She forced what she hoped was a believable smile, then watched with more than a little alarm as her mother led her very rich, very distinguished client over to a crowded bench of locals. Within seconds he was the focus of everyone's attention.
Calvin's eyes were still on her when she looked back up at the stage. She wasn't used to leading with her heart rather than her head, but she couldn't have stopped herself from moving toward him for anything in the world. Still, the strength of what she saw in his eyes scared her enough to nearly make her lose her footing as she walked up the stairs to the small stage. But he was right there to help her, to make sure she didn't fall. Just like always.
"You look beautiful, Sarah."
She wanted to kiss him, wanted to throw her arms around him and never let go, wanted to tell him she loved him. But they were standing in front of three hundred people. The podium hid their hands from the crowd as he reached out to take hers. He rubbed his thumb across her palm.
"The only reason I'm not kissing you right now," he told her, "is because I know you'd kill me if I did." She shivered at his touch and the love in his eyes as he added, "But soon, it won't matter what people think. Because they'll know that you belong to me. And that I belong to you."
She wanted to tell him he was right, wanted soon to be now. But just then she heard her client's booming laugh, followed by her mother's laughter. Sarah's stomach tightened. "My client is here."
"The man sitting with your mother?"
"I didn't know he was coming." She frowned. "I hate surprises."
His low laughter warmed her skin. "Have I mentioned lately that I love you?" Her eyes flew to his as he flirted with her in front of her client--and practically the entire population of Summer Lake. "And that you're the most incredible woman I've ever known?"
Flustered--and warm all over now from nothing more than the heat in his eyes and the touch of his hand over hers--she worked to turn his focus, along with her own. "I should be reviewing my presentation. I haven't done nearly as much to prepare today as I should have."
"What had you so preoccupied?" She couldn't miss the loving gleam in his eyes, the heated grin playing around the corners of his mouth.
"You know what."
Just as he'd needed her to say I love you last night, she knew he needed this from her now. So even though she knew better than to flirt with the mayor in front of the entire town not five minutes before going head-to-head with him on her building project, she said, "You, Calvin. You're what has me so preoccupied."
The air between them shot off electricity. She had never wanted anything more than she wanted to reach out and pull him into her, to kiss him, to lay claim to his love in front of everyone. Even the warning flags waving all through her brain couldn't stop her from moving closer. She was almost there, could almost taste his mouth, could almost feel the warmth of his hard chest pressed up against hers, his strong arms holding her, when Catherine cleared her throat--loudly--beside them.
"The natives are getting restless. We should probably get started."
Sarah dropped Calvin's hand and took an awkward step back. "Thanks, Cat."
"Anything I can do to help you set up?"
Sarah reached into her bag and pulled out her laptop. "All I need is a cable to hook this up to the projector."
Catherine efficiently untangled the cord so that it would reach the computer. Sarah had been giving these kinds of presentations for so long she rarely got nervous anymore. But this time everything felt different. Partly because she'd known everyone in the audience since she was in diapers. But mostly because she didn't want to let them down.
Especially the one person who wasn't there. Because even though her father wasn't in the audience, she could still feel him watching her. Telling her to reach for the brass ring, no matter what the hurdles.
At this thought, her fingers went numb and she dropped her power cord. Sarah could feel Calvin's concerned glance on her from where he was speaking with someone off to the side of the stage.
Catherine moved quickly to pick it up. "You're white as a sheet." She uncapped a bottle of water. "Drink."
Sarah hadn't realized just how dry her mouth was until she put the plastic bottle to her lips. "I was just thinking about my father. About the fact that he isn't here tonight."
"He expected a lot of you, didn't he?"
The bottle shook in Sarah's hand. "What parent doesn't expect the best from their child?"
"Don't forget, I've known you for three decades. Well, the first two, anyway. I used to see that look on your face whenever you knew your father was watching you do something."
Sarah couldn't believe she'd been so transparent. Guilt had her saying, "My father was wonderful."
"He was. And imposing. A little scary too."
"I wasn't afraid of him," Sarah protested. He had never raised a hand to her. Or his voice.
"But you were afraid of disappointing him. How could you not be? Heck, we were all afraid of disappointing the senator. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to be his daughter."
Sarah's throat felt tight. The words Calvin had spoken when they were standing on his dock came back: He hurt you too.
And the truth was that until now, she'd never realized how strong her fears had been. Not only of disappointing her father. But also of disappointing herself.
Her entire identity had been wrapped up in her success, first with spelling bees and then with what colleges she went to and then with her career. Somewhere along the way she had replaced her father's voice in her head with her own, and she'd drawn a world around herself where there was black and white but nothing else, none of the soft rainbow of colors lining the walls at Lakeside Stitch & Knit. She'd wrapped herself up tightly in that identity to try to keep herself warm. But without the heat from Calvin's eyes, from his kisses--from his love--she'd been cold anyway. Because she had forgotten how to do anything but reach for the brass ring. Even when it turned out to be chilly and lifeless in her hand every time she managed to grab it.
Sarah felt her friend's hand on her arm. "I'm sorry. I know you need to concentrate right now. But if you want to talk more later--" Cat paused, looked at Calvin, then squeezed Sarah's arm. "--about anything at all, you know where to find me. And good luck tonight. I'm not a fan of the condos, but I guess I get how things are a little better between you and Calvin now. He loves you, so he wants what's best for you, even when it might not be best for him." Cat shook her head and gave Sarah a lopsided grin. "It was easier when things were black and white. When I could focus on hating you."
Sarah was glad for the sudden laughter that sprang to her lips. "Yeah. That was a lot of fun."
Calvin moved back toward them. "I'm about to open the meeting. Are you ready?"
No. She wasn't ready for any of this. Not for the way her hometown, the people of Summer Lake, the store--and especially Calvin--had all gotten under her skin.
Into her heart.
Still, right this second, with her client waiting for her to blow everyone away, there was only one answer, only one response to his gentle question. "Ready."
He frowned at her false smile before turning so that his back was completely to the audience. "I don't want you to forget for one single second that I love you. Always. Forever." He held her gaze for a long moment, before he finally turned and stepped up to the microphone.
"I've invited a special guest to our meeting tonight," Calvin said. "Most if not all of you know Sarah Bartow. Her mother and grandmother have owned and operated Lakeside Stitch & Knit for many, many years, and her late father was a valued member of our community, as well as the entire state of New York. Sarah, thank you for coming to speak to us tonight."
She didn't look at all nervous as she approached the podium, regardless of what she was really feeling. It didn't matter in the least to Calvin that they were on opposite sides of her project--he was proud of her. He would always be proud of her.
"Thank you, Mayor Vaughn, for the introduction."
She began her presentation, and as she took them through her maps, drawings, and photographs of the proposed building site, he admired the way she spoke to the crowd. Not as if she was above them, but as if she was one of them. Because she was.
He had been a damn fool to say those harsh things in the bar that first night when she'd showed him her initial plans. He knew that now. And he would never stop making each and every one of those cruel words up to her.
The town remained focused and silent until she came to the end of her presentation. "I want to thank everyone who came out tonight for this opportunity to speak with you about the project." She paused, looking down at her notes, then folded them up and looked out at the crowd. "This isn't a part of what I planned to say, but I can't help but feel as if my father is here tonight with all of us. As all of you already know, my father loved Summer Lake, loved everyone who makes this town what it is. Many times, he told me that he wished more people knew about all our town has to offer, the beauty and nature. And the peace of mind just being here brings."