The restaurant’s door opened and Darren strode in, followed by Rodney. Michaela shrunk into the booth, holding her breath. The men spotted their group and started toward the table, but when Darren saw her sitting with another man, he changed direction.
His brow rose and his patented deal-closing smile appeared. Darren attempted to slide in next to her but Michaela wouldn’t budge. He balanced precariously on the edge of the seat.
Across the room, Michaela caught Kim’s attention. Kim rolled her eyes then pretended to yawn as Rodney and Chase carried on a lively discussion next to her.
“I’m Darren Arschfick, Mick’s husband,” he said, holding his hand out to shake Jasen’s.
“Ex-husband.” Michaela frowned and crossed her arms. She hated it when Darren claimed her, especially after he had neglected her during their marriage.
Jasen’s gaze jumped from Darren to Michaela.
“So what’s good to eat here?” Darren asked, glancing toward the bar.
“Nothing,” Michaela said, giving Darren’s shoulder a shove. “Jasen and I are going somewhere else.”
She shoved again and, frowning, Darren stood. Michaela scooted out of the booth and pushed past Darren with her nose in the air. She hadn’t intended to abandon Kim and threw her friend an apologetic smile.
Jasen stood and opened his wallet. He threw a five on the table and followed Michaela out of Hammered. In the sunlight and fresh air, she inhaled deeply.
“I’m sorry. I hope you don’t mind?” she asked.
“It’s okay.” Jasen glanced up the street and pointed. “I know a place with great food. It’s a food truck of sorts.”
“Of sorts, huh?” She fell in step with his long strides as they headed away from Fortuna’s central square.
“It’s more of a wagon.” He glanced at her. “You’ll see.”
They walked in companionable silence as she inspected the different Main Street buildings. They passed the steps leading up to the town hall. "Darren wanted to meet with the mayor today. A woman told us he isn’t in this afternoon. I thought I might talk to him before Darren. Do you know him?"
Jasen caught his toe on the sidewalk and stumbled a few steps. "Me? Yeah sure, I know him."
“Do you think he would be open to an outside consulting firm cold-calling on him?”
“I suppose,” Jasen said, rubbing his chin.
If she could get inside information before her ex, she’d really make him irate. Michaela smirked. “What’s the mayor like?”
“He’s a hot young thing.”
Michaela turned toward a skinny, old woman with a cap of dark hair and an ornery grin. Jasen covered his face with his palm.
“He’s young?” Michaela asked. Her father could be considered young compared to the woman.
“And hot,” the lady reiterated, while wiggling her eyebrows.
“What’s he like?” asked Michaela, trying to stymie a giggle.
“He’s single.” The woman fanned herself.
“Desire Hardmann, let me introduce you to Michaela Arschfick,” Jasen said.
“Nice to meet you, Michaela. So why are you interested in the mayor?”
Michaela sighed, glancing behind Desire to where Darren poked his head out of the restaurant. Thank God, they were far enough away that he wouldn’t hear the conversation.
Jasen and Mick shared a look before she answered, “I’d like to meet him.”
Desire’s gaze jumped to Jasen’s, then back. “Okay.” The old woman shook her head. “Haven’t you met him?”
“No, she hasn’t,” Jasen said, then hastily continued, “We’re walking down to Hamish’s wagon for lunch. Would you like to join us?”
”Oh, that sounds heavenly. I haven’t had Hamish’s wiener schnitzel in a long time.”
They continued down the street, passing an old fire station that looked abandoned. Weeds grew out of the foundation and window panes were cracked. “Is that building for sale?” Mick asked.
“The building is owned by the city and hasn’t been used for anything other than storage since the eighties,” Desire said.
Jasen nodded. “Christmas lights. Props for the high school play. Those types of things are stored there.”
“That’s a shame it’s not utilized. It’s a neat building.” Sadness panged Michaela’s heart.
Kim had been on the lookout for a building where she could start a coffee shop. The old firehouse would be perfect.
“It is.” Jasen agreed. He led her across the street and a delectable scent had her stomach rumbling.
“Mm. That smells awesome,” Michaela smiled at Jasen.
Turning a corner, she spotted a line wrapped around a chuck wagon shaped contraption enclosed in glass. Bags of chips hung on a line like laundry. “Burger’s Kraut Wagon” was hand painted in an olde English font on a sign over the window.
Jasen introduced Michaela to an older man, Brad Davidson, and his daughter, Jessie, who stood in front of them in line.
“Brad’s in my book club,” Jasen said.
“Wait. The book club again,” Michaela giggled.
“The men of this town are obsessed with my grandma’s books,” Jessie said.
“I’m waiting for someone to act out a hero for me,” Desire said, staring at Brad. His gray mustache twitched.
Michaela spotted a man in camouflage pants sitting on a bench some distance from the wagon. He stared away from the people. Something about him made her suspect he was homeless. Before she knew what she was doing, she stood in front of him. He wore an old tattered t-shirt and a grimy backpack sat between his worn boots. His sunken eyes glanced up when she stopped and stuck out her hand.
“Hi, I’m Michaela,” she smiled.
He hesitated, and then took her hand. A thin grin lifted his lips.
“Thank you for your service,” she said.
He responded with a stiff nod and pulled back.
“Can I buy you lunch?” she asked.
His features hardened, and he shook his head. “No, thank you.”
Michaela didn’t want to push her luck or insult his pride so she nodded then returned to Jasen’s side.
Desire smiled at the man taking orders. “I’ll take the Fortuna fire dog,” she said. “Hamish, have you seen the mayor lately? This young lady wants to meet him.” She pointed to Michaela, but the man stared open-mouthed at Jasen.
“He’s always around, Miss. I’m sure you’ll talk with him soon,” Hamish said.
Mick nodded, reading the menu. “What do you recommend for a newbie?”
Hamish grinned. “I’ve got you covered. Just tell me the size.”
“As big as I can get,” Michaela said, standing on her tiptoes trying to see into the wagon.
“Wow, and I thought I had an appetite for wieners,” Desire said, taking the wrapped dog.
Jasen insisted on paying for Michaela’s food. She placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you. Let’s go sit by that man.” She pointed to the homeless veteran.
Jasen carried the food while Michaela held the bottles of water. He sat on one side of the bench opposite the man. She sat between them.
“I hope you don’t mind if we join you, Tom,” Jasen said.
“No, not at all.” Tom glanced away as they unwrapped the sandwiches.
Michaela bit into the sausage style meat with sauerkraut and other toppings. Flavors exploded in her mouth. She hummed as she chewed, making both men chuckle.
The conversation touched on Tom’s service stint and then turned to Michaela’s family.
“My grandpa was in the army. My dad too. He’s a long-distance trucker now. I don’t see him much because he travels across the country all the time. He loves the west.”
Jasen’s thigh rested against hers and as he moved to ball the sandwich wrapper, his arm brushed hers, sending tingles up it. She wished she didn’t have to return to traveling companions.
“Thanks for being willing to leave the restaurant. I’m sorry I acted the way I did.” Michaela glanced down at the sandwich, embarrassed she’d let Darren bring out the worst in her. She had eaten a quarter of it, but her appetite had fled.
“It’s not a problem. I was craving the Kraut Wagon anyway.”
She glanced hopefully toward Jasen. “Really?
“Actually, yes, but Darren acted like a conceited jerk. I don’t blame you for wanting out of his space.”
She nodded and glanced down again. Tears pricked her eyes. “He has a way of sucking all the oxygen from the room.”
Jasen’s arm fell along her shoulder and he squeezed her against him. Her wounded heart beat faster at his tender touch. She brushed a tear away. “You must think I’m crazy for working with him.”
“You must love the work.”
Michaela nodded again. “I do.” She sucked in a deep breath and raised her head, focusing on the building across the narrow street. “We put plans together to revitalize small towns. We breathe life into them.”
“You think Fortuna is dying?” Tom asked.
“No. But there are signs of decay.” She twisted to face Tom. “This town has a steady heartbeat. It’s crazy, but I feel it. I’ve never felt something in my gut like this. It’s weird and scary.”
Tom grinned and glanced over her head at Jasen. “It’s home.”
“Would either of you like the rest of this? I can’t eat any more.” She lifted it toward Jasen first.
“Sorry, I’m stuffed,” he said, shaking his head.
Michaela lifted it to Tom. He smirked but took it. He made a similar humming sound while he chewed.
Jasen winked at Michaela; she felt her face heat. She wanted to speak with the mayor, but she’d rather spend her afternoon with the handsome stranger, Jasen.