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New Leash on Life

By´╝ÜRoxanne St. Claire

Chapter One

Chloe Somerset needed an idea. A big, wild, brilliant, jaw-dropper of an idea. But for a woman whose bread was buttered with creative concepts that transformed lackluster locations into tourist magnets, she was feeling kind of uninspired after one interminable Tourism Advisory Committee meeting.

The town of Bitter Bark, North Carolina, was in dire straits, and not one of the local business owners had given her anything to work with so she could help them. Usually in Chloe’s first meeting with a new tourism client, someone would say something that sparked a firestorm of promotional possibilities.

Nothing had sparked, except maybe a little chemistry between the egotistical undertaker and the spa owner with bright red hair.

Now that they’d all left, Chloe sat at the town hall conference room table, reaching absently for some hand sanitizer in her bag. While she rubbed it on her hands, she stared at the rows of business cards she’d lined up like little soldiers, trying to think of ways to remember all the names.

Ned, the newspaper editor. Nellie, the librarian. Jane, who owned the B&B, and Dave Ashland? Which one was he? Oh, the real estate broker who spent the whole meeting looking at his phone. And that man who owned the dog place—

“Whew, they’re gone.” Aunt Blanche swept back into the room and closed the door behind her, her sweet blue eyes glistening. “And you were magnificent, young lady.”

Chloe held up both hands to stop any compliments she didn’t deserve, and to let her hand sani dry. “All I did was listen,” she said. “And make promises I hope I can keep.”

“I hope so, too,” Blanche said, sliding into a chair next to Chloe. “You can see we’re in big trouble and, as mayor, I’m taking the brunt of it. I’m sure they all left here to go gossip about how much they want me to step down.”

Chloe searched her aunt’s face, marveling, certainly not for the first time, how sisters could be so different. Blanche Wilkins was warm, kind, caring, and accomplished. Doreen Somerset, Blanche’s sister and Chloe’s deceased mother, had been none of those things.

“I’ll come up with something,” Chloe assured her, realigning the cards again. “I need a few days to think and get familiar with the town.”

“I’d think after that info dump, you’d be familiar enough.”

Chloe smiled. “There was a lot, but the major takeaway I got was you want to be ‘the next Asheville.’”

“Did you hear that expression often enough?” Blanche asked on a snort.

“Let’s just say if it had been a drinking game, you’d have to call the ambulance.”

She didn’t laugh. In fact, Blanche’s expression grew serious. “We have to share ambulance service and trash pickup with the next town, Chloe. That’s how bad it is.” She dropped her head into her hands. “I feel like I let Frank down,” she whispered. “He was the best mayor this town ever had. And the best husband. I shouldn’t have run for mayor and taken the job after he died, but I knew that was what he wanted.”

Chloe offered a comforting touch. Blanche had always been Chloe’s lifesaver when things got really bad when she was a kid—which was often—and Chloe had longed to return that kindness. She couldn’t let this dear woman down.

“We’ll make Uncle Frank proud, I promise. I do this for a living, Aunt Blanche.”

“But we’re not even paying you.”

She waved it off. “You can pay me after the tourists pour into this town. I’m a tourism consultant and run my own business, which means I can dictate my schedule and pick my clients. I have a few weeks until I hear from some island in the Caribbean that I’m sure will hire me, and this is a perfect way for me to use my free time.”

“Your clients are islands in the Caribbean, and yet you’re taking on some two-bit town in North Carolina as a favor to me.” Her eyes welled up. “How can I thank you?”

“I’m thanking you, Aunt Blanche,” Chloe said softly. “You’re my godmother, and we both know that on more than one occasion, you were a savior to me.”

Blanche averted her eyes, keeping their unspoken agreement of never really talking about the literal mess that had been Chloe’s childhood. Her mother’s inability to throw anything away or organize her life into some semblance of sanity wasn’t exactly an elephant in the room. It was more of a black hole of shame that they both tiptoed around so they didn’t fall in.

But it bonded them. Blanche was the one person on earth who understood Chloe, and Chloe clung to Blanche’s “normalcy” as a way to remind her that those lovely genes were in her DNA, too.