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Ticket to Paradise excerpt

   Dear God, Martin thought. She didn’t know she had won.

Five million dollars was probably sitting on the bottom of

that disaster she called a briefcase, more than likely cast aside

like a useless scrap of paper.

   Five million dollars!

   Of all the luck. Martin had faithfully bought his tickets twice

a week, never so much as winning more than five dollars,

once the bonus number, and here Lizzy waltzes into the Mini

Mart and claims the entire jackpot. Enough to save The

Banner. Enough to help his family. Enough to put his life back

in order.

   And it was his dollar that paid for her winnings!

   Lady Luck was definitely a woman.

   “Young man,” an authoritative voice sounded, waking him from his misery. “We have to talk.”

   The mayor and his entourage of assistants headed toward the door, but Tom Whitley paused long enough to send home a message, a directive Martin read loud and clear in his eyes. “Yes, sir, I think that would be wise.”

   “Tomorrow morning?” the mayor asked. “Ten a.m. in my office?”

   Martin had no idea what his schedule allowed for Friday, but he owed the mayor the courtesy of meeting on his own terms. He didn’t regret the words he had written in his editorial, but in hindsight they had been spiteful and abrasive. He liked Tom and agreed with his agenda, but abhorred his recent compliance with the City Council, a group of mealy-mouthed career politicians who fought change at every turn. Martin hoped the scathing editorial would light a fire under the mayor, but instead the piece had created a chasm between the paper and City Hall.

   “Tomorrow will be fine,” Martin agreed.

   The mayor nodded while Holly helped him on with his coat. “Do you think you can halt your libelous remarks until then?”

   Libelous? Martin had to smile. “You’re a public figure, Tom, and you are open to criticism. It’s hardly considered libelous and you know that.”

   “And what you called my public relations director?” the mayor retorted. “Ruining her reputation? Is that hardly considered libelous?”
   Martin paused, knowing that damaging a person’s reputation in print could be held accountable, but the comment had been humorous at best.

   “He didn’t ruin my reputation, Tom.”

   Lizzy approached the group, her eyes bloodshot and her cheeks puffy. Had she been crying? As much as Martin resented her stealing his winnings, he felt his anger dissipating. He could charm a woman into eating ice cream on the coldest day of the year, but he melted at the first sign of tears.

   “I’m sure Martin meant it as a joke,” she said softly. “I hardly think I will be unable to work in this town because of some stupid editorial.”

   Where before she had breathed fire and fury, Lizzy appeared as if she might break. Just then, a wicked idea came to him. Lizzy might need a friend right now, someone she might wish to repay for his assistance, especially since it was his dollar that made her rich. For the first time that morning, Martin felt hope. Perhaps The Banner wasn’t lost after all.

   “Still, use some restraint,” Tom bellowed to Martin. “Your father would never have written such a thing.”

   If the mayor wanted to match fighting words, he hit his mark. Martin felt the wound clear to his soul. His father had commanded respect from the entire community of Santa Helena. Everyone met with his father at The Banner, on his turf, including Ronald Reagan when he courted his father’s endorsement for governor. His father never had a poor Christmas season, nor did he ever lose subscription sales. Theodore Taylor fought off the Los Angeles Daily Times twice in attempted takeovers. And now Martin was practically handing them the company.

Looking at Lizzy in her defeated state, he knew what he had to do.

   “Tomorrow then,” the mayor said as he moved to leave.

   “Tom,” Lizzy said, touching the mayor’s arm. “My car broke down in a tow-away zone. It’s in the pound.”

   Tom glanced over at Martin. “Then get it out, Lizzy.”

   Lizzy pulled on the mayor’s sleeve, tugging him away. “It’s two hundred dollars,” she whispered. “I thought you could call Darryl and use your influence to...”

Martin watched as the mayor feigned innocence, no doubt on his behalf, as he listened to Lizzy’s tale. “I don’t pull strings.” Tom glanced in Martin’s direction.    “You know that, Lizzy. You’re on your own.”

   Holly placed the opened umbrella over the Mayor’s head and sent Lizzy a sympathetic look as they headed for the parking lot. When Lizzy turned back toward Martin, knowing he was the cause of the mayor’s refusal to help, the tears had disappeared, replaced by an anger he knew all too well. But Martin had a plan.

   “I have a friend at the pound,” he said. “He owes me a favor.”

   Swallowing hard, no doubt to combat more tears, Lizzy shuffled past him to the table to retrieve her briefcase. “You’ve done enough for two days, Martin. Do me a favor and leave me alone.”

   Martin leaned against the desk, one hip against the side of her briefcase interrupting her actions. “Now why would I do that, Lizzy, when I have a warm, dry car and your ride just left?”

   He expected his seductive words to warm her heart, but instead Lizzy bolted out the door, scanning the parking lot for the mayor’s car. As she glanced around the half-deserted lot of the Board of Education, rain spotted her face. Whether it was raindrops or tears streaking her cheeks, the sight caused Martin’s heart to constrict.

   “Damn,” he muttered to himself. He hated losing control.

   Martin opened the door, feeling the rush of cold air greet him, snaked an arm about her waist and pulled her back inside the lobby.

   “Get your hands off me,” she protested, although again the fire had left her eyes.

   “I have a car,” he said firmly, like a big brother. “I’ll take you home. It’s too late to call the pound but I can pick you up in the morning and get your car.”

   “I don’t want anything from you.” She pulled free from his embrace.

   “Then allow me, at least, to help you as a form of apology.”

   Lizzy stopped fighting and gazed suspiciously into his eyes. For a moment, Martin imagined she knew exactly what he was up to.

   “I’m sorry about the editorial,” he quickly said. “I didn’t mean to include you in my condemnation of Mayor Whitley. I just thought you had better ethics than to clean up that clear disregard for the law by the D.A.’s office.”

   The fire returned, full force. “It’s called a job, Martin. Maybe you don’t know what that means, having had a newspaper fall into your lap, never having to worry about your next paycheck.”

   Martin couldn’t help himself. He laughed, which only infuriated Lizzy further. The irony being played out before him was too much to bear.

   “I assure you, Ms. Guidry,” he bit out harshly, his humor gone, “that I do not live on Easy Street.” 

   He meant it as charming sarcasm, but anger and resentment emerged with the words. Martin wanted to follow up with something funny, something seductive to cover his blunder, but Lizzy’s features softened and she stared at him with new eyes.

   For a moment, he swore Lizzy saw the real Martin Taylor. Not the joking bachelor who caressed women with his beguiling words, nor the brother and son who laughed off the problems surrounding the newspaper to his family, convincing them all he had both his life and his career under control. For a moment, he swore Lizzy saw right through him. And it scared him to death.

   Martin glanced out the window at the pouring rain, anything to escape her gaze. “It’s storming pretty hard out there, do you want a ride or not?”

   Whatever thoughts were floating through Lizzy’s mind, she sobered with his question. “You don’t have to be kind to me just because...”

   “Where do you live?” He looked back at her, sending her the same authoritative look he gave his sister.

   “An apartment building on San Fernando, near the park.”

Martin picked up her briefcase and handed her the umbrella. “It’s the Ford Explorer.”

   Neither one said a word on the way to the car, their shoulders bumping as they fought to stay under the protection of the umbrella. Finally, Martin tired of the awkwardness and placed an arm about Lizzy so they remained dry and walked in unison. Her hair smelled of lavender and felt like silk against his cheek and he wondered — again — what she would be like cradled in his arms.

   “I can take it from here if you would unlock the door.” Martin looked up to find they had reached the driver’s side. Where had his mind drifted off to?

Martin unlocked her door and waited until she was inside and dry, then entered the Explorer. He drove the car on to the main highway while Lizzy sat silent, staring out the window.

   “Why do you dislike me so much?” Martin couldn’t believe he was asking such a juvenile question. He should be seducing her, not worrying about his feelings.

Lizzy turned slightly, enough that he could make out the soft rise of her upturned nose surrounded by a sprinkling of freckles. Her high cheekbones kissed by the sun accented her finest feature: two enormous brown eyes laced with long, luscious eyelashes. It had been those eyes that had entranced him on their first meeting. When she smiled, Lizzy Guidry could stop his heart.

   But she didn’t smile often in his presence. Although they had hit it off at first, when she had strolled into his office to introduce herself after the mayor’s election, something in their conversation that afternoon had soured her. They had laughed, talked shop, and recounted Santa Helena gossip. By the end of the hour, Lizzy had turned defensive and cold, refusing his request for a cup of coffee. A harmless cup of coffee. For the life of him he couldn’t understand what he had done wrong.

   Unless it was the way his eyes refused to obey him, falling upon her breasts like a schoolboy. He couldn’t help himself. Lizzy Guidry owned an adorable face, but she had the body of a goddess. Just the way he liked women too, soft and curvaceous, a woman he could hold on to.

   “I don’t dislike you,” Lizzy finally said. “I’m just mad at you right now.”

   Mad, he could deal with. “Look, I’m sorry about the editorial. I didn’t think calling you a name would hurt so much.”

   Lizzy’s gaze met his and her eyes glistened with unshed tears. Dear God, Martin prayed, don’t cry again. He hated when women cried.

   “It’s not about calling me a name,” she said harshly. “I need a new car, my grandmother’s rent at her nursing home went up three hundred dollars a month and Tom won’t give me a raise because of your stupid editorial.”

   “Why would Tom hold your raise hostage because of my editorial?”

   “Because he thinks I have control over what you write.”     

   Now, Martin became furious. “What I write in my newspaper has nothing to do with you or the mayor. It’s called freedom of the press. Surely, Tom knows this.”

   “Yes,” Lizzy retorted. “But he’s angry now and that doesn’t get my car out of the pound or keep a roof over my grandmother’s head.”

   “I’ll help you get your car.”

   “It wouldn’t be in the pound if it wasn’t for you. I have an oil leak and I was buying a pint last night at the Mini Mart before I got distracted.”

   “Hey, no one asked you to steal the last lottery ticket.”

   Martin felt his heart racing, angry once again that she had won five million dollars, money that should have been his. But that was ridiculous. If he had bought the ticket last night, he wouldn’t have chosen those numbers. It was an ironic stroke of luck.

   Lizzy turned back toward the window, but he saw her wipe a tear away. “You can have the stupid ticket.”

   He should have agreed. It was a prime opportunity. Martin could take the lottery ticket, announce that he had won and hand her a nice portion of the winnings. Within a day, both their troubles would be over.

Instead, he found himself driving up to the Villa d’Italia.

   Noticing they had stopped, Lizzy glanced his way with a questioning frown.

   “Hungry?” Martin asked.

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