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“Sophia Gonzales.” Mayor Jeffrey Bane’s voice hardened on the Z of her name but drew out the last syllable with the ripe pity Sophia had come to hate over the last eighteen months. The hiss of the S lingered as if he couldn’t even be bothered to hide his snake nature. And why should he? His family was one of the largest land owners in the Rogue Valley—maybe all of Southern Oregon. They’d perched ensconced, swallowing up land like a ravenous beast since before Oregon was a state.
He pulled her application out of a glossy navy leather binder with the city’s gold embossed seal on it.
“You may rise,” he said.
“Does he also expect a curtsey?” her best friend Riley Flanagan muttered beside her.
Sophia bit back her smile. Jeffrey probably wouldn’t blink if she swooped low. For a moment, temptation whispered. But no. She was serious about wanting to be on the five-person city planning commission after an unexpected resignation created an opening. Bear Creek was her town, and she loved it and her community. She wanted them both to thrive.
Jeffrey loved Bear Creek only as it served his need to be important.
Sophia stood and took two steps forward.
“Questions, Mayor Bane?” she asked, raising one eyebrow and letting a soft smile play around her lips, hoping she looked confident instead of snarky. She could hear Riley’s eye roll behind her.
He blinked. And Sophia wiggled her toes in her Frye boots—less of a tell than clenching her fists. The arrogant idiot had read her application, hadn’t he? He and the town council couldn’t flatly reject her now that she’d finally figured out a way to forever step out of the role of grieving fiancée everyone—even Riley—had cast her in.
“I want the position on the city planning commission.” Sophia took another step forward.
“Temporary position,” Jeffrey snapped, making city council member Jennifer Nevens grimace.
“Yes, I understand that all the planning commissioners are up for reappointments for a two-year term in May,” Sophia said, wondering how much mayoral ring kissing the four members looking at her curiously had to do to keep their appointments. “I love Bear Creek. I’ve lived here all my life. My family, like yours, is seventh-generation Oregonian. We have lived and farmed and worked in the Rogue Valley since before Oregon was a state. I own a business in town and volunteer in the Entrepreneur Pathways Program at Bear Creek High School. I am a member of the chamber of commerce and president of the Bear Creek Shop Local marketing group. I have also been on the Bear Creek Festival and Market Committee, which, as you know, plans and runs the farmer’s market spring through autumn and also organizes the Christmas Market.”
Jeffrey looked…there was no other word for it than pissy. His mouth pursed and moved up and down like he wanted to interrupt her as she listed her civic involvement. He closed his fancy binder with her application inside.
“The Christmas Market that was nearly a nonstarter after so much time and effort had been expended and so much council time had been wasted hearing about your little organization’s petitions,” he drawled, leaning on one armrest of his massive, winged chair, forefinger to his temple.
“The one-hundred-year storm washing out the covered bridge and toppling trees crushing a corner of the covered structure in River Bend Park was hardly the committee’s fault,” Sophia said softly, not breaking eye contact even as anger stirred in her belly.
Of course he would seize on one perceived flaw—an act of God—and judge.
“But we found a new venue for the Christmas Market last year, and it was a success,” she reminded him. “And when the city council refused to repair the bridge even though it was listed on the state’s historic register, the committee privately raised funds and received government grants to fund repairs for the bridge and the covered structure in the park.”
The four planning commissioners, to the left and behind the mayor, stared at her, and Sophia had the impression they thought she should run while she still had the chance. The three city council members looked…worried.
“Another point in favor of my application,” she bulldozed through, “my business on Main Street has been opened—”
“Yes, yes, yes,” he interrupted, not looking at her. “Your little art store.” He made art sound like a curse.
“It’s a boutique featuring local artisans,” Sophia said softly. “You came to my store once last year and purchased a hand-loomed alpaca shawl for your mother, a hand-pressed selection of infused olive oils for your grandmother, and a saxophone turned sconce light for your—” her pause was deliberate “—man cave.”
She said the two words neutrally, but Riley barely restrained her snort. Sophia had known that would amuse Riley. She’d been indignant that Jeffrey, the bane of her existence in high school—pun always intended—had purchased one of her creations.
“Media and entertainment room,” he said coldly.
“My apologies,” she said sweetly. Did he have any idea how weak he looked? Pity stirred. It was as sad as it was unfathomable that Jeffrey Bane, who was wealthy, educated, connected, and handsome in a preppy pretty-boy way, could be so insecure that he’d have to snatch power in every situation. He wasn’t smooth or subtle, just desperate.
Did she really want to work with him more closely?
But did she want to help Bear Creek rise above its reputation as a drive-by town on the way to Ashland and bloom into its full economic potential? Absolutely. And until someone harnessed the resources and gumption to challenge Jeffrey Bane for the position of mayor, any improvement to Bear Creek had to get his stamp of approval by manipulating the city planning commission, as the city council mostly acted as a Bane Enterprises rubber stamp.
“Mayor Bane,” Sophia said, “I have long been involved in this town, as have you.” She’d worked hard. He’d been appointed. “When we were teenagers, we worked side by side with my brothers and so many others to create the trail that runs along Bear Creek as part of Eagle Scout projects and the worthy Save Bear Creek program.”
His father had started that, but it had been a ham-handed attempt to divert the creek from local farmers to instead create a lake, around which the Banes had property where they’d planned to build resorts. The state’s environmental commission had stepped in when local farmers, including her parents and grandparents, had protested that it would leave many farmers without access to water.
“You will not find anyone more dedicated to preserving our town history while also thinking of its future.”
“Cue swelling music,” Riley whispered, and Sophia clenched her teeth and smiled so she didn’t laugh. She’d practiced that line with Riley yesterday.
“I know you have good intentions,” Jeffrey said patronizingly, and Sophia drew in a deep breath using her diaphragm not her shoulders to keep her patience, as she was about to be hit with a major mansplain.
“My grandparents and parents still farm here. My brothers have started a vineyard management company and their own wine label. You and I both have a lot of skin in the Bear Creek game,” she said, jumping in front of his cutting ‘no.’
So much for patience.
“I was going to say before I was interrupted—” He glared down at her, and Sophia knew, absolutely knew she should placate him. She wanted to be involved in city planning. She’d wanted to for a while, but it had taken her time to feel she had enough experience and, even then, she’d worried she didn’t have enough. And yet when she’d heard who else was stepping forward—friends of the mayor who hadn’t lived in town since high school, with businesses in Medford and who had used their parents’ addresses for their applications, she knew she needed to act now.
“That I am of course concerned about your mental state.”
“My…mental state?” she echoed in disbelief.
She heard Riley stir behind her and turned her palm outward in a silent plea to stand down. Riley had always been fiercely loyal and a force of nature. Sophia, too, was strong but less overtly, and none of the people in the room she hoped to be working with would respect her if she didn’t fight her own battles. She hadn’t even wanted Riley to come, but Riley was presenting her final plan for her Christmas Light Garden after the three applicants for the planning commission opening interviewed.
“Emotional state, whatever.” He waved his hand. “You recently lost your…um, fiancé, Jorge…and—”
“His name was Enrique Reyes. He lived in Bear Creek. He grew up in Bear Creek. He went to high school with your sisters and was a star tight end on the football team when you were a freshman. He served his country in the army and then returned home to help his parents and to serve our community as a smoke jumper. He died trying to protect our valley and our people from losing everything.”
You know his name.
She hadn’t been aware of moving, but now she stood directly in front of Jeffrey Bane and the city council who sat up on their elevated dais.
If I’m ever on the city council, we’ll burn that thing and not make people look up our noses.
Sophia was tall. Nearly six feet, and she wore chunky heels so she didn’t often have to look up to anyone. Jeffrey shrank back a little, and she could see his pupils enlarge.
“If you were truly concerned with my emotional state, I think you’d be able to remember the name of the man I loved, who died in the Almeda fires two summers ago. He has his name alongside other heroes who died in the line of duty protecting our town on a commemorative plaque in the front of city hall. A place where you work. I was on the committee of citizens who raised money for the plaque, as the city’s budget had ‘no flexibilities for unexpected expenses.’ I’m excellent at keeping within my budget. My store has never been in the red one month since its opening.”
His mouth opened. Closed.
“Or have you never looked at this plaque because you only use the back entrance?”
“Thank you for application,” he practically spat at her, pushing the glossy leather binder off to the side. “There are other applications to review, so my office will be in touch.”
“But the other applicants are not in the room for this meeting.”
“They are busy businessmen, pillars of their community.” Jeffrey half rose out of his seat indignantly.
“In Medford.” Sophia kept herself calm. He should have known she would be prepared and that he couldn’t rattle her. She’d been a star debater in high school who’d regularly outscored him.
“The other applicants don’t live in Bear Creek,” Sophia said to the three city council members who looked like they’d rather be elsewhere. “And all of you know it. A legal, local address is required in the bylaws to serve on the city planning commission, as well as on the city council,” she said. “And the other applicants didn’t even bother to show up for the interview today, which shows all of you how seriously they take planning for Bear Creek’s future.” She included the four city planning commissioners in her pointed stare. “So my question to you, city council members and planning commissioners, is do you love your town? Do you take stewardship of it seriously enough to think independently and appoint the most qualified candidate?”
Her heart thundered so loudly she could barely hear herself speak.
“I’m going to take that as a yes,” Sophia said. “Thank you all for your time.”
She smiled. Les Brandis and Bruce Wilcox, the two long-time members of the planning commission, stared at her, mouths open for a moment before Les snapped his shut and nudged Bruce to do the same. Steve Brandis, Bruce’s brother who worked with him and whom Sophia rarely saw around town, stared at his brother in a silent plea. Chase Hill, the youngest member of the city planning commission—likely in his early forties—winked at her.
“We meet to review any submitted plans first Monday of the month at city hall, seven p.m.,” Les said. “My wife usually provides us with a pie. Bruce stops off and gets a travel thingy of coffee from the Caffeinated Goat. Chase Hill brings fixings and barbecue from the Last Stampede. You can bring salad or whatever girly thing you’d like. My wife says I need to get more fiber.”
His brother snickered.
“But don’t go pilfering your family’s veggie plot yet,” Les said. “We don’t meet in December. After the first of the year works just fine.”
“Nothing has been decided,” Jeffrey Bane objected. “All the applications need to be reviewed.”
“We all did our reading before we got here, Mayor,” Bruce said more cheerfully than Sophia would have expected. “Rules are rules. Girl’s a local.”
Sophia’s spine shuddered at “girl.”
“The city charter is a living document. Rules and bylaws do need at times to be amended to fit the circumstances,” the mayor said with a grab at dignity.
“Sometimes you gotta swim against the current,” Bruce said, leaning back in his chair. “And sometimes you just gotta flow with it. What’s next? I’m missing my supper and don’t want to be here all night.”
“Thank you,” Sophia said, feeling her heart settle down to a more normal pattern.
“There are still many things to be decided,” the mayor said coldly.
“Then let’s decide them,” Jennifer, the lone female council representative, said, tapping her manicure on the arm of her chair. “And move on with the agenda. I need to get home and make sure my twins are doing their homework, not gaming with God knows who around the globe.”
It wasn’t perhaps the most inspirational demonstration of democracy at work, Sophia thought, sitting down. She hoped she hadn’t soured anyone other than the mayor for Riley’s presentation. Her friend had been tweaking her plan for months, and had taken over one of the large pole barns on her boyfriend Zhang Shi’s vineyard property as her workshop so she could build and tinker with her light show construction during the year. Sophia had seen parts of it lit up as Riley had added on to the light garden she’d done at the last minute for the Christmas Market up at Fire Ridge Winery last December.
Riley stood up, a bounce in her step. She lightly squeezed Sophia’s shoulder as she moved past her and connected her laptop so the city council and planning commission could see her presentation.
Sophia watched, excitement and nerves swelling through her. She’d done it. She’d taken the next step in her plan to move on and rebuild her life. Now she just had to get her family on board so that they’d stop worrying so much, coddling her like she was a fragile, vintage ornament no longer hung on a Christmas tree and cherished but instead protected, wrapped in tissue and stored away.
End of Excerpt