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"Good for you!" Tee said, chuckling. "I'd pay to see the film of that."

I shuddered at the mention of film. Were a roomful of federal agents even now sitting around, watching me bust Alex Hodder across the chops? Not to mention the footage of me kicking him in the nuts?

"It did feel kind of good," I admitted. "In an awful way."

Tee busied himself fixing me a plate, slicing off some of the chicken, adding a deviled egg and some potato salad.

"So," he said, trying to sound offhanded. "Not to put you on the spot or anything, but have you had some time to think about what we talked about earlier?"

I took another sip of champagne. "A little bit."

He handed me the plate. "Look, Dempsey. I promised myself I wasn't going to pressure you to stay here. Tonight was just going to be about us. And our future together. But that was before I heard the crap that asshole Hodder tried to lay on you. I don't know who you were before you came to Guthrie, but I don't believe you were anything like what Hodder accused you of being."

"I was an idiot," I whispered, blinking back tears. "And remember-I told you in the beginning, I did have a crush on Alex. I guess maybe I turned a blind eye to what he was doing. God help me."

Tee put his wineglass down so abruptly it sloshed champagne onto the cloth. "I'd like to get my hands on that guy. He used you! He saw a young, vulnerable girl, and he manipulated you." He reached over and cupped my chin between his hands. "You are nothing like the person he described."

"You only see what you want to see," I said. "You don't really know what I'm capable of doing."

"No," he said. "I see you as you are. Today. Here's what you're capable of, as far as I can see. You took a run-down ruin and made it into a home. You finally stood up to your father. You dealt with your mother. You inherited an irascible old lady and her dog, and saved both their lives. And you not only stood up to a crook, you brought him to his knees. You've become a part of this community, Dempsey. You can't leave now."

He let go of my face and took a sip of champagne. "Wow, big speech, huh?"

"Wonderful speech," I told him. "I think maybe you missed your calling by not going into politics."

"Politics!" He made a wry face. "I'd rather write about the rascals than become one of 'em."

"Guthrie's not such a bad place," I said slowly. "But I do wish there was a Starbucks. Or maybe just a Whole Foods."

"It ain't Camelot. But Guthrie is a good place, with good people. You go back to D.C., and what? Pick up where you left off?"

I shook my head. "No, there's no going back there, even if I wanted to."

He leaned forward, so that our foreheads were almost touching. "What do you want, Dempsey?"

If he'd asked me that question earlier in the day, especially right after I'd left New Macedonia church, I probably couldn't have told him. But as improbable as it seemed, I'd found some answers in the few short hours since then.

The words just seemed to tumble out. "I want to finish what I started. There's so much left to do at Birdsong, and we're almost out of money. Mitch says old houses hemorrhage money. He wants the place sold as soon as possible. But, even if I could sell it, what happens to Ella Kate? It's her home. And Shorty's. I can't just put her out on the street, like a broken piece of furniture. If I had a job, maybe I could buy Birdsong from Mitch myself. He did promise to split any profits with me. Who knows, maybe he'd let me make payments or something."

He nodded, his face serious. "So, what's the answer?"

I chewed on a grape. "You know of any openings in this neck of the woods for a disgraced junior lobbyist?"

"Hmm," Tee said. "No, but I do happen to know of a firm that's looking to hire a feisty, energetic young attorney for a general practice."

"That sounds vaguely interesting. Maybe you could give me a referral?"

He leered at me over the top of his wineglass. "I could give you more than that. A lot more."

"Be serious," I told him.

"I'm serious as a heart attack," Tee said. "Just think about it. I'm not ready to totally give up practicing law, but running the newspaper is taking up more and more of my time. And Dad's got more work than he can handle. He's been talking about trying to slow down a little. Come work for us. If not for me, for Dad. You love him, he loves you. It's a no-brainer. Just think, we'd be Berryhill, Berryhill, and Berryhill."

He kissed me deeply, as though that would seal the deal.

"Hey," I said, pulling away. "Was that a merger offer or a marriage proposal?"

"Both," he said, pulling me back into his arms.

"Uh-uh," I said. "Berryhill, Berryhill, and Killebrew."

He stood up, gave me his hand, and pulled me to my feet. "Agreed," he said, pulling me toward the bed. "Now, can we finish these negotiations a little later?"

It was later, much later, in fact, that we hashed out all the details of the merger proposal. I'd drifted off to sleep, with Tee's arms wrapped securely around me, when I heard my cell phone ringing. Terrified that it might be a call about Ella Kate, I stumbled, naked, toward the chair where I'd left my pocketbook.

I grabbed the cell phone.

"Hello," I said breathlessly.

"Dempsey?" It was FBI Special Agent Jackson Harrell.

"Jack?" The room was near freezing. I groped around in the dark for something to wrap around me, and managed to come up with the checkered tablecloth. "What's wrong?"

"Wrong?" He was crowing. "What could be wrong?"

I held the phone away and looked at the clock at the bottom of the phone's readout screen. "Jack, it's nearly midnight. Are you drunk?"

"Drunk, hell no," he said indignantly. "I just thought I'd share a little good news with you, is all. Are you near a television?"

I looked around the room and saw Tee's tiny flat-screen television, and then I remembered. No electricity.

"No," I said impatiently. "There's no TV. Why? What's happening?"

"Well, that's too bad," Harrell said. "'Cause if you did have a television, I'd tell you to turn on CNN so you could watch your buddies Alex Hodder and Tony Licata doing the perp walk."

"They've been arrested? When? The U.S. attorney said it might take a while."

"She meant hours, not days," Harrell said, chuckling. "We had agents waiting for Hodder when he got off the plane. And by the time they'd escorted him out to the main terminal, what do you know? Somebody had leaked the news to the press. Your friend Shalani from the Post was there, front and center. I think you'll be seeing a story tomorrow or the day after, clearing your name. Girl? You shoulda seen Alex Hodder trying to walk with his jacket pulled over his head. And he's still limping from that nutcracker you put on him. I tell ya, Dempsey, it was a beautiful sight."

I yawned despite myself. "That's good, Jack," I said sleepily. "It's fantastic. Thanks for letting me know. I'm sure I'll see the footage in the morning. Good night, Jack."

And then I remembered that suitcase under my bed at Birdsong.

"Oh, yeah. Jack, wait," I said. "What about the suitcase? Will you be sending a U.S. marshal or somebody to pick up the money?"

There was a long pause. I could hear voices in the background, and then static.

"Money?" Harrell said. "What money? Good night, Dempsey. See ya around."

Recipes.

Ella Kate's Beef Stew.

6 to 8 servings cup all-purpose flour 1 tsp. salt.

1 tsp. cracked black pepper 2 lbs. beef chuck roast trimmed of fat, cut in 1-inch cubes (or precut stew meat) 2 to 3 T. vegetable oil 4 cups beef broth or beef stock.

1 bay leaf 2 stalks celery, roughly chopped 1 large onion, roughly chopped 5 medium-size red potatoes (skin on), cut in eighths 1 cup baby carrots, roughly chopped 1 T. GravyMaster 2 T. cooking sherry Place flour and seasonings in large Ziploc bag, add cubed meat, close, and shake to coat. Heat oil in large, heavy-bottomed lidded pot such as Dutch oven, add meat, and cook over medium heat, turning until meat is browned on all sides. Add beef broth, and bay leaf, cover pot tightly, reduce heat, and simmer on stovetop approx. 1 hours, or until meat is fork tender. Add vegetables to pot and return to simmer for additional hour. When vegetables are tender, remove meat and vegetables from pot with slotted spoon. Whisk in GravyMaster and cooking sherry. If gravy needs thickening, you may whisk 2 T. of flour into 2 T. water. Over medium heat whisk thickener into gravy, stirring constantly till smooth. Check seasonings and add salt and pepper if needed. Return meat and vegetables to gravy to heat through.

Lynda's Fire-roasted Tomato Soup 8 generous servings stick ( cup) butter (or 4 T. olive oil for vegans) 1 onion, finely chopped 1 cup baby carrots, finely chopped 3 T. minced garlic Two 28-oz. cans fire-roasted San Marzano tomatoes 1 bay leaf tsp. red pepper flakes.

tsp. dried thyme tsp. dried basil Salt and pepper to taste.

1 T. sugar 6 cups low-salt chicken broth (or 6 cups vegetable broth for vegans) Optional: buttermilk or low-fat sour cream stirred in before serving, chopped fresh basil leaves Melt butter in heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Saute onions, carrots, and garlic until translucent. Add canned tomatoes with their juice, and all seasonings and chicken or vegetable broth. Cover and simmer 40 minutes. Remove bay leaf. For smooth soup use immersion blender or let cool completely before pureeing in food processor or blender. Reheat and swirl in 1 T. buttermilk or low-fat sour cream. May be garnished with fresh basil.

Dempsey's Egg Salad 4 generous sandwiches.

8 eggs, hard cooked cup finely chopped celery cup mayonnaise (preferably Duke's) cup sweet pickle relish 1 tsp yellow mustard.

Salt, pepper, celery salt Peel and roughly chop hard-cooked eggs. Toss in celery. Fold in mayonnaise, relish, and mustard. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and celery salt.

For sandwiches use multigrain bread; add lettuce and red pepper rings.

Acknowledgments.

As always, I'm indebted to others for invaluable advice and support given during the writing and research of this novel. Any errors or misstatements of fact are due to my own bumbling. Huge thanks go to James Van Camp, of Pinehurst, North Carolina; Beth Fleishman of Raleigh; William L. McKinnon, Jr., and Sharon Douglas Stokes of the U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of Georgia, who shared legal expertise; FBI Special Agent Greg Lockett in Atlanta; Chrissie Shoemaker, DVM, who helped save Shorty; the Scribblers, including Diane Chamberlain, Margaret Maron, Katy Munger, Sarah Shaber, Alex Sokoloff, and Bren Witchger; the Weymouth Foundation for the Arts and Humanities of Southern Pines, North Carolina, where the early germ of the book was hatched; and Diane Kaufman of Mermaid Cottages and Ron and Leuveda Garner who gave me shelter on Tybee Island, Georgia.

On the professional level, I've had the best of the best with the wonderful Carolyn Marino and the rest of the HarperCollins gang, and Stuart Krichevesky and "the girls" at Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency guiding me at every step of the way.

On the personal level, without my family, Tom, Andy, Katie, and Mark, nothing would be possible. To them I send oceans of love and thanks.

About the Author.

MARY KAY ANDREWS is the nationally bestselling author of Deep Dish, Blue Christmas, Savannah Breeze, Hissy Fit, Little Bitty Lies, and Savannah Blues. A former journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mary Kay Andrews is available for call-ins and in-person visits with book clubs. For more information, visit the "For Book Clubs" page at www.marykayandrews.com or email your request to [email protected]

Visit www.AuthorTracker.com for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins author.

ALSO BY MARY KAY ANDREWS.

Deep Dish.

Blue Christmas.

Savannah Breeze.

Hissy Fit.

Little Bitty Lies.

Savannah Blues.

end.

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