A Cowboy's Temptation(5)

By: Barbara Dunlop

 “Excuse me?” This was going to be harder than he’d expected.

 “You’ve pushed everything I’ve said to the background, ignored me?” She placed the remaining chunk of funnel cake back down to the plate, wiping her fingers on a napkin. “I don’t know why that surprises me.”

 Seth found himself growing impatient. “Do you want to fight with me or talk to me?”

 “I want to collect signatures.”

 “That option wasn’t on the list.”

 Her eyes narrowed. “Do people really let you get away with being such a jerk?”

 “Usually, yeah,” he admitted, realizing Lisa would be kicking him under the table if she were here. “But give me the benefit of the doubt for a minute. I want to hear what you have to say.”

 Her green eyes darkened, but her voice went lower, more controlled. “I’ve told you in every way I know how. Trains are noisy, disruptive and dangerous. They will fundamentally change the character of Lyndon Valley forever.”

 “For the better,” he couldn’t help but put in.

 She clenched her jaw.

 “They’ll pass through town, what, three, four, five times a day. For that minor interruption, we’ll see enormous immediate benefit and enormous future potential. Mountain Railway is willing to pour tens of millions of dollars into this project, and we’ll be the ones who win.”

 “Is this what you call listening?”

 He stopped, regretting he’d defaulted to speech mode. “Sorry.” He lifted his cardboard coffee cup and put it to his lips.

 “It won’t just be three times a day.”

 He’d allowed it could be four or five, but he stopped himself from pointing that out to her.

 “It might be a dozen times a day,” she continued. “You know that line is going to eventually link up to Ripple Ridge. They won’t be able to resist that link because it cuts nearly two hundred miles off their northwestern interstate. You don’t think they’ll run their trains over the shortest route possible?”

 There was a very likely possibility she was right. But Seth was surprised she’d dug that deep into the company’s future possibilities.

 “That’s not in their plan,” was the best he could do as a comeback.

 She shot him a look of disbelief. “Please tell me you’re capable of connecting the dots.”

 “Trains run on schedules,” he said. “Can’t you plan your yoga classes and meditation during a quiet time, maybe do scrapbooking or some basket weaving when a train is due?”

 “Gee, I hadn’t thought of that,” she drawled. “I could organize my life around trains. How tough could that be?”

 He stayed silent for a moment, hoping against hope she wasn’t being sarcastic.

 “Your ranchers are profitable without the railway,” she pointed out. “It’s a convenience, not a necessity.”

 “Right back at you,” he responded. “Your hotel will survive with a railway. It’s a convenience to have one hundred percent peace and quiet, not a necessity.”

 “It’s a necessity.”

 “Why?” he challenged.

 “Women come to Sierra Hotel to get away from loud, sudden noises.”

 “It upsets their delicate sensibilities?” He knew he was being snarky, but the conversation was getting away from him. He wasn’t used to that.

 She cracked her first real smile and sat back in her chair. “Yes. My clients have exceedingly delicate sensibilities.”

 “Maybe they should work on that.”

 “I’ll let them know you said so.” She gazed levelly into his eyes.

 He got that he had amused her, that there was something she wasn’t telling him, but he couldn’t for the life of him guess what it was.

 “Bottom line, Darby. The train is good for Lyndon.”

 “Bottom line, Seth. The train is bad for Lyndon.”

 He gauged the confidence in her expression, realizing what it had to mean, and realizing she was as worthy an adversary as he’d come across in a while. “You’ve got enough signatures, haven’t you?”

 “I will have by tomorrow.”

 “I could arrest you, you know. Have the sheriff lock you up. Hold you overnight on suspicion.”

 “Suspicion of what?”

 He could tell she wasn’t taking him seriously.

 “Sedition. Rabble-rousing.”

 She smiled again, shaking her pretty head. “And I could sue you and Lyndon back to the Stone Age.”

 “You probably could.”

 “I absolutely could.” She picked up the last chunk of the funnel cake before looking him in the eyes. “You’re a smart guy, Seth. And you know how to rise to a challenge. You don’t have to cheat to get there.”

 “You’re pandering to my ego?” He couldn’t help but hope she denied it. And that hope made him realize he wanted her to have a decent opinion of him.

 “I’m being honest,” she responded.

 It was ridiculous, but his chest tightened with some kind of silly pride. “I’m not going to cheat.”

 That earned him another smile. “Which means I’m going to win.”

 * * *

 “Five hundred and ninety-seven,” Darby told Marta who was sitting at the computer in the great room at Sierra Hotel. It was eleven-fifty, and they only had ten minutes left to file the petition electronically. “How could we come so close, only to miss?”

 They should have worked a little harder, put up a few more posters, run another radio ad, or somehow made their pitch more compelling.

 Marta swiveled in the desk chair, her gaze calculating. “If it was me,” she began slowly.

 Darby waited.

 “I’d go ahead and add three more signatures.”

 “You mean forge them?”

 “Nobody real, just scrawl something illegible along the line. I’m sure they’d get lost in the crowd.”

 “That’s illegal. Not to mention immoral.”

 Marta gave a little shrug. “Risk-benefit analysis. If they double-check each and every signature, they’ll throw them out. If they don’t, we get a referendum.”

 “I don’t think I could ethically do that.” Darby had experienced too many situations where people claimed the end justified the means. It never did.

 “Okay, how about this. Six hundred is a lot of signatures to manually count. Are you sure we got it right? Could you have been off by one, maybe two?” She glanced at her watch. “We have seven minutes to file the petition. There’s no time for a recount. Are you absolutely, one hundred percent positive on the number?”

 Darby thought about it. Okay, that was plausible. How accurate could the true count be?

 “I’m sure the people at City Hall are going to double-check when they get it,” she cautioned.

 “True,” Marta agreed. “But if we don’t file, it’s a definite no. If we do file—” she hovered a finger over the computer keyboard “—we could get lucky. A long shot is better than no shot at all.”

 “You’ve scanned all the pages?” Darby asked.

 “A few are a bit blurry, making it, you know, maybe a little hard to get an accurate count.” Marta gave her a conspiratorial smile.

 “This’ll never work,” said Darby, even though she was reluctantly smiling back. Could they possibly fudge their way through? Their subterfuge wouldn’t make the final decision. It would only give people a chance to vote.

 “As a fallback, we’ll try for a dozen more signatures tomorrow. I double-checked. The exact wording on the regulation is: ‘A petition filed at least twenty-four hours before permit implementation. The petition must be endorsed by at least six hundred residents of Lyndon City.’ It doesn’t say the six hundred residents must have endorsed it prior to the initial petition filing.”

 “That has to have been the spirit of the rule,” Darby said, coming to her feet to read the screen. Had Marta found a loophole?

 “It’ll take a judge to say for certain,” said Marta. “And, in the meantime, if the railway gets bad press, they might rethink their commitment to the Lyndon Valley route.”

 Darby moved up behind Marta’s chair. “You’re frighteningly devious.”

 “Just thinking things through.”

 “I’m glad you’re on my side.”

 “I’m always on your side. Here goes nothing.” Marta clicked Send on the screen.

 They both watched as the cursor flashed across the screen. At eleven fifty-eight, it flashed “Sent.”

 “Do you suppose he’s still up?” asked Darby, picturing Seth in the mayor’s mansion. In her imagination, he was in blue jeans and a plaid shirt. She liked him better that way, relaxed and laid-back. When he dressed up in his suit, he seemed to get more uptight.

 “I’m sure he’s still up,” said Marta. “I’m guessing he’s swearing a blue streak about now.”

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