A Sterling Proposal
A Town Named Eden Book 5
(Zoe Wilde & Luke Sterling)
The Wilde heiress… in Eden…
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
Luke Sterling would rather round up stray cattle in a summer heat wave than catch up on town gossip. In fact, he’d rather clean out his neighbor’s septic tank himself, but he knew better than to blurt out the truth.
“The ratio of raisins to nuts in my cereal this morning was off and don’t get me started on the coffee. I’m sure Joyce has switched brands—”
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said—”
“Bea, you’ve been coming through loud and clear.”
“First, you said you needed to have your eyes tested because the scales can’t be right. Then you told me how you couldn’t get through to your daughter because her head is crammed full of big ideas, leaving no room for common sense and… finally, you told me the rumor’s gone viral.” And that, he knew, was the clincher. “Assuming you want me to do something about it, how about I put in a request to have the town water supply tested?”
She hitched her hands on her hips. “People are not hallucinating.”
“Bea, there hasn’t been a Wilde in the area in over fifty years.” And, clearly, they were having a slow news day. Tipping his chair back, he looked out the window at the derelict building across the street. “Suddenly, Zoe Wilde surfaces as the new heiress and sets off a flurry of speculation, ghost sightings—”
“She’s real. The newspapers ran an article on her.”
He swivelled his chair from side to side. “Okay, then let’s send her some flowers,” he said and hoped that would put an end to that.
“What sort of flowers did you have in mind?”
“The sort that say congratulations.” He shifted in his chair. “But nothing too cheerful.”
“Flowers are cheerful by their very nature.”
“Nothing too bright then.” Because it might be perceived as too insensitive. After all, it had only been a few months since Zoe Wilde’s father had perished in that boating accident out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“So you want to congratulate her but you don’t want her to get too excited about it.”
“Just do what you think is most appropriate,” he said and tried his best to ignore the tug of curiosity about the new heiress. As far as he knew, she had no experience in the business arena; neither did her half sisters—both prominent social butterflies.
He looked up and noticed Bea giving him a waiting-for-the-penny-to-drop look.
“Is there a problem, Bea?”
“Just a tiny one. Blooming Buds is closed, but if you’re determined to send Zoe Wilde flowers, maybe I could get some from my neighbor’s garden. Or, maybe you could cross the street and go say hello—”
He chuckled. “Cross the street?” Now he knew she was putting him on. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d set foot on that side of town.
“You can deny it all you want but an hour ago Tom Ellis met with three women outside the Wilde building and that can only mean one thing—” The sound of screeching tires had his assistant turning toward the window. “The Grange boys.”
The local rebels without a cause… “What about them?”
“They just pulled up outside the Wilde building and they’re not bringing flowers.”
* * *
“What do I think of Eden so far?” Zoe asked herself, her voice pitched high enough for her sisters to hear. “Very picturesque. I drove from New York to Seattle once, right across Montana. Eden looks like a down under version of it.” With an expansive landscape dotted with cattle and a town sitting at the foothills of a rugged looking mountain range, and that was as much as she’d noticed since all her attention had been fixed on staying on the right side of the road… or rather, the left, and on trying to engage her sisters in conversation.
She still wasn’t having any luck. As soon as they’d arrived, they’d made themselves scarce going off to explore the rest of the building, or so she hoped. For all she knew they might have snuck out the back door, beating a hasty retreat back to Melbourne…
She wouldn’t blame them.
Zoe sent her gaze gliding around the lobby of the Wilde building. At one time, a millennia ago, it must have served as the hub of commercial activity in the area. Now…
Swiping the tip of her finger along a mantelpiece, she wrinkled her nose. There had to be an inch of dust covering every surface, nook and cranny.
The building had to go.
This would be her first decision as a Wilde. And a no-brainer, Zoe thought as she brushed the dust off her hands. Still, she should sleep on it. After all, it was part of her newfound heritage. She shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it all.
“Okay, all set,” she called out. The naïve chirpiness in her voice made her smile. It’s called fake it till you make it, Zoe.
And she’d been doing it for months now, trying to make sense of the new life she’d inherited, while everything that really mattered fell by the wayside. One way or another, she’d get her life back on track and rolling in the right direction. It was time to become better acquainted with her new family…
She peered up the stairs and was about to call out again when she heard what sounded like glass shattering against the building.
Back home in New York, she’d dismiss it as nothing but the neighbors having one of their usual spats, the sort that invariably led to foreplay and other types of sounds. However, she’d been in Eden for a couple of hours and hadn’t even heard a car drive by…
Nudging the front door open, Zoe saw Tom Ellis, the town lawyer she’d been talking with only a few moments before, striding away from a man who stood with his back to her.
She took in his thick brown hair curling around his collar, and then sent her gaze gliding from one shoulder to the other.
Nice, she thought looking at his butt long enough to be caught in the act when he turned to face her.
At first glance, he looked relaxed and friendly. And then she picked up another layer. Something quietly commanding. Contained. In control. As if nothing would faze him. He didn’t look like the type of person who would smash a bottle against the wall. In fact, he looked like someone who’d stepped off a Times Square billboard advertisement for the latest in casual country wear, his raw maleness making those male models look like a poor impersonation of the real thing.
Zoe automatically stretched her hand out and smiled. “Hi, I’m Zoe Wilde.”
He nodded and gave her a firm handshake. “I’m Luke Sterling.”
Here to welcome you to Eden, she mentally filled in, glad to know she hadn’t had to go chasing after the cattle baron—something she’d put at the top of her to-do list.
“A Wilde and a Sterling. Should we take a selfie?” Tom Ellis had mentioned something about a long running feud between the two families but she hadn’t taken any of it seriously.
The edge of his lip lifted while the rest of him remained unmoved.
When he released her hand, he studied her for a moment, giving Zoe the impression he liked to set his own pace.
“I heard you were paying us a brief visit.”
Brief? Twenty-four hours could go either way—snail’s pace slow or blink and you miss it fast. “I’m sort of playing it by ear.” She nodded. “I’m discovering my roots. It’s only been a few months since I learned of my Australian heritage.”
“And you think coming to Eden is the way for you to learn more?”
Her eyes danced around his face. She couldn’t tell if she’d heard doubt or amusement in his voice. “Well, it’s an obvious first step.” Although she had to wonder how much she could discover in one day.
“How did you come to that conclusion?”
It sounded like a perfectly reasonable question but the light chuckle she heard seemed to challenge her logic. “I’m told this is where it all started.” And where she could get in touch with the Wilde pioneering spirit, the trail of crumbs left by her father suggesting she needed to focus on the generation most likely to lose the fortune the Wildes had worked so hard to accumulate over the years. And apparently, this would be the place to do it.
Zoe pulled her gaze away from Luke Sterling, and looked at the smashed remains of a beer bottle. “Looks like someone got a little excited about happy hour.”
“Sorry about that. Some people around here have long memories.”
It took a moment for the words to register and she only managed to get the general gist of what he’d said only when she stopped wondering about the color of his eyes. “Long memories? Is that something I should be worried about?”
His easy smile had her heart doing a tap dance. “On?” she asked.
“How long it’ll take for you to discover your roots.”
Again, it sounded like a perfectly reasonable remark. However, Zoe couldn’t help wondering if there might be an underlying message she was missing because…
He really did have attractive eyes. A dark azure with a sparkle that suggested a hint of mischief.
Shaking her head, she told herself to focus. “I get the feeling there’s something you know that I don’t know, but should know.”
She’d seen that frown on too many faces lately. It was enough to make her wonder if they spoke the same language.
“Eden is a small town, Ms Wilde.”
He held her gaze without blinking.
“You know what, Luke… You don’t mind if I call you Luke?” The nod he gave her was measured, almost calculated to give a little encouragement, but not too much. “I’ve had quite a day and I wouldn’t mind changing out of these clothes.” Then sinking into a luscious hot bath, with a glass of chilled wine in hand, music wafting around her… “Why don’t we get together later on tonight for dinner and you can tell me all about it.” Preferably someplace with a liquor licence. She wasn’t much of a drinker, but suddenly… well, she wouldn’t mind a sip of something to chase away the edginess that had crept up on her.
* * *
Luke took a moment to appreciate Zoe Wilde’s large brown eyes and the soft curve of her lips, her glossy brown hair teasing her shoulders and cheeks. She had a winning smile and a lively way of expressing herself. Very engaging. Gorgeous, he thought.
But then reality kicked in.
When he tried to picture walking into a local restaurant with her he only managed to come up with ripples of murmurs followed by a tidal wave of hostility from the locals—the sort of first impression that would never be wiped away.
The smashed beer bottle notwithstanding, he knew the Grange boys were all talk and no action but he was glad he’d stepped in when he had because in this instance, the least likely scenario was the one most likely to unfold. He could only hope she wouldn’t stay here long enough to find out what it really meant to be a Wilde in Eden. Or at least what it had meant all those years ago.
“There’s really not much I can tell you.”
She looked down at the shattered glass and back at him, her lips curving into an easy smile. “So what was that all about?”
“A bunch of foolish boys behaving badly.”
“Is that normal around here?”
“No, not really.”
She folded her arms. “So… it wasn’t an accident.”
He shrugged. “You don’t need to worry. This won’t happen again.” Besides, it was late enough for her to want to start thinking about heading back to Melbourne. Problem solved…
Hearing the roar of an engine revving up, he whipped around.
The Grange boys were back…
* * *
So much for him saying she had nothing to worry about, Zoe thought as he stepped in front of her.
The picture taking shape in her mind didn’t look at all pretty and Zoe only had gap fillers to work with—bits and pieces generated by her imagination. And now this…
“Stay behind me,” he said.
The rusty old pickup did a drive by, the occupants hooting and jeering and throwing in a few howls for good measure.
“I seem to have walked into the middle of something but I’m having trouble deciding what.”
Luke turned back to face her. His hands disappeared inside his pockets. He cast his eyes around the Wilde building and then up and down the street.
Now that she thought about it, this side of the main street did look rather… shabby, she decided but the words run-down and derelict hollered in her mind. Were the Wildes responsible for the place going to rack and ruin?
“There’s some history between the Wildes and this town,” he admitted, his tone casual.
This had to be a joke. Some sort of welcome to Eden roasting. “Are you trying to tell me something happened so long ago no one really remembers the details—”
He sighed. “Your arrival might trigger people’s collective memory.”
That had definitely been laughter in his voice. “So I inherited a reputation which has preceded me. Care to fill me in?” Preferably over dinner, and she might actually start with a vodka martini. Then she remembered he’d already skirted around her suggestion to get together.
“Maybe this would be a good time to reassess whatever plan you have in mind as well as the length of your stay.”
“You mean, take pre-emptive action and leave before I inspire someone to do something more than throw a bottle at my building?”
He held her gaze.
“You can’t be serious.” Zoe felt a trickle of sweat roll down her back and something solid lodge in her throat. She refused to look at the shattered beer bottle again. It made no difference to her. “I’m sorry there are pre-existing bad feelings but to be fair to me, I had nothing to do with whatever went on…”
“…so long ago—”
Luke Sterling gave a slow shake of his head.
It seemed wise to stop, but she couldn’t. “I’m sure we can find some sort of middle ground,” she said lightly, “You know, a time-out zone, and take it from there as a starting point, a fresh start.” She thought it sounded like a reasonable suggestion. In light of what he’d just told her, she realized things might not run as smoothly as she’d hoped unless they first cleared a few cobwebs.
Zoe drew in a deep breath. While it had been a while since she’d stopped believing in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, she at least continued to embrace the spirit of possibilities, and yes, she believed in miracles and in restitution and forgiveness… in letting bygones be bygones.
“Maybe someone should have explained the realities of being a Wilde. In these parts, it’s an unquestionable disadvantage.”
She could work with that. And while she might be stretching it a bit, she could almost relate to the stigma. As a successful fundraiser and sometime social advocate, she had first-hand experience with disadvantaged groups.
She gave him her brightest smile. “While I appreciate your honesty, I’m going to give the townsfolk of Eden the benefit of the doubt.”
“What do you mean?”
She gave a light shrug. “I’m staying.” At least for one night.
“Are you sure about that?” His eyes skated around the building again and then back to her, the edges crinkling with amusement. “While the Grange boys are harmless, if anything happened to you… I’d feel responsible—”
She held up her hand to stop him. “Consider yourself absolved of any responsibility.”
Like it or not, she’d inherited a reputation for being a bad, bad Wilde. Zoe shook her head and smiling, she thought of all those locker room speeches delivered in the closing minutes of any great sports film.
She’d come too far to start backpedalling now.
As if to test her resolve, the Grange boys did another drive by, complete with loud hoots and honking.
She raised a mental fist at them.
Nothing they did would dissuade her from sticking to her plans. She didn’t care what else she learned about the family she’d only recently acquired. She might be a Wilde, but in her book that meant she could be whatever she wanted to be, not what someone else decided she was.
Copyright ©2016 Sonia Parin/All Rights Reserved