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“Well, hey, if it ain’t our resident author,” the waitress greeted them, cracking her gum between her teeth. Her bright eyes turned predatory upon examining the handsome elegance of the man accompanying Corinne. “And who’s this? Ain’t one of yer brothers, is he?”
“No, Tansy, this is Uberon,” Corinne answered with a laugh. “ He’s just visiting.”
Ignoring the cool look the tall man gave her, the waitress tapped Uberon’s shoulder and said, “Well, y’all can visit me any time, good lookin’.”
An unaccustomed feeling of jealousy surged through Corinne, spurring her to respond, “Get your own man, Tansy. This one’s taken.” The waitress lauged and leaned forward. "You let me know if he’s got any brothers.” She winked and got to business. “Y’all know what ya want?”
Corinne shook her head and relaxed, not quite knowing why she’d staked her claim to Uberon like that. It simply wasn’t like her. So, she placed a generous order that included a slice of the coconut cream pie that was the diner’s specialty. Tansy looked expectantly at Uberon who simply replied, “I’ll have the same.”
“Sure thing, handsome.” She winked at Corinne with irrepressible good nature and sauntered off to place the order.
“Forward woman,” Uberon commented in an undertone.
“Tansy wants a husband so badly she can taste it,” Corinne explained with empathy. “She barely managed to finish high school and good jobs are scarce around here. But she’s goodhearted; there’s no malice at all in her. She’d make some farmer a devoted, hardworking wife.”
“You are kind.”
Corinne shrugged. “Her prospects aren’t good. She deserves a man who will love her and treat her well—and there just aren’t that many eligible bachelors in Winterset. Most kids here grow up and leave for college and never come back. Those who don’t leave either can’t or they’re tied to family farms.”
She looked around the diner, silently noticing that most of the patrons were a generation or two older than she. She returned her gaze to Uberon’s and held it. “This village is dying. It’s too far from Athens to catch the university crowd.”
Uberon listened as his mate explained.
“About six or seven years ago, the village council decided to sponsor a farmer’s market to capitalize on what this area does have, a lot of vegetable gardens, farms, and old-fashioned handicrafts. The Christmas fair gets in some regionally acclaimed folk artists and visitors from a pretty large area, but it’s not enough to sustain a hotel or do more than add a temporary boost to the local economy.”
Corinne paused and realized she’d been lecturing him. Blushing, she took a breath and apologized. “Sorry, Uberon. I got a little carried away there.”
“You care about these people as a good queen should,” he replied.
“Queen?” she spluttered and shook her head. “I am no queen.”
His eyes took on a far-away look and he added so quietly she had to strain to hear the words, “I lost the caring of my people and left them to my son, who never cared at all.”
“Your son?” she echoed.
“Marog. He is dead.”
Overcome by sympathy as well as confusion, Corinne reached across the table and covered his hand with hers. “Oh, Uberon, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”
He turned his hand to curl around hers. He lifted it and leaned forward to press a kiss to the knuckles. “You bring me naught but joy.”