A Maverick Under the Mistletoe

By: Brenda Harlen

Chapter One

In Sutter Traub’s opinion, Rust Creek Falls was as irresistible—and fickle—as a woman. Once upon a time his heart had belonged to this town and he couldn’t have imagined ever living anywhere else. Then she’d turned him out and turned her back on him.

Just like the only woman he’d ever loved.

Of course, he’d come back when she’d needed him—the town, that was, not the woman. Because Paige Dalton had never needed him, and she wouldn’t ever ask for his help if she did, and thinking about her now was only going to stir up memories and feelings he didn’t want stirred up.

So he focused his attention on the reason that he was standing in the back corner of town hall now: the imminent election. When his brother Collin had recently announced his intention to run for mayor of Rust Creek Falls, Sutter had impulsively volunteered to be his campaign manager. Which had resulted in him spending a lot more time in town over the past few months than he’d ever intended when news of the floods had first brought him home, which meant that he wasn’t going back to Seattle before the last ballot was counted.

But for now he just wanted this debate to be over.

It was the last public face-off between the two mayoral candidates—Collin Traub and Nathan Crawford—before the citizens of Rust Creek Falls went to the polls on Thursday, and though it had just gotten underway, Sutter wished it was already done.

He couldn’t have said why, but he had an uneasy feeling about the event. It might have had something to do with Nate’s smug expression when they’d been setting up. It was as if he had something up his sleeve and, knowing the Crawfords, Sutter didn’t doubt it for a minute.

As the debate progressed, he gradually began to relax. Collin was comfortable in front of the crowd, answering questions easily and confidently. He had a clearly defined plan to return Rust Creek Falls to its former glory and he made sure the residents knew it. Nate focused more on the history of the town than its future, and more on why he was the better candidate to fix the problems than how he was going to do so. But both candidates were—at least to all outward appearances—respectful of one another, and the spectators seemed to be listening to each side.

But when Thelma McGee—the former mayor’s mother and moderator of the event—stood up to announce that the debate was finished, a member of the audience loudly pushed back his chair and rose to his feet.

A Crawford supporter, Sutter immediately suspected, and the gleam in Nate’s eyes made him think that there was nothing spontaneous about the man’s actions.

He was a military man in a dress uniform with his medals proudly displayed on his chest, and Sutter’s heart immediately began to pound. One sleeve of the man’s uniform hung loose because he had no arm to put through it. Not just a decorated veteran but a wounded war hero.

Perspiration beaded on Sutter’s brow and trickled down his spine.

Thelma, bless her, never wavered. “I’m sorry, sir—”

“Master Sergeant Dean Riddell.” He barked out the name as if it was a military order.

“Yes, well, we’ve run out of time tonight and—”

“Time is irrelevant when our boys are fighting to protect our freedoms. And I want to remind the good people of Rust Creek Falls that they need to know if these candidates support our armed forces.”

“While your concern is acknowledged and appreciated, the eventual mayor of Rust Creek Falls has no voice with respect to military activity or spending. This is strictly about local politics.”

While Sutter heard and silently applauded her point, no one else did, because they’d all started talking and debating among themselves.

“Ladies and gentlemen—” Collin tried to settle the crowd while Nate just sat back with his arms folded across his chest and a smug smile on his face. “Do I need to remind you that my brother, Major Forrest Traub, is a decorated war hero, too? He fought valiantly and tirelessly for his country—for all of us—and I have never been anything but supportive of his efforts and his sacrifices.”

“Can you say the same thing about your campaign manager?” the master sergeant demanded.

And Sutter knew the damage had been done. It didn’t matter that everything Collin said was true; what mattered to these people was that there was mud to be slung—and it was Sutter’s fault that Collin was the one wearing it.

He’d been young and impetuous and probably a little too outspoken in his efforts to convince his brother that he’d already gone above and beyond in the service of his country. He’d vehemently objected when Forrest had announced his intention to reenlist for another tour, because he’d just wanted his brother to stay home and be safe.

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