“We all are stunned.” Mike shot his brother a look. “Considering how busy the guy is with his real estate business and his town committees.”
“Oh, he’s very, very busy, all right.” Sheila winked and she clearly meant an entirely different kind of busy.
Mike frowned. “So the budget is fine?” he asked Sheila, obviously to change the subject.
“You have enough money for the fabrics, Jasmine?” Sheila asked.
There was a pause while Jasmine seemed to descend from her pink cloud. “Hmm? Oh, uh, yes. I’ll have sketches soon. This is my friend, Autumn Beshkin, Sheila.”
“So pleased to meet you,” Sheila said, shaking Autumn’s hand with both of hers. “We’re so grateful to have your talented friend with us. Aren’t we lucky she had time to do our pageant?” She turned to the brothers.
“Very lucky,” Mark said, looking moonstruck.
Good freakin’ Lord. Autumn caught Mike’s look. He seemed to feel the same as she did.
“So, shall we get started? Hmm?” Sheila sang, holding out her arms to shoo Jasmine and Mark before her like baby chicks.
“Let me know if you need anything else, Sheila,” Mike said.
“Count on it,” Sheila said, the airy music gone from her voice. Beneath the sugary gratitude was a woman who would kick ass when necessary. That made Autumn smile.
Mike turned to her. “Like I said, this festival’s big—one-five-oh. Sesquicentennial, though everyone says ‘Huh?’ when you use that word. Big budget, fancy pageant and a full festival.”
“And you’re in charge?”
“That’s what they tell me.” He spoke as though it was a burden, but she could tell he wouldn’t have it any other way.
She understood. Nevada and Jasmine sometimes accused her of running the revue when she filled in the gaps. Her official job was promotion and scheduling, but she did what needed to be done. “I’m here to help however you need me.”
“Yeah.” In the cool dimness of the auditorium, he gave her that look again. Saw right into her. She’d never felt that before with a man and it startled her. For a second, she seemed to be floating in a pale version of Jasmine’s pink cloud. Weird.
Mike seemed to jolt back to normal himself. “So, have you eaten?”
“Not yet, no.”
“How about I treat you to dinner? We can go to Louie’s if you like Italian. Yolanda’s Cocina, the diner down the street, has Mexican food. Got a write-up in Tucson Weekly, mostly for the kitschy artwork.”
“The diner sounds good,” she said, ignoring the steady buzz of attraction in her head. This was not a good idea.
She needed to eat, didn’t she? And the better she knew the mayor, the easier it would be to give him what he wanted at work, right? She could ferret out job details. Sure.
And enjoy his wry smile, intense eyes and nice smell….
Lord, she was acting just like Jasmine.
THE MINUTE THEY stepped into the funky diner, Autumn felt at home. She loved the campy velvet paintings on the wall and the shelves overflowing with Mexican handicrafts—brightly painted skulls, Día de los Muertos tableau and statues of La Virgen. She even liked the mariachi music blasting loud enough to rattle her fillings.
A gray-haired woman wearing an apron headed their way, then stopped to yell over her shoulder. “God-dammit, Rosalva, we’re going deaf.”
Smiling at them, she spoke in a normal tone. “Sit toward the back, Mike, would you? Esther’s still swole up from that abscess, so I’m running my stumps off.”
“Sure thing, Suze.” Mike led Autumn down the aisle, greeting everyone he passed, asking questions and answering the ones he was asked. He introduced Autumn as Lydia’s fill-in. Autumn felt curious looks follow them to the back booth.
“Tongues are wagging now,” Mike said, shaking his head.
“Why is that?”
“Because you’re gorgeous and I’m not married.”
“These people need to get lives.”
But he looked suddenly serious. “Listen, Autumn, if I made you uncomfortable today in any way, I apologize.” Color shot up his neck and he looked utterly shame-faced.
“You didn’t,” she said, not ready to point out the fact that she’d taken advantage of his weakness.
“I’m not usually like that.”
“It’s okay. Really.” The man was apologizing for the one thing she completely understood—he was a male animal with a sex drive. There was nothing wrong with that at all.
In fact, her body was celebrating his masculinity this very instant. Her skin felt hot, her nerves jumpy and she crossed her legs against the swelling ache in her sex.
Not helpful at all. She was supposed to pick her boss’s brains, not jump his bones.
“I’m glad to hear that.” Mike handed her a laminated menu. “Look this over, but you’ll want the chiles rellenos, medium spice and a nopalitos-and-goat-cheese salad.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I just know.” He winked as though he’d figured her out right down to her taste in Mexican food. Attraction zipped between them, making the candle flicker. Or maybe that was how unnaturally hard she was breathing.
“How about because it’s the next best thing to our machaca burros, which we’re usually out of this time of night?” Suze said in a raspy voice, talking around a cigarette, which wagged as she talked.
“There’s that.” Mike grinned.
“We only offer the one salad,” she added. “It’s a good one but it’s all she wrote.”
“Guess that’s what I’ll have then,” Autumn said.
“Double it,” Mike said. “And two Tecates.” He looked at Autumn. “Goes great.”
“Is he right, Suze?” Autumn asked, getting into the down-home attitude.
Suze winked. “Comin’ right up.” She left and their gazes collided, then bounced away. Hers landed on the art on the wall behind him. It was a velvet painting of Elvis as a bullfighter, smart and ironic. She smiled. “I like the art in here.”
Mike turned to see what she was looking at. “We may only have two streetlights, but we know our velvet paintings.”
“Evidently. They’re all around.” She looked around the place. “You’ve possibly cornered the market.”
“We should put that on our Web site. Could bring us some art lovers.”
“You’re always thinking about your job, huh?”
“I’m the official town worrier.”
“Is there a lot to worry about?”
“Enough. We need business growth badly. Our bank is losing customers to the big chains. The grocery and hardware stores struggle. People tend to shop in Tucson. The idea is to give people reasons to spend their money in town, churn it back into our pockets.”
As he talked, he fiddled with his silverware and she couldn’t take her eyes off his round-tipped fingers. He shifted his weight on the bench, moving with an athlete’s restlessness. He was well-built, so what did he do for exercise?
Stop staring at the man.
“That’s easy enough to understand,” she said, focusing in.
“But people don’t think like that. They think about saving money or buying what