Bride by the Book (Crimson Romance) (2 page)

BOOK: Bride by the Book (Crimson Romance)
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“Don’t mind Dolly.” Cliff smiled past Garner’s shoulder. “She always looks like she just finished eating a sour pickle.”

Dolly sniffed and ignored Cliff. Garner bit back a laugh, knowing that Dolly disapproved of Cliff’s diet and would likely retaliate by setting a dish piled high with butter before him.

Garner turned. He might have known his kind-hearted brother-in-law would be unable to resist soothing the stranger in their midst. In spite of knowing she was too young to rate serious interest on his part, Garner couldn’t resist basking in such youthful vivacity. The girl smiled. Garner almost flinched in the face of that beaming smile directed at Cliff.

“Thank you.” The girl smiled up at Dolly when the glass of water plunked down on the table. “If it isn’t too much trouble, may I please have some fried eggs and hash browns?”

“Ain’t no hash browns in this place,” Dolly said, with enormous contempt for the very concept of hash browns. “You’ll eat grits with breakfast like everyone else, or you’ll eat nothin’. “That’s the menu. Take ’em or leave ’em.”

“Grits,” the girl repeated. Another beaming smile spread over her face. “I’ll take them. Thank you so much for mentioning them.”

Dolly glowered. “Shouldn’t have to mention grits on a breakfast order.”

“Come on, Dolly,” Garner coaxed. “Can’t you see she’s a Yankee? How’s she supposed to know every breakfast down here comes with grits and only grits?”

Dolly scowled, but her voice lost some of its bite.

“She could look at the menu for starters,” she said and stalked back to the counter.

To Garner’s surprise, the girl’s dancing blue eyes followed Dolly. Her mouth twitched with enjoyment. The realization that this girl had the most kissable lips he’d ever seen was like a kick in the gut to him. Since when had he gone around ogling teenyboppers?

The girl’s laughing gaze met his, then Cliff’s, and the two broke into outright laughter. Garner wondered what it would feel like to be able to laugh like that. He was surprised to note he felt mildly jealous of Cliff, because Cliff could laugh so easily with this young girl.

“Is she always like that?” the girl asked.

“I’ve lived here five years,” Cliff said solemnly, “and she hasn’t changed a bit during that time.”

“I’ve lived here most of my life, and she hasn’t changed since I was a kid,” Garner agreed, studying the girl closely.

She smiled back at him. Her eyes widened, but to give her credit, she employed no coy come-ons. Garner frowned, remembering how he’d caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror that morning and had decided he was beginning to look saturnine. In his opinion, there was nothing about him worthy of feminine admiration. A wise female would leave him alone.

“She must own the place,” the girl said. “By the way, how does one eat grits?”

“It depends on how thick they are,” Garner said. “The proper consistency of grits is a philosophical matter of great seriousness to connoisseurs of Southern cooking.”

She gave him a beaming smile. “I can’t wait to try them. This is so exciting.”

Exciting? Eating grits? Garner studied her again. There was such a thing as an excess of enthusiasm. Especially when it made a man in his early thirties feel like a dour sixty-year-old.

Still, she appeared to be enjoying the exchange for what it was worth, and to have no feminine designs on him. Or was she just being exceptionally clever?

“Not getting any grits at all is a matter of even greater seriousness,” Cliff said, looking regretfully at his plate.

“Shut up, Cliff,” Garner said. “When you’ve taken off those ten pounds, you can have grits again. But I’d advise you to leave off the butter—”

“Not now,” Cliff said, groaning. “This is my brother-in-law, Garner Holt, the resident health nut. If he mentions butter one more time in my hearing, I’m going to go berserk.”

The girl smiled sympathetically. “I know exactly what you mean. I’m from California, and everyone there is counting fat or carb grams except me. You can’t even buy a hamburger without being made to feel guilty by all the vegans.” She rolled her eyes. “And don’t get me started on the no-gluten freaks.”

“No wonder I’m always on a guilt trip.” Cliff fixed a meaningful stare on Garner. “Hamburgers are my favorite food, and my brother-in-law here acts like I’ll die tomorrow if I eat one.”

Garner ignored him and focused on the girl’s delicious gurgle of laughter. Her unbridled joy in life made him long for something he had lost years ago. He stared at her full, smiling lips and wished she was old enough to date. He hadn’t been interested in a woman in the past two years, but he’d love to spend some time in this girl’s company, getting his battery recharged, so to speak.

The girl looked at Garner reproachfully. “I used to leave pizza boxes and French-fry cartons lying around my office in hopes that they’d keep the resident health freaks on the other side of my door.”

“Did it work?” Cliff asked.

“Does it work with him?” she asked, nodding at Garner.

“It gets me a nice lecture on the fat and salt content of French fries and pizza slices,” Cliff said mournfully. “What kind of work did you do in California?”

“I was a ... an office worker.” Her smile bloomed forth once more. “I do hope they have lots of offices around here. I’m looking for a job.”

That did it. Garner slid out of the booth, clutching the envelope with its precious contents. “See you later, Cliff. I’ve got to get busy on some telephone calls.”

“I’m coming. I’m coming.” Cliff cast one more glance of dislike at the remains of the chicken breast on his plate. “It was nice meeting you. You’ve just moved here? We hope you enjoy living in Smackover.”

“Oh, I love it already,” the girl said, beaming at them. “I adore the flowers and the big shade trees. Now, if I can just find a good job … ”

“Try one of the employment agencies in El Dorado,” Garner recommended. “We’ll be seeing you around, I’m sure.”

He paid his bill, feeling vaguely guilty about his curt behavior. He had to squelch the desire to go back and say something friendly by reminding himself she was far too young for a man who felt as ancient as he did this morning.

“You’re in another weird mood,” Cliff complained. “That was the nicest-looking woman to come along in years, and you hardly gave her the time of day. What the hell happened to you in Dallas that made you hate women so much?”

Garner felt vaguely ashamed of himself. “I don’t hate women.” He glanced at the ad in his hand. “Although I’ll have to rethink that statement if this résumé turns out to be from Mindy Adams.”

Cliff shrugged good-naturedly. “Why not hire Mindy and be the boss from hell?”

“Because I’d have to spend a few minutes with her before I could fire her.” Garner headed out the diner’s glass door.

“Why not give our little friend a try?” Cliff nodded toward the wide, picture window. “She does office work.”

Garner glanced back as they waited on the curb for a car to pass before they could cross the street. The young blond was sipping her water. Garner noted she wasn’t watching them and felt vaguely surprised, both because she wasn’t watching them, and because she was enjoying Smackover water. Garner had thought he was the only person who liked the strong sulfur taste.

“She probably answered the phone for her daddy during Spring Break,” he said.

“Well?” Cliff grinned at him, brown eyes twinkling. “Wouldn’t getting your phone answered help you out some?”

Garner laughed and slapped his brother-in-law’s back. “You have a point there. If this ad doesn’t pan out and your young friend shows up looking for a job, I’ll let her take Mindy’s calls. That’ll get Mindy off my back, at least.”

“You ought to take Mindy out a couple of times.” Cliff pretended to have a great interest in Garner’s battered green Blazer as they approached the driveway of the house that contained their offices. “You could stand a little social life, and Mindy would probably never bother you again once she finds out what a bear you really are.”

“Come on, Cliff.” Garner paused at the sidewalk leading to the front door. “Mindy’s convinced she can make me over into a society lawyer, but I didn’t know you and Laura thought I needed making over, too.”

“We don’t.” Cliff headed down the driveway to the front door of his own office and said over his shoulder, “We just think it’s time you quit mourning over whatever happened in Dallas and start living again.”

Garner remained on the sidewalk with his mouth half-open and no retort available while Cliff opened a door at the side of the house and disappeared from sight.

Garner shoved his hands in his pockets. So. Everyone thought he was mourning his dead marriage and his dead corporate law career. Maybe it was time he did something about that misconception.

But not with Mindy Adams.

The young blond in the diner across the street passed fleetingly through his mind. Garner took wistful note of the faint desire to get to know her better. It was too bad she was so young. By the time she was old enough for Garner to ask out, she’d have lost that attractive zest for life.

Garner entered the small front room that served as a reception area, refusing to glance toward the unoccupied secretary’s desk that held central position. He went into his own office, tossed the résumé down on the desk in the single bare spot he maintained for actual work, and studied it once more.

He dialed the number, conscious of a curious feeling of impending … something. He couldn’t call it disaster. It was more like fate, or destiny, or some other approaching event that would change his life forever.

He ignored the craven impulse to hang up the phone. He had to have a secretary, at least for long enough to clean up some of the paperwork inundating him.

While he waited, he surveyed his surroundings. If he wanted impending disaster, he need look no further than his own office. Papers, legal tomes, and thick file folders representing current and settled cases were stacked everywhere. The wastebasket brimmed over with his aborted attempts at typing his own documents.

Also, the floor could use a good sweeping, and every surface needed dusting. Garner shrugged. If he managed to get a secretary, he’d be able to rehire his old cleaning service. The service had quit a month ago because of the impossibility of cleaning around the stacks of books lining the floor of his office.

Garner had only been practicing law in his hometown of Smackover, Arkansas, for two years, but a visitor to the office would have thought it far longer. Never a neatness fanatic, Garner preferred to stack things where he could lay his hands on them. The problem was, many of the surrounding stacks contained folders and papers he no longer needed to lay his hands on.

Garner studied the résumé once more as he counted the third ring. It was amazing how three months without a secretary could back things up, even in a small office like his.

And now he’d received this résumé with its promise of succor. Garner held his breath while the other phone shrilled a fourth time.

You’d have thought secretaries were available for hire, even in a small place like Smackover, Garner thought resentfully. But that wasn’t the way things were. People who claimed to be secretaries these days couldn’t type, couldn’t spell if they could type, and as for asking them to file a folder away in alphabetical order, forget it. In the past weeks, he’d given up on finding someone with computer skills or the ability to use a dictating machine. He was now willing to settle for a person who could use the old typewriter he kept for addressing envelopes.

The phone rang another ten times before Garner gave up at last and picked up the file of a case he needed to work on. After twenty futile minutes spent on that, when he realized the amount of typing that was going to be required before he could file the necessary motions, he tried the number once more.

On the third ring, a woman answered the phone in crisp, businesslike tones. “Miss Angelina Brownwood speaking.”

In spite of himself, Garner’s hopes rose. At least the woman knew how to answer the telephone, and she didn’t mind having everyone know she was a “Miss” rather than a “Ms.”

“I’m calling about the résumé you sent out,” he said. “I’m a lawyer in need of a legal secretary who knows how to use a computer.”

He sounded too eager. He should have beat around the bush a little and tried to feel out her skills and experience.

Miss Angelina Brownwood was silent a moment. Just as he was about to ask if she was the person who had sent out the résumé, she spoke.

“I’m a secretary who knows how to use a computer, although I’ve never done legal work before,” she said, in cool, even tones. “May I know to whom I’m speaking, please?”

Garner concentrated hard on her voice but found himself unable to identify her accent. She was definitely what Southerners called a “Yankee,” but that term was liberally applied to accents hailing from New England and the Midwest, all the way to California.

“I’m Garner Holt. My office is located on West Hickory Street, across the street from the New South Diner.”

“I’ve seen the diner,” she said, still cool and precise. “Very well, Mr. Holt. I’d better come in and discuss the job requirements with you. When would you like to see me?”

Just like that, Garner thought, amazed. No nonsense. No equivocating. His heart beat fast with hope. But she was bound to be in enormous demand with some of the local business offices.

Unless she was an ax murderer. Garner looked around his dusty, cluttered office once more. But if she could clear up some of this mess …

“How long have you been a secretary, Miss Brownwood?”

“Five years,” she said. “How long have you been a lawyer?”

Garner blinked at the wall, which held his framed diplomas and certifications. “About seven years,” he said drily.

Having her as his secretary was probably going to be like having a tough maiden aunt who saw through you to the bone, Garner decided. No matter how much you loved her, you were always terrified she was going to take you over, body and soul.

In the corner, a tottering pile of old newspapers and legal briefs suddenly gave up the good fight and spilled onto the floor.

BOOK: Bride by the Book (Crimson Romance)
9.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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