Annette Jackson was cooling her aristocratic heels while he remembered. As if he could ever forget. She’d played him for a gullible idiot, reeling him right into their clutches, and he’d been too damn blinded by hormones and grief to think straight. He’d never forgotten how he’d actually believed her. So sympathetic in their (supposed) shared grief and loss, and Christ, she’d been so warm and enticing and…
But damn it, he wasn’t that insecure and lonely boy anymore. He’d left this town a bruised and damaged teenager and was back as the big, bad businessman. Might as well spin this for as long as it entertained.
And as for snooty Miz Jackson, what was she really doing here? Trying seduction where her brother’s arguments had failed? Jud laughed aloud. If so, she was in for a surprise. He wasn’t a callow adolescent anymore. It took more than smiles, innocent eyes, and hot kisses to impress him these days. Still, he was darn glad she had called and that he’d agreed to meet her. He’d get her out of his system once and for all. Forget about the money he expected to make from the renovated mill. Looking her in the eye and knowing her for what she was—a manipulative, sneaky little tease—would even be worth losing money.
Twisting his mouth into a wry smile, he reached for his mouse and sent his usual e-mail signal to Amy, his secretary. He was ready.
Or thought he was.
Something clenched deep in him as the door opened and she stepped inside. Dammit! She was as beautiful as ever. More so, even. The girl he remembered was now a confident, sexy woman in a red suit. And he bet she knew it too. She’d played him before; maybe it was his turn. If he could be bothered. Time to discover what her game was.
He stood up as she crossed the carpet and held out his hand. “Annette Jackson,” he said, smiling as deliberately as he knew how. “It’s been a very long time.”
ANNETTE REALIZED THIS was a major mistake the minute she saw Jud standing behind the polished desk. His hand confirmed it: a firm comfortable grip, muscle and bone in perfect control, the handshake of a man who made his own future, a brush of palms that awakened nerve endings she wanted to ignore and a touch that lasted far too long. “Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice.” She could play this even cooler than he could. Play it icy cool and run for home. Even if her entire body seemed intent on ruining her carefully planned composure. She might be fast becoming hot and bothered inside, but that was just old memories of her juvenile stupidity. If she kept reminding herself how he’d made a fool of her, she’d get out of here dignity intact.
“How could I refuse?” He held her hand far longer than politeness dictated and offered her a leather chair that matched his own. “Have a seat… Princess.”
That was a low blow, but she should have expected it. Typical of him after all. She’d ignore it. Pretty much anyway. She’d half hoped, after his checkered life, that he’d forgotten a silly teenager and a hot summer afternoon. One little word and a nasty smirk evaporated that hope. So what? She wasn’t an easily impressed, and even more easily duped, teenager anymore. She sat down, crossed her legs, and looked him straight in his dark, glittering eyes.
“So,” Jud sat back in his chair and swiveled, his legs and arms relaxed, his eyes as alert as a hunter’s. “What do you need from me?”
It would be so nice to say, Absolutely nothing
, and walk out. Unfortunately she couldn’t. Not yet. “I’m here as a representative of the school board.”
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “They’re still after me about that lost chemistry book?”
“I haven’t come out here over a lost textbook.” The minute she spoke, she regretted it. The slow smile on his face meant he’d scored a point. So what? The game wasn’t over. “The current school board is concerned with the future, not the past. Specifically, the future of our children.”
He glanced at her left hand. “You have many children?”
“I’m not married.”
“One doesn’t necessarily precede the other.” He rocked back in his chair, a gleam of amusement in his eyes. “These things happen, don’t they?”
Was he daring her to mention the past? Heck, she was about to pretend it never happened. “It isn’t necessary to be married or have children to serve on the school board.” Jud pressed his fingertips together in a steeple and inclined his head. Annette took a deep breath. “The school board is concerned about future prospects for the children. The town has changed a lot since we were young.”
He opened his lips as if to speak, seemed to think better of it, and nodded for her to go on. “In the time you’ve been gone, the population has dropped, the percentage of free-lunch kids in school has risen, and most high school graduates leave the town to find work.”
“Don’t blame them.” He shrugged. “There’re good opportunities outside of this town.”
“Not everyone wants to leave. Some don’t have a choice. The hospital closed. It not only took jobs, but people have to travel to Columbia for medical care. Several small businesses have folded. There just aren’t enough jobs.”
“This mill represents most people’s last, best hope of employment.”
He threw back his dark head and laughed. The sound echoed around the room. “Well, Princess,” he spoke slowly, as if remembering the effect that word once had on her. “The big boys couldn’t persuade me, so they send in the little sister to wheedle and work her charms. You should have worn those running shorts.”
That did it! “This is a game to you, isn’t it? We’re talking about people’s lives here, and all you want to do is make smart-ass comments.” She stood and leaned over his desk, her hands flat on the polished surface.
Jud’s eyes shone with an evil gleam as one side of his mouth curled. “Annette Jackson, lecturing me about life.”
“No, just asking you to consider others.”
“Like this town considered me and my mother?”
What could she say to that? “Is that why you came back, Jud? For revenge?”
“Would you blame me?”
No, but she wasn’t giving up without one last try. “A lot has changed since then. You’re successful, the town has declined, isn’t that enough for you? If the mill closes for good, decline will become an avalanche.”
“And?” She could have forgiven that. The town hadn’t been good to him. It was the complacent smirk that got up her nose.
“That’s what you’re planning, isn’t it?” By now she was almost nose- to- nose with him. “Once those jobs disappear, it’ll reflect on every other business in town. Parents will end up commuting to Columbia or Orangeburg. There’ll be nothing to keep people here, and you’ll sit up there in New York grinning like a Cheshire cat.”
“I spend very little time in New York.”
“I don’t care where you spend your time. Just spend a little consideration on the people here.”
“Annette, this mill’s employment is half what it was ten years ago, and that was half again of what it was in the sixties.”
“Half a loaf is better than no bread. Can’t I get you to see what this means? It’s about people’s futures.”
She was leaning over his desk with tense arms and stiff shoulders. He was relaxed and rocking back and forth, a strange glint in his deep eyes. “You really believe the town’s future pivots on this mill?”
“Yes, I do.” She was darn certain she wasn’t telling him anything he hadn’t figured out for himself.
“And you care so much about this town, you want the mill to stay open?”
“This town is my home, the home of my family and friends and thousands of hardworking people. It used to be your home.”
That last wasn’t any sort of recommendation. His mouth tightened and his eyes hardened. Then he smiled. Slowly. As if he’d just had a brilliant idea. His eyes glowed like smoldering firecrackers as he looked straight at her. Shivers skittered down her spine, and her hands grew damp against the desk top.
Jud tilted his head at her. One corner of his mouth curled. “What are you prepared to offer me to keep the mill open?”
“What do you mean?” Her voice shriveled to a whisper as she took her hands off his desk and drew herself upright. It didn’t take much to get his drift.
He smiled. “What do you think I mean? You’re a woman. A very attractive woman. How about it…Princess?”
How dare he! Watching his smug face, something snapped inside her. Indignation gelled into cold fury. Did he think to get her rattled? Hah! She’d call his bluff. “Yes, I’m a woman, and I want the mill to stay open—at just about any price. What do you have in mind?” She’d make him spell it out word for word and then spit it back in his face before she turned on her high heels and left him squirming.
“That’s an offer no gentleman could refuse. Assuming I count as a gentleman?”
The air in the room chilled. Goose bumps pricked across her shoulders and down her spine and sweat gathered between her breasts. She clasped two sticky hands together. “What do you propose…as a gentleman?”
“You flatter me.” Sarcastic bozo. “You’re open to my proposition?”