She needs a new life, he’s determined to maintain the status quo. If they don’t compromise, the whole town loses.
Midnight Shelby is starting over. A real estate agent’s virtual tour of a large two-story brick building on the main street of the small town of Legend, Tennessee caught her eye and she’s leaving her smarmy ex-husband, the big city, and corporate life behind. The town is struggling but Midnight has ideas that will give it new life as well.
Martin McClain was born and raised in the Legend area. His family has lived there for generations, and he feels a duty to preserve the past. The website his son Daniel created has been good for business, but although Martin is a real estate agent by trade, he’s wary of newcomers’ motivations.
Especially Midnight Shelby, who seems bent on changing everything…even him.
“Mayberry at last.”
Midnight Shelby pulled into a parking place on Main Street in front of the big brick building whose drooping, faded sign still halfheartedly proclaimed Jim Bob’s Saloon. It was hers now—the first building of any sort she’d ever owned. A sign for her own business would be one of the first changes to make.
She climbed out of her Jaguar convertible and stretched. It had been a long drive from New York City to this little town. Long in the literal sense, but also the figurative one. She looked around at the picturesque one hundred-year-old buildings that anchored the main street of Legend, Tennessee. This was her new world, reached by several hours’ drive and the shedding of a painful past.
According to her realtor’s office, Legend had a population of about six thousand. She noticed a few people walking along the sidewalk or from car to store, well-worn vehicles heading north and south on the unimaginatively named Main Street. In her two days of driving, she’d seen a lot of small towns, some county seats complete with courthouse squares, and some with a single main thoroughfare, very much like this one.
Before this excursion, small towns only existed for her on television. Mayberry was her favorite from all those years ago when she watched The Andy Griffith Show as a child. It had seemed an idyllic place to live. That’s why when Midnight Shelby’s life fell apart, she decided to move from big city-big corporate life to the real world—Mayberry—or rather, Legend, Tennessee. She found her version of paradise via the internet. Otherwise, she never would have known it existed. Even with a good magnifying glass, Legend was barely visible on a map.
The air around her was cool and crisp and smelled of evergreen. Delightful.She inhaled deeply and relaxed a bit. Relaxing had to be a conscious effort for her; it didn’t come naturally.
Midnight lightly ran her fingers along the gleaming silver hood of her car as she stepped onto the sidewalk. Along with the new scenery, the car also represented a new start for her. No more boring, black, safe sedan; no more familiar city. In every possible way, Midnight had left her comfort zone miles behind her.
After twenty years of marriage, her life had changed suddenly when she returned from a business trip and found a scribbled note from her husband on the kitchen table. Their marriage had been in trouble for a while, but she’d still been stunned.
Midnight. Sorry to let you know this way….
The divorce process had been hellish—emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Always a private person comfortable in her own company, Midnight had felt lonely for the first time in her life. Being alone by intention was light years away from being alone due to loss.
When all the divorce paperwork was finalized, her attorney, Rebecca Mayfield, took Midnight out for dinner and encouraged her to look to the future with a positive attitude. After all, the property settlement turned out rather well for Midnight. With the sale of the property, she had everything she needed to start a new life. She could find another elegant apartment—one without memories of Jeff—and set it up with the lovely furniture and collectible items that were now hers alone. She’d continue with the work she loved, make new friends….
Midnight reached back into her car and picked up the little voodoo doll she purchased at a roadside stand. She had been surprised to learn one could find some very interesting things at small trading posts in the mountains of Tennessee. She hadn’t been able to pass up the place with the purple sign that flashed out: MEN ARE SCUM! in hot pink letters. Fifteen dollars was a bargain for the foot tall, cotton-stuffed voodoo doll and complimentary three-inch straight pin with “pearl” tip. The dolls came in red, yellow, black, and white and one could purchase markers to individualize them. She chose a plain white one and left it faceless.
That way it not only symbolized her ex-husband, but also the man who got her fired from the job she had—and loved—ever since college. After her divorce, a co-worker tried to “comfort” her in a very physical way. When she refused, he retaliated by pulling strings with upper management. Suddenly Midnight was drawing unemployment checks. By that time, she was so tired of fighting, she didn’t even try to get the job back.
The anonymous voodoo doll symbolized men in general to her right now. Men really were scum.
She jabbed the pin into the doll’s crotch a few times. Some of the stuffing dropped out. She’d worked on that particular area repeatedly since making the purchase a few hours ago.
Midnight tossed the doll onto the smoky-gray leather passenger seat and checked her watch. Exactly five o’clock. She was on time, of course. The person she was meeting, however, was late. She leaned against the passenger side door attempting to relax and release the frustration from this lack of punctuality.
Midnight noticed a tall, dark-haired man and a teenager—from his build and hair color, likely the man’s son—having a discussion in front of a building in the next block. The motion of the red and white barber pole out front indicated the shop was open.
It was obvious the boy didn’t want anything to do with a haircut. He could have been the poster child for Surly Teenager Syndrome. Finally, the shaggy haired boy relented—she could see it as his shoulders sagged—and entered the building. The father turned fully in Midnight’s direction and she tried not to pay attention, but it was difficult. Even from this distance she could make out broad shoulders and strong facial features that would have done a Greek statue proud, and…. Hmm. In spite of herself, she wondered about the rest of him. How would he stand up to the Greek statue test?
What a useless train of thought. It had been a very long time since she’d been with a man. How long? Too long to remember. But the first day in her new town wasn’t the right moment to suddenly become needy. She reached for the cotton figure again. She might need to make a return trip to the stand. Maybe buy another voodoo doll and pick up a plate for the front of her car as well. Twenty-five dollars to proclaim MENRSCUM everywhere she drove seemed like a good deal. Perhaps she needed the reminder.
As she squeezed the fetish in her hand, she noticed the tall, dark man walking toward her. She quickly stuffed the faceless cotton gewgaw under the passenger seat, jabbing her finger with the pin as she did so. The immediate stab of pain helped to focus her attention on reality instead of retribution.
Midnight squeezed a dark red drop of blood from the wound and quickly sucked it clean. She straightened and tucked a stray lock of silky black hair behind her ear. In the city, one didn’t meet strangers’ eyes. But this man looked directly at her, or rather, from her to the convertible and back to her. She could hardly avoid his eyes without seeming rude. Snooty. Citified. Not a good beginning in her new hometown.
Midnight pasted onto her face what she hoped was a friendly smile. Subliminally she willed the man to pass by. A small, bent, gray-haired couple came along from the other direction and they also checked out Midnight and her car. Midnight used her smile on them too. They smiled in return and spoke a word of greeting.
Okay, now Mr. Greek Statue. She turned the smile his way and watched as his brow furrowed a little. He walked over and stuck out his hand, expecting to shake hers.
“Miz Shelby, right? Martin McClain. I wondered if you might have a change of heart and not come.”
Oh, great. Her realtor was Mr. Greek Statue.
With an attitude.
She took a good look. Navy Dockers. Brown leather jacket covering a collarless, blue-knit shirt, Very dark brown hair, straight, and a little mullet-ish in the back. Deep chocolate eyes. Extremely handsome face. A neatly trimmed goatee. Lips…. Oh yeah, definite possibilities there. This man could be trouble.
“Um. Right. Good to meet you, Mr. McClain.” Still making an effort at the smile, but with more difficulty, Midnight shook Martin McClain’s hand firmly and as briefly as possible.
She shoved both her hands into the back pockets of her designer, low-rise jeans. Her intention was to have her hands out of the way. She didn’t want to touch him again, even by accident. Touching a man—particularly a man she felt such an immediate physical attraction to—was not something she was ready to do, and that included a simple handshake.
Martin McClain’s gaze drifted to her snug white T-shirt, which now, with her arms in that awkward pose, felt too tight. Too sexy. Why hadn’t she slid on her jacket? It was certainly cool enough for one.
Midnight took her hands out of the pockets and crossed her arms over her chest. Immediately, she realized a drop of blood from the pin-wound had stained her shirt. “Oh, great!” She stomped her black ankle boot on the pavement.
“Your…um…your shirt is bleeding,” he said, his eyes flicking to the red spot, then quickly away toward the street.
She looked up at him. Even from her five-foot-eight plus three inches of stiletto ankle boots, it was still up. He was probably six foot two or three. Tall, dark, handsome. Fortunately, his inanity and her recent personal history helped temper the physical attraction she felt.
He was just an idiot man. Yet another reason the Men R Scum stand was in business. Your shirt is bleeding?
What a line.
She scooped up her Coach handbag, strode across the sidewalk, and stood before the large oak-and-glass front door of her new building. “Mr. McClain, this is my building, right? Can we go inside? Is the water turned on?”
Martin took several rings of keys from his pants pocket and sorted through them. “Here we go,” he said, holding the one marked “M. Shelby” out to her. She extended her open hand, and he dropped the keys into it. Heavy. Solid. It was a good feeling.
“It’s the large brass one there for the front door.”
Midnight inserted the key. The lock turned easily. She stepped inside, followed closely by the realtor who reached behind her—too close—and flipped on the light switch. A subtle glow filled the room. Large, round, moss-green, glass globes hung from the high tin ceiling. It was an amazing room, full of nostalgia and potential.
Martin walked quickly behind the bar just a few feet to the left of the entry door and turned on the faucet. Here was an encouraging sign; no rumbling pipes, just immediate water.
“Great. Thank you,” Midnight said, checking the water temperature. “But I’ll have to take off my shirt. Hmm.” She glanced at him and saw one dark brow rise a little higher. Abruptly, she turned off the water, tossed her handbag onto the walnut bar top, and marched outside pulling her car keys from her front jeans pocket as she moved. In a few moments, Midnight returned with a long-sleeve, black T-shirt and found the women’s bathroom at the back where she changed. In her new attire, she ran cold water over the blood stain on her shirt until the spot was gone.
Then she headed to the front of the building again, her high heels making a gratifying, no-nonsense sound on the scarred, hardwood floor.
“Nothing like a strong first impression. I don’t usually bleed from just a handshake.”
“You…what?” He looked down at his own hands, searching for a way he might have punctured her finger.
“Just kidding. I pricked it on a pin as you walked up. But not kidding about first impressions.” She looked up and around her at the room. “Like this place. When I saw the virtual tour on your website, I knew I had to have it. Absolutely gorgeous in spite of needing a lot of updating.”
“It’s a special place. Lots of history, lots of memories here. It’s a shame the family doesn’t want to keep it. I hate to see them sell out.”
“Especially to a newcomer, I’ll bet.”
“I didn’t say that.” There was that frown again, the two vertical lines between his dark brows marring an otherwise perfect face.
“Not in so many words. But, of course, you rather someone local purchased it and continued the bar business as it always was. Right?” Men were so predictable. You didn’t mess with their sports teams, their bars, or their underwear drawers and not expect an emotional response.
Martin McClain heaved a heavy sigh, much like she had seen his son do a few minutes earlier. Except this movement in her realtor strained the front of his shirt a bit in an interesting sort of way.
“Welcome to Legend, Tennessee, Miz Shelby. No reason for you and me to start off badly. We got along fine on the phone, now didn’t we?”
Midnight hated being patronized and so many men did it without even thinking.
“We got along fine, the deal closed, and here I am owning this big beautiful building on Main Street and enjoying status as Legend’s newest citizen. Now, do you have that list for me?”
Of course, his wife had been the helpful one all through the process. His wife, whose mere existence was the best deterrent in the world to Midnight considering any action on the physical attraction thing with the hunky realtor. How had the wife even slipped her mind? Betsy—thank goodness for Betsy! “You know…the list I’ve been talking to Betsy about….”
Martin groaned. “Oh yeah! No. I mean, no, I didn’t get here with it.” He blew out an exasperated breath. “Left the dang thing on my desk. She told me…she said I’d forget it. We can go over to the office and get it right now though. Just take a minute. Office is just a couple blocks from here.”
He headed out the front door and Midnight followed, the sound of her heels bouncing off the empty bar’s walls and ceiling. She quickly turned off lights and locked the door behind her.
I’ll be back. Soon.
“Oh, and you’ll want to park your car in the back,” the realtor said when she turned away from the door. “There’s a garage. It’s small, but it should be big enough for a little car like this. I’ll show you.”
“No need for that. I’ll be able to find the back of the building on my own.” Midnight was nearly certain she hadn’t rolled her eyes at his comment, but it was difficult. “Now, let’s go to your office and pick up the list. Get in and I’ll drive.”
She saw the look. He didn’t ride while a woman drove. Lord, give me strength. Midnight walked around, got in, and started the powerful engine. She saw his eyes widen a little when he heard it. He opened the passenger door and folded his tall frame into the seat then let the door close with a soft click.
“Nice,” he said, looking at the tachometer and other instruments and resting his right arm on the door frame as she backed out of the parking space into the sporadic traffic. “Very nice.”
Martin watched her pale, slender hands turn the wheel and shift gears like a pro. Her short, neatly-filed nails glistened with clear polish. Glittering on the index finger of her left hand was a single ring, diamonds and emeralds in a gold setting. Her porcelain skin was even more beautiful in the sunlight than it had been indoors, and her gleaming black hair shone almost blue. He’d never seen hair as black as hers and recalled—even though she wasn’t looking his way now—that her eyes were black too. Like those black holes in outer space, where things could get sucked in and disappear. Oh yeah, a man could get lost in those eyes. He’d have to be careful.
Martin McClain was a simple man, “salt of the earth” as the saying went. But he was human after all. The exotic beauty sitting next to him was definitely one of the finest surprises to enter his world in a very long time. Not that he was interested in getting involved with her, but he could enjoy looking. And he could spend a few seconds thinking about what those beautiful, long-fingered hands could do. He inhaled her subtle feminine fragrance….
“Where is it?”
“What? Where’s what?” he asked, startled out of his near-fantasy.
“Your office.” She sounded exasperated.
He gave directions, and they covered the short distance in an instant. Sooner than Midnight had expected because when he yelled, “This is it!” she immediately swerved into the narrow drive to the parking lot and slammed on her brakes. Something shot out from under the passenger seat and punctured his ankle.
“Yeeeow!” He reached down and picked up what looked like a doll; a pearl-tipped pin was still stuck in the place where its hand would have been. A few pieces of stuffing fell out of the crotch onto Martin’s navy Dockers. “What. In. The. Hell?”
“Um. Is that a question?”
“Hell, yes, it’s a question! What is this thing that just stabbed me?”
Midnight rescued the doll, snatching it out of his grasp as he shook it rather roughly.
“That seems obvious. It’s a voodoo doll.”
“Oh yeah, right, of course. What was I thinking? Doesn’t everyone drive around with a voodoo doll under the front seat? Or at least every woman? And to think I was….” He climbed out of the car, slammed the door, stomped into the real estate office, and slammed that door too.
And they say women are flighty.
Midnight entered the office quietly. A pretty blonde looked around. She’d obviously been watching Martin stalk through the front office. Both women flinched a little as a door toward the back of the building crashed shut. A framed certificate fell off a wall near Midnight, the glass shattering when it hit the floor.
Midnight forced a tight smile. “Hi. I’m Midnight Shelby. Mr. McClain said he left a list here for me.”
Recognition lit the blonde’s pretty face. “Oh, hi! It’s good to meet you at last! I’m Betsy McClain.”
Well, of course she was Betsy. How could she be anyone else? She was the perfect picture of what a Betsy should look like. Curly golden-blond hair outlined her head like a halo. She had big blue eyes, a round face with a little turned-up nose, and a pretty mouth shaped like a red bow on a Christmas package.
The fact that she was Martin McClain’s Betsy was what made the introduction surreal. To be married to him, the woman must be a saint. The halo would be a requirement.
Midnight walked over and held out her hand. “Betsy, I’m so glad to meet you. I feel like we’re friends already.”
In the weeks since Midnight’s first discovery of Legend, the real estate agency, and her ideal building, she had spent a lot of time on the phone with McClain Realty. Most of that time with Mrs. Betsy McClain, who’d seemed excited about helping Midnight start her new business. The Emporium would sell locally produced arts and crafts.
The walnut bar would no longer serve draft beer, but rather, specialty coffees and teas. Midnight also hoped to have a lunch special each day. Although Legend was in a financial slump, with the new factory coming in, there was hope in the community that fortunes were changing for the better.
“All right. Then, can I ask about your name? I just think it’s so exotic. But with your black hair and eyes, I can see it really suits you.”
“Just what my parents thought when I was born. ‘Alabaster skin, hair like midnight.’ That’s the first line of the poem my mother wrote when I was a baby. She’s very artsy, my mother. Irish. My dad’s artsy too, but he’s Navajo. Skin like Mother’s, hair like Dad’s. Not an artistic bone in my body, but I love arts and crafts. Which is how I got the idea for the shop. I’ll sell some of my parents’ work along with the locals’.”
“It’s exciting!” She clasped her small hands together. “And everybody else thinks so too. I told you I’d call the people I could think of who do wood carving and painting and weaving and pottery and such. Well, there were so many and, of course, a lot of them are cousins of mine or my husband’s, and then they started telling other people. The list got longer every day. I stored it on the computer and kept adding to it, and today I printed the latest copy. And, of course, Martin forgot to take it with him.” She shook her head, grinning. “What would he do without me?”
Betsy jerked a thumb toward the back of the office. “I don’t think I’ll go back there, so let’s just print another copy.” She winked at Midnight, clicked a few computer keys, and paper started scrolling out of a nearby printer. Betsy stood up carefully, sort of waddled to the printer and retrieved the pages, stapled them together, and handed them across the desk. She was an even more perfect picture of “Betsy” now. Midnight guessed her at about five feet tall and extremely pregnant. What a cute little thing. And what a mismatch to Martin McClain.
“They start coming tomorrow at nine a.m.”
“Yes. Every half hour all day for the next three days. You’ll be busy.”
Midnight looked at the top sheet. The first line read: Augustine Abell, Wednesday 9 a.m.
The whole sheet was filled, as were the rest of the sheaf. She would, indeed, be busy.
End of Chapter One. Get your copy of Midnight and Martin’s story here: