Fool's Gold Series
“Mom, even though I know there’s no Santa, is it still okay to have a stocking?”
Bailey Voss smiled at her daughter. Being a single mom was often a challenge, but every now and then she thought maybe, just maybe, she was getting it right.
“Of course,” she told her seven-year-old. “Christmas is about being with the people we love and sharing our traditions. A stocking is a tradition.”
Chloe beamed. “When can we put out our stockings? And decorate the house?” Her bright, adorable girl paused. “When we move, right? Can we put up our Christmas tree the very first night?”
“We can,” Bailey promised, confident she was going to be exhausted after a long day of moving, but determined to make this the best Christmas ever for her little girl.
Chloe had already been through so much, most especially the loss of her dad over a year ago. But she was happy and thriving now. Bailey and her daughter had made a place for themselves in Fool’s Gold and they were less than a month from moving into what Bailey hoped was their forever home. Bailey had a great job she loved, Chloe had friends and was doing well in school. A wonderful holiday season was exactly how she planned to finish up her year.
Chloe walked to the calendar attached to the refrigerator and counted out the days.
“Seventeen days until Thanksgiving,” she said excitedly. “Then twelve more days until we move and get our tree and stockings.” She hurried over to her mother and hugged her. “It’s almost Christmas!”
Bailey held her tightly, then stroked her hair. “I’m proud of you, honey,” she said, trying to keep from sounding too emotional. “You’re working hard in school and you’re a big help to me.”
Her daughter looked up her. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too, sweet girl.” She glanced at the clock on the stove and held in a shriek. “We are so late!”
Chloe laughed and pulled back, then ran out of the kitchen. “I’m ready. I just need my coat.”
Five minutes later the Voss women were walking briskly toward Chloe’s school. After dropping off her daughter, Bailey continued on toward city hall, where she worked as Mayor Marsha Tilson’s assistant.
Mayor Marsha was the longest-serving mayor in California. She ran her town with an impressive combination of carrot and stick. Bailey was pretty sure Mayor Marsha could twist the devil himself to her bidding. Today was no exception.
Only it wasn’t going to be the devil walking through the mayor’s office doors. Instead they would be visited by a tall, broad-shouldered man who got Bailey’s heart to fluttering in a way that really couldn’t be healthy.
“It’s just a crush,” Bailey told herself as she waited in line at Brew-haha for her morning latte, then realized that talking aloud in a crowd was a sure way to get her neighbors and friends to worrying about her. She pressed her lips together, then felt them curve into a smile as she thought about how being around Kenny Scott made her feel sixteen again.
She knew that having a crush was no big deal. It was a part of life. As long as she didn’t act on it, she would be fine. Because throwing herself at the muscular, former NFL player, and Super Bowl-winning receiver, would be foolish and possibly pathetic.
There was no way she was Kenny’s type. Not that she’d ever seen him with a woman, but still. He was gorgeous. Dark blond hair, big blue eyes. He was built like a superhero and strong. A gentle giant of a man. And speaking of big, his hands...
She held in another sigh, placed her order, waved at her friend Patience, who was manning the espresso machine, then moved to wait for her drink.
The truth was that famous former NFL stars didn’t date small-town single moms. Especially not those who were battling an extra twenty pounds. Bailey figured she was attractive enough. She’d been blessed with thick red hair and nice skin, but she wasn’t like those women in the gossip magazines. She was pretty much the same as everyone else in the normal world. She had a job, she worried about her daughter and much of the time her paycheck barely stretched to cover her bills. She wasn’t exactly a hunky-guy magnet.
But that was the beauty of a crush. She could look and dream all she wanted, for free. And if the man in question happened to be coming in for a meeting that very morning, then she was simply going to have more to sigh about later. Which made today a very good day.
As Kenny Scott’s friend Jack had once admitted, going to see Mayor Marsha was a bit like visiting the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. But without the flying monkeys or the man manipulating things behind the curtain. Unfortunately for Kenny, Mayor Marsha came by her power the old-fashioned way, and not through smoke and mirrors. If it were the latter, she would be so much easier to refuse.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of the woman, he told himself as he walked toward city hall. It was that he didn’t like situations where he couldn’t say no. And with Mayor Marsha, no wasn’t a word people generally uttered.
He knew he could tell himself to be strong. That she was merely an old woman. But the truth was far more complex than that. Mayor Marsha knew things she shouldn’t, and no one could figure out how. Kenny assumed she had a network of accomplices who fed her tidbits of information. She put them all into some retired NSA computer program that predicted behavior or something. He shook his head as he climbed the steps to the main entrance. Maybe he should simply accept the prevailing wisdom that the mayor wasn’t of this earth. Or had precognition. Regardless, she had summoned him and here he was.
He took a flight of stairs to the second floor and walked down the wide hallway. A sign directed him to the mayor’s office.
He walked through the open doorway only to get hit by a three-hundred-pound cornerback. Okay, not really, but that was what it felt like. He came to a stop, unnoticed by the single occupant of the office foyer, and told himself that he was imagining the body blow. And the attraction.
He knew the curvy redhead sitting guard outside the mayor’s inner sanctum. He’d seen her dozens of times in town, had talked to her. He even knew her kid. But while seven-year-old Chloe was adorable and only a little dangerous, the same couldn’t be said for her mom. Bailey Voss was a walking, breathing temptation. She should come with a permanent warning sign and a quarantine zone. Because when he was within ten feet of her, his brain shut down and he became an idiot.
He couldn’t figure out what it was about her that got to him. She was tall and he liked tall, but it wasn’t like that was so unusual in and of itself. The long, wavy red hair was sexy, but survivable. He wanted to say it was her big green eyes. There was an innocence there, a trust, and that appealed to him.
Okay, fine. He would admit it. He was just as mentally simple as every other man on the planet. Sex was important and when he saw Bailey Voss all he could think about was getting her naked and having his way with her. He was pretty sure that three or four hundred times would do the trick.
Under any other circumstances, he would ask her out, wow her with his charm, get her into bed and get over her. Or fall crazy in love with her. He was open to either. Only that wasn’t going to happen. Not ever. She was a single mom and he didn’t date single moms. Not now, not in the future. Because single moms came with kids and while a guy could get over falling for a woman, kids ripped out your heart and took it with them when they left. There was no recovering from that.
He braced himself for the inevitable feeling of being all feet and no brain, then cleared his throat. Bailey looked up and smiled.
That was all it took. One sweet smile and he was a goner. He’d played in the NFL—shouldn’t he be better than this?
“Hi, Kenny,” she said. “You’re right on time.”
“I figured if I wasn’t, she’d unleash the dragons.”
Bailey’s smile turned into a little laugh. One of those soft, sweet sounds that made a man think about how he should have matching towels and maybe get something monogrammed. He’d read once that men might have conquered the West, but women had civilized it. Truer words, he thought glumly.
“The mayor said to bring you right in,” Bailey told him.
She rose and stepped out from behind the desk.
She was wearing a dress. Some gray tweedy fabric that probably had a name or was the latest style. He didn’t care about the color or the style. What he liked was how the dress followed the generous lines of her body. The style emphasized her breasts and her hips. She wore boots with sensible flat heels and still came up past his shoulder.
She moved closer and suddenly he could smell some girlie shampoo or soap. It made him think of Bailey in the shower, which was dangerous and fun at the same time.
She moved toward the closed double doors and he followed. She came to an unexpected stop and he nearly plowed into her. Before he could move back, she turned to face him.
Her green eyes were big and her lashes were long. Her full lips had some kind of gloss on them and he briefly wondered if it had a flavor. Because every now and then when he kissed a woman he got a twofer. A sweet, sexy mouth and a hint of piña colada. It was nice. Women were nice and Bailey was the nicest of them—
He grabbed his self-control with both hands and deliberately took a step toward safety. Early in his career a coach had told him that he had one job on the field. To catch the football and run it to the end zone. Nothing else mattered. The advice had served him well.
When it came to Bailey, he only had to remember one thing. She wasn’t for him. If he kept that in mind, he would be fine.
“I should have asked,” she said. “Did you want some coffee? We have a pot going.”
Something flashed in her eyes and her smile broadened. He wanted to ask what she was thinking, but before he could, she’d opened the door to the mayor’s office and led the way inside.
The space was large with a huge desk and big windows. There were three flags behind the mayor’s desk. The U.S. Flag, the California state flag and one that he guessed was the seal of Fool’s Gold.
Mayor Marsha was in her sixties with white hair. She wore suits or dresses and pearls. On the surface she wasn’t the least bit intimidating, but he’d seen grown men bow to her bidding and be unable to explain why.
Today she had on a red dress. She smiled welcomingly when he followed Bailey to her desk, then rose and shook his hand.
“Mr. Scott, thank you so much for seeing me.”
Uh-huh, like he believed he’d had a choice. “Kenny, please.”
She motioned for him to sit. Bailey took the chair next to his and Mayor Marsha settled back in her seat.
The older woman studied him for a moment before nodding. As if she’d just made a decision. Kenny briefly wondered how big a pain in his butt that decision was going to be.
“As you know,” she began, “we have various service projects for our FWM groves.”
Fool’s Gold had its own version of scouting. Future Warriors of the Máa-zib. The Máa-zib tribe was the former indigenous tribe of the area. They had been a matriarchal society, so the FWM was for girls from age six to maybe ten. They progressed from Acorns in year one to Sprouts and so on until their final year when they were Mighty Oaks. The girls were in “Groves” and there was a Grove Leader.
Taryn, one of his business partners, was a co-leader of a Grove with her husband, Angel. Chloe, Bailey’s daughter, was in their Grove. Kenny had helped her and one of her friends learn knots this past spring.
“You know the Sprouts?” the mayor asked.
“Taryn’s Grove? Sure.” He looked at Bailey, but she seemed as puzzled as he was.
“Is there a problem with the Sprouts?” she asked her boss. “Chloe hasn’t said anything.”
“All is well,” the mayor assured her. “However, there is a slight logistical problem. Each Grove has a service project for the year. The Sprouts want to have a toy drive for the holidays. An admirable and ambitious project to be sure. But with Taryn and Angel traveling for the next month, they have no leader.”
“Taryn’s not traveling,” Kenny said. She would have said something to him and his partners. He’d just seen her yesterday at their staff meeting.
“She and Angel are going to Fiji for a month,” Mayor Marsha told him. “So the Sprouts will need someone to temporarily take over the Grove. I immediately thought of you two.”
Kenny felt the walls closing in. No way. Not him. He couldn’t be responsible for a bunch of little girls. Even if he had the time, which he probably did, he didn’t want to get involved that way. It was too close. Too personal. Plus the mayor had said him and Bailey. He couldn’t work with her. Not up close. She was too sexy and desirable.
“I’d love to,” Bailey said quickly. She smiled at Kenny, then turned back to the mayor. “It’s a great idea. This is only Chloe’s second Christmas without her father. Last year was so hard on her. I was worried how she would handle the holidays. I think focusing on collecting toys for needy children will help her see the joy in the season.”
Kenny swore silently. Totally tempting and nice to boot. Wasn’t that his luck? How was he supposed to say no now? He would look like a jerk. Plus, he liked Chloe. He didn’t want her sad over Christmas. He believed in self-preservation but not in being a jerk.
“Excellent.” The mayor handed them each a folder. “Here are the approved collection sites. The girls will each need to decorate a bin and then the bins will need to be emptied regularly. The toy drive will start the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That gives you time to organize the decorating and placing of the bins. The toys will be delivered to Sacramento on the nineteenth of December. They’ll be distributed that weekend.”
She gave a few more instructions, then thanked them both for agreeing to help. It was only when Kenny found himself outside the office that he realized he’d never agreed at all. Not that he was going to mention that now.
He sat in the visitor’s chair at Bailey’s desk and opened his folder. The neatly printed sheets detailed everything that had to be done.
“I know where we can get a cargo trailer,” Bailey was saying. “Mayor Marsha had me make sure it was available but I didn’t know why until now.”
He was having trouble taking it all in, and sitting this close to Bailey didn’t help. Once again he could inhale the scent of something a little floral, a little girlie, and it didn’t make thinking any easier.
“A cargo trailer will take a lot of toys,” he said.
“The town will come through,” Bailey said confidently. “Okay, so I see where we pick up the empty bins. We’ll need to arrange to decorate them. If the drive starts the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we should decorate the Saturday before. Does that work for you?”
She looked up at him and he found himself getting lost in her big green eyes.
“I never said yes,” he told her, knowing he sounded like an idiot.
Her mouth twitched. “Don’t let that worry you. Mayor Marsha does that to people. Unless you want to go tell her no.”
“I didn’t think so.” She lightly put her hand on his forearm. “It’ll be fun.”
Her fingers were long and slender and he could feel the heat through his shirt. There were a lot of words for spending the next month or so working with Bailey on the toy drive, but he wasn’t sure fun was going to be one of them. Torture was more likely.
“I, ah, have a big SUV,” he said after clearing his throat. “I can use it to empty the bins.”
“Great.” She pulled her arm back. “We’ll get a schedule together. Discuss it with the girls at the FWM meeting. They can sign up their parents to help with that, too.”
“There’s a meeting?” he asked.
She nodded. “We’re both going to have to be there. I know most of the girls because of Chloe, but they’ll have to meet you and we’ll discuss supplies for decorating.” Her glossy lips curved into another smile. “I can’t wait.”
“Me, either,” he lied, thinking it would have been so much easier to take on the flying monkeys.