Had she realized what she'd said? Our town.
Calvin almost lost the fight to put his arms around her, to kiss her in front of everyone the way he'd wanted to all evening, to drop to his knees and pledge his love to her in front of the entire town. Hell, he'd wanted to claim her as his forever. Even when they were kids, he had looked at her on the playground and thought, Mine.
Sarah took a deep breath. "And now, I'd like to take your questions and address any concerns you may have about the proposed project."
Several hands went up, but Mr. Wilcox spoke up without waiting to be called on. "I think we'd all like to hear what our mayor has to say about this."
When Sarah moved so that Calvin could stand beside her, he took her hand in his behind the wooden podium. Their connection was hidden from everyone in the audience, but he needed her to know that no matter the outcome of tonight's meeting, they were in this together.
"Sarah has made some excellent points about our town and about how all of us could benefit from growth," he began. "With that said, I don't believe that condominiums are the best way to go about growing Summer Lake. What makes us special is our personal touch. Every building, every store, every park is unique. Coming to visit our town is not like going anywhere else. And living here, as all of us know who are fortunate enough to call Summer Lake home, is a true privilege."
Calvin called on one of the women who had her hand up. "Mrs. Wagner, do you have a question for Sarah?"
"I'm not sure how I feel about the condos, but I sure do like the idea of a new football field. Is this something we'll be able to do without the builder's money, Mr. Mayor?"
"You all know how important football is to me," Calvin replied, and everyone laughed. "I've taken a fairly detailed look at the city's finances, and I'm pleased to say that a new football field might not be as far off as I once thought."
Mrs. Graystone, an elderly woman who had lost her husband to cancer a year earlier, raised her hand. "I'd like to ask you about affordability, Ms. Bartow. Without my husband here to help maintain our house, I'm starting to realize it's getting to be too much for me to take care of. Knowing there are other options besides leaving for Albany would be comforting."
Sarah smiled at the woman, her eyes warm and reassuring. "My client intends to make sure there are floor plans in a range of sizes and prices. Granted, the units with the water views will be more expensive, but I'd be happy to show you the current blueprints if you'd like to see where the more affordable units are situated."
Mr. Radin jumped up next. "I, for one, would like to know what some city girl is doing coming into our town with her fancy buildings. Not only would your father not be behind these condos, but to my way of thinking, he would be ashamed to call you his daughter."
Calvin felt Sarah's world rock beside him as gasps of shock ricocheted through the crowd. But before he could grab the microphone, Sarah's mother was on her feet.
"Settle down, Ellis." Denise was fierce. "If you have a question, ask it. But don't you dare say something like that to my daughter again, or you'll have me to answer to."
Knowing exactly where Sarah got her strength from, Calvin told the crowd, "None of us came here tonight to give or listen to personal attacks. Sarah is here on good faith to talk to our town about her proposed building project. If anyone else comes at her like that, I'll shut this forum down for good."
"I'm very sorry to hear that you feel that way, Mr. Radin," Sarah said. Her voice was steady. Too steady. Almost as if she was systematically shutting down chunks of her heart to get through the evening. "As to what my father would think of it, perhaps you're right and he wouldn't have approved. I wish he could be here tonight with us to speak his mind as much as you do."
Calvin knew how hard it was for her to speak of her father, and yet there was barely a hint of emotion behind her words any longer. He wanted to pull her away from this stage, this barn, and yank down all of those walls she'd just rebuilt.
The heavy silence was broken by Dorothy's voice. "I don't have any problem with the condos, but I would like to know what your client plans to do with the historic carousel. Not only is it an important piece of this town's history, but I believe if we could all work together to find a way to restore it, the next generations of children would enjoy it as much as I did when I was a child."
"Thank you so much for bringing up the carousel, Dorothy," Sarah said, and Calvin was glad to feel her soften slightly beside him. "Admittedly, restoring it was not part of my initial project plan. But in speaking with you and my grandmother and my aunt and so many others whose memories are so strongly tied to the carousel, I have revised my plan." She paused to look over at her clearly surprised client. "I promise to work closely with the Klein Group to ensure we are doing everything we can to find a new home for the carousel so that present and future generations of Summer Lake children will be able to enjoy it as much as you did." She paused again and seemed almost surprised at herself as she added, "Actually, we'll be announcing a knitting contest soon from which all proceeds will benefit the Carousel Fund. Anyone who wants to find out more can come and talk to me or my grandmother, Olive, at her store."
When the crowd started to murmur with each other in surprise over the knitting contest to save the carousel, Calvin stepped up to say, "Before we go any further, I'd like to see a show of hands. From what you've heard so far, all those for the condos?" He was surprised to see more than a few hands go up.
"All those against?" Again, many hands went up, but not nearly as many people were opposed to the condos as he had expected.
"All those who would like to continue the discussion before making a decision?" Half of the people in the barn held up a hand.
Interesting. He'd always trusted his own biases to lead the town in the right direction. Suddenly, he wondered if he should have been talking less and listening more. Asking people what they did--and didn't--want, even when it went against what he thought was right for them. If not for Sarah coming into town and shaking things up, would he ever have learned this lesson?
More questions came, and he and Sarah fielded them, her hand still secretly in his the entire time, until Catherine gave him the signal to close the floor. But one final person stood up--Jerry, who had gone to high school with both of them and was now raising his young family in Summer Lake.
"I have one last quick question that I know a few of us are wondering about. With you and Sarah being a couple, do either of you really think it's possible to be objective about these building plans? Isn't there an inherent conflict of interest here? Should we think about bringing in a third, totally impartial party to assess the implications of this project?"
Sarah's hand went stiff and cold in his. He tried to keep his hold on her, but she was already slipping free. He saw her horrified gaze shoot to where her client was sitting beside her mother and watched a dozen different emotions cross her face--all of them grounded in fear. Even before she leaned into the microphone, Calvin knew what she was going to say, knew what she was going to do. And he also knew that there was no point in trying to stop her.
Because he couldn't hold on to someone who wasn't ready to be held.
Sarah's voice was surprisingly steady as she said, "Calvin and I are both totally able to be objective."
Calvin noted how she didn't say they were a couple again. She didn't say they weren't. She was the perfect politician, just like her father, hedging her bets, playing both sides.
Jerry looked confused. "So, you're saying you're not in a relationship? And that personal issues won't affect your objectivity? For either of you?"
The barn was utterly, perfectly silent as everyone waited for her reply. Calvin knew he shouldn't be waiting along with everyone else.
Because only a fool would wait for something that was never going to come.
"No," she finally said, her response barely a whisper into the microphone. "We're not in a relationship. And personal issues won't affect our objectivity. For
either of us."
As soon as she stepped away from the microphone, the crowd stood up to gossip over the strange twist the meeting had taken. But even as darkness stole through him, Calvin couldn't take his eyes off her. She looked pale. Stunned. As if she couldn't quite believe the words that had just come out of her own mouth.
Her eyes were big as she turned to him, shaking her head as if trying to clear it. "Calvin."
"Don't, Sarah. Just don't."
He knew it wasn't fair to blame her client for any of this, but in that moment, he actually hated the stranger as he came toward them. Simply because his presence tonight had forced her to admit the truth of her feelings--and to make her choice--not only in front of him, but before every single person at the meeting too.
She hadn't denied being in a relationship with Calvin; she'd simply failed to be the one person he needed in his life to make him whole. He had invested so many hopes and dreams and promises in her, in the future he envisioned for them. But in the end--the end where he'd thought everything would work out eventually--she just wasn't there, wasn't ready to step up to the plate and try.
He heard her client speak to her as if through a long tunnel--"I'm not sure what to say, Sarah. I'm more than a little confused about this carousel business and what a knitting fundraiser could possibly have to do with our project plans"--but Calvin couldn't stand there and listen one more second. Not when everything he'd thought was finally his wasn't. Not when he needed to get out of there and start figuring out how to pick up the pieces.
"Calvin, please wait!" Sarah had followed him to the small room behind the stage, her voice thick with emotion.
He felt broken. All used up. Emptied out. And still, he couldn't make himself leave. Not when she was still so close.
"I shouldn't have said that. My answer was a mistake. I saw the look on my client's face and freaked out. But I didn't mean it. You know I didn't mean it."
Calvin's throat was so tight he could hardly get any words out, and Sarah was blurring where she stood in front of him. "Your boss was there," he told her, unable--unwilling--to keep the sarcasm from his tone. "You had to protect your job."
She kept coming toward him, her hand outstretched. "I messed up. So, so badly. I was just acting out of habit, giving the kind of answer I've had to give a hundred times when a deal is going bad." Tears were in her eyes as she said, "Please, Calvin, listen to me. I swear, I'm going to figure out a way to make it right. I'm going to tell everyone I didn't mean it."