Chapter 1-1

1841 Words
Chapter 1 “THIS IS ALL YOUR fault.” Trey Peyton glared at the owner of the big brown eyes, who couldn’t seem to care less about the wreck she’d just caused. She just blinked at him, all innocence, as if she wasn’t the reason his sensible sedan was currently nose-first in a ditch. Given how fast he’d been going when he came over that hill, he was lucky he only had a flat. Sucking in a breath, he scooped a hand through his hair and searched for some calm. “Oh, excuse me. Where are my manners? Let me introduce myself. I’m Gerald Peyton, III, CEO of Peyton Consolidated.” She ignored the hand he offered. “Never heard of it? It’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Mostly real estate and hotels these days. Though I’ve been dipping my toes into urban redevelopment and rural tourism lately. Maybe you’ve seen some of the stuff my company has done in Wishful? The Babylon is a top-rated boutique hotel and spa. Or maybe you’ve been to The Madrigal Theater since it was restored?” His audience twitched one hip, restless. “Am I boring you? My apologies. You know, that notion that billionaires only drive pretentious sports cars that cost as much as a normal person’s house is really a stereotype. Although maybe if I’d been truer to form, I’d have actually managed to stay on the road when I swerved to avoid your sizable ass.” Unconcerned with the insult, the cow moseyed to the other side of the road and began to crop grass. Where had the damned thing even come from? Trey saw the answer to that as he climbed back up to the shoulder. A little way up the road, a tree branch had taken out part of the barbed wire fence. Judging from the other leaf trash and sticks strewn across the road, it was evident that last night’s storm had been a doozy. “Well, Bessie, you’re about to see a billionaire change a tire.” Trey circled around and popped the trunk. Leaning over the a*s-end of the car, he shoved his bag aside and lifted the bottom panel of the trunk. No spare. “Or maybe not. Damn it.” Somebody would be hearing about that when he got back to his offices, but for now, he’d settle for arranging a tow. At least, that was the plan until he discovered his phone had died somewhere on the flight from Denver to Mississippi. Undeterred, he dug in his bag for a charger. It wasn’t in the side pocket as it was supposed to be. He fished around the other pockets, even emptied the main compartment before admitting defeat. He must’ve left it in his car in Denver. “Perfect. Looks like I’m walking.” Thankfully, Wishful was only a couple of miles away. He’d have probably been there by now if he hadn’t felt compelled to take the scenic route from the airport in Lawley. But he’d wanted a chance to unwind from the flight and get his head on straight. Seemed like it took longer and longer to accomplish that every time he came here to check on his assorted ventures. Trey thought about finding the cow’s owner to let them know their animal was loose, but he didn’t see a driveway or a house anywhere. Better to get on into town and arrange for the tow truck. Somebody there would likely know whose land this was and who needed to be notified. Locking the car, he set out for town, grateful for the mild November weather. There was already snow on the ground in Colorado, but this far below the Mason-Dixon, it felt like Indian summer. At this hour, the locals were already at work, their kids at school, so nobody drove by as he walked. It felt strange to be so wholly disconnected. No texts. No calls. No emails. Nothing but birdsong and sunshine. Trey felt the layers of city start sloughing off and slowed his pace as he reached the outskirts of town and the first smattering of houses. As he took the turn onto Maple Street and cut toward downtown, he felt the years peel away too. The houses in this part of town were tiny. Boxy little two- and three-bedroom houses built in the sixties. They’d been old and a little worn around the edges when he’d seen them last. In the intervening decades, some had become downright dilapidated. Still, others had been fixed up with fresh paint, new shutters, updated landscaping. Trey imagined most of the occupants were young. Maybe first-time homebuyers. Young couples or single parents. He liked the idea of that—fresh starts, new beginnings. He hadn’t been so lucky. This place had been an ending for him. He almost didn’t recognize her house when he saw it. The ugly, sandstone brick had been painted a fresh cream. The front stoop had been expanded, replaced with slate, and the roofline had been extended to make a little porch, held up with thick, cedar beams. It gave the house more presence than the squat square had on its own. The azalea bushes, which had been newly planted last time he saw the place, had grown thick and lush, filling up the flowerbeds all along the front of the house. He imagined, in spring, they’d be a riot of color. A tire swing hung from the branch of an oak tree that had been a mere sapling all those years ago, and a little girl’s bike lay abandoned in the front yard, as if its rider had just run inside for a snack. Someone had turned this place into a home. But it hadn’t been her. Trey didn’t know how to feel about that. Since he’d started doing business here in Wishful, he’d avoided this place, just as he’d avoided the woman who’d once lived here. That had been a good call. Standing here now, it was all too easy to get caught up in the storm of old emotions, too easy to look at the old picture window and see the moment his heart had cracked right in two. He’d been eaten up with worry by the time he’d risked coming here. She should’ve met him hours before at their designated spot, with everything she needed to start over packed. When she didn’t show, he’d feared the worst—that her deadbeat husband had found out and stopped her from leaving. Darkness had hidden Trey as he got out of the car, but it made the drama unfolding through the illuminated window stand out with all the clarity of a movie screen. The woman he loved squaring off with the man who’d made her life hell. Trey had already been on his way up the walk, headed for the door, when her husband kissed her. And she hadn’t fought him. She’d wrapped her arms around him, and they’d both laughed and smiled—as if relieved that some great crisis had been averted. She’d chosen the prison of her marriage instead of Trey. The wound had never really healed in all these years. He’d expected the memories to stop having power over him the longer he did business here—a sort of emotional exposure therapy. But everything he felt was as strong and steady as it had been for thirty years. Trey didn’t want to think about what that meant. A car horn beeped. He turned, expecting to see a minivan or a little compact car waiting to pull into the driveway he was standing in, but instead he found a familiar face. The brunette in the driver’s seat rolled down her window. “I thought that was you! What are you doing out here?” Reliving the past. Trey stepped toward her. “Hiking to town. I had an unfortunate run-in with a cow on my way in.” Norah arched a brow in question. “The cow won,” he added. The corners of her mouth twitched. “Careful, Gerald. Your city boy’s showing.” “Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. You haven’t exactly turned into a country girl since you moved down here.” Norah might’ve been Mississippian by birth, but she’d come back nearly two years ago from Chicago. “I wound up with a blowout and no spare. Cell phone was dead, so I couldn’t call anybody.” “Good lord. Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.” He circled around to the passenger side and climbed in. “I didn’t realize you were coming back today,” she said. It hadn’t been a planned trip. By rights, he should’ve been on a flight to London, overseeing the final stages of renovation planning for a new property there, but he’d felt drawn back to Wishful. It seemed he’d been feeling that pull more and more over the past eighteen months. As he’d had a full office suite built at The Babylon, he felt justified in doing some telecommuting. It was as close as he came to rest and relaxation these days. Trey stretched out in the passenger seat. “I was coming in for your wedding anyway, so I thought I’d come early and work from here until. Particularly once I read your latest proposal.” Norah Burke was one of the most brilliant marketing minds he’d ever known. He’d tried to hire her to run his marketing division at Peyton Consolidated, but she’d ultimately taken a job as Wishful City Planner—after convincing him to invest in assorted projects meant to revitalize the economically-depressed town. She was the reason he’d come to Wishful. Part of the reason. His reasons for being here reached far beyond investment opportunities and into the realm of deeply personal—and possibly foolish. But he kept coming back, kept getting further involved in the affairs of the town. Eventually, he’d have to face the consequences. “Oh, don’t get me started. Cam will murder me if anything else delays this wedding. I think he and the entire staff of City Hall ganged up to block off the city calendar so we could finally set a date.” “You, my girl, are a workaholic.” She glanced over at him and grinned. “Takes one to know one.” “It is possible I resemble that remark,” he admitted. “But everything’s all squared away for the big day?” “It is. You’ll get to see the church. I’ve got to swing by and drop off some paperwork on the way. I hope you don’t mind.” “You’ll still get me to work faster than walking.” He noted more downed limbs as they drove. “Big storm last night?” “It was, as Cam’s grandmother would say, a frog strangler. Lots of wind too. Hush was so freaked out she crawled under the bed and shook the whole thing. I suppose we should be grateful she wasn’t howling. I…” Norah trailed off, leaning forward in her seat. “No. Oh, no no no no.” Hearing the alarm in her voice, Trey straightened. Norah whipped into the small parking lot and skidded to a halt. They both stared at the fifty-foot oak tree sprawled, roots-up, across the church. The weight of the thing had caved in part of the roof and a chunk of the south wall, taking out at least two stained glass windows and letting in God knew how much rain. “This is your church?” he asked quietly. In answer, the unflappable, always-in-control woman in the driver’s seat burst into tears.
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