Authors: Leah Atwood
“Enough to be believable.” He sighed loudly, bit down on his bottom lip. “As a general rule, I believe honesty is the best policy. If it were anyone but Gran, I wouldn’t even think about doing this.”
The affection in his voice touched Madison. “She’s more to you than a typical grandparent, isn’t she?”
When Archer didn’t say anything, didn’t look at her, for an entire minute, Madison was sure she’d broken an unwritten code about which she didn’t know. Finally, he lifted his eyes to hers. “Most grandparents are ready to retire and relax by the time grandchildren come along. Mine were, but they sacrificed their twilight years to raise me and my siblings. I’ve lived with them from the time I was four until I was eighteen.”
“What happened to your parents?”
At the look on his face, she wished she hadn’t asked. “They’re alive and well, in the Midwest. At least that’s where they were last month when they called.”
“How come your grandparents raised you?” Her hand flew to cover her mouth. “That’s none of my business. You don’t have to answer.”
“My brother, sister, and I hindered them from their lifestyle. They’re wanderers, always moving from one spot to the next.” Unresolved pain edged his pupils, but his voice remained steady. “One day they said we were going to visit Granddad and Gran, but didn’t tell us we’d be staying there permanently.”
She licked her suddenly dry lips. As bad as her childhood had been with her parents constantly arguing, at least they’d been there for her and Anna. “That must have been rough.”
“It is what it is.” He shrugged. “My grandparents gave me a good childhood, all things considered. Probably better than what I would have had with my parents.”
“That’s good, I guess.”
With a flick of his wrist, Archer checked the time on his watch. “I don’t want to keep you too late.”
“I have nowhere else to be so I’m fine, but let’s nail down our story. We should keep it simple, less chance for confusion that way.”
“Agreed.” He stroked his chin. “Where is a plausible place for us to have met?”
“Not a bar.”
A snort escaped Archer. “I absolutely agree, but not for the reasons you might think. My parents met in a bar, and I wouldn’t want to give Gran any reason to associate our
with my parents’.”
“Too many opportunities for exposure. Gran knows I go to the same church every Sunday and would ask others about you.” He tapped his fingers against the desk—Madison noticed his hands were rarely still.
He held up a finger. “I got it. Why not tell her the truth of how we met? She doesn’t need to know it was last night.”
“Good idea. The closer we can keep this to the truth, the better.”
“That’s settled. Was it love at first sight?”
“Yes. I’m assuming you haven’t kept this going for very long, so that would best explain a quick engagement when she hadn’t heard of me until recently.” Her stomach rumbled, and she popped a mint in her mouth, hoping to trick her hunger.
“This is easier than I imagined.” Archer scribbled a few notes on the paper before looking up again. “For the proposal, I’d like to tell her I proposed to you at Centennial Park. That’s where Granddad proposed to her, and it would mean a lot to her if she thought you shared the same affinity for it.”
She smiled broadly. “I love Centennial Park. My family spent many afternoons there and I even had my senior high school portraits shot near the lake.”
Those were the few times my parents got along.
“Me too. I love the history there and the scenery.”
“Especially this time of year when the cherry blossoms bloom.” She closed her eyes for a moment and envisioned the pink and white blossoms, so beautiful and fresh and a signal of new life. After she’d gotten her license, she’d often driven to the park in spring and taken walks among the trees, letting their peaceful beauty ebb out the strife from home.
“They hadn’t bloomed as of last week.” The sheepish grin on his face intrigued her. “I was going to pick a few and take them to Gran.”
“Quite the rule breaker, aren’t you?” She winked, teasing him and not meaning what she’d said.
He blinked an eye back at her and flashed a mischievous grin. “Only when it comes to Gran.”
Madison’s heart fluttered.
Don’t go there, girl.
“Anything else we need to cover?”
“We have enough for tonight, but why don’t we exchange emails and send each other a list of favorites in the coming week.”
“That’s a good idea.” She grabbed one of his business cards from the holder and wrote her email address on the back of it. “My work address is on the card I gave you earlier, but here’s my personal one.”
“Thanks.” He wrote his on another and slid it across the desk. “You have my number, if you have any questions. Let’s touch base in a few days, make sure we’re both still on board.”
Unhappiness filled his tight smile. “Sadly, yes. I’m torn between making Gran happy and being honest.”
“I’m sorry to put you in this position.” Archer dragged a hand through his hair.
“Don’t worry about it. I’d probably have done the same thing in your spot.” She clutched her purse closer to her. Their meeting was coming to an end, and she hadn’t asked him yet.
Standing to his feet, he opened a drawer and grabbed a set of keys. “I almost forgot. These were in your car and I didn’t know if you needed them.”
“Thanks. They’re to the office, though it’s usually unlocked by the time I get there.” She rose and hesitated to move toward the door. “I have a favor to ask. If you don’t want to, I completely understand, and I’ll still help you, regardless.”
Angling his head, he eyed her with curiosity. “Short of anything illegal, I’d be happy to help. I owe you big time.”
“Don’t you want to know what the favor is first?”
A giggle gurgled in her throat, partly from nerves, partly from amusement at his carefree acceptance. “I have a few events coming up that I need a date for.”
“Ah, the plus one dilemma.”
“Been there many times. Send me the dates and times. If my schedule is clear, I’ll be glad to help you out.”
There went that annoying heart palpitation. “Are you always this agreeable?”
“My sister wouldn’t say so, but seriously, I owe you. A few nights out is the least I can do.”
“Thank you.” With that settled, she turned to leave, until Archer’s light touch on her shoulder stopped her.
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
A sense that her world was about to change in a big way encompassed her. How or why she didn’t know, but as she walked to her car with Archer beside her, she knew she had made a new friend.
The paper Archer held was still warm from the printer. He read through the list of favorites Madison had sent him. When he finished, he studied them again. A half hour later, and despite knowing they shared a favorite color of blue, that black bears were her favorite animal, and that ice cream was the food she could eat and never tire of, he didn’t feel he knew her any better.
How would they pull off a sham engagement in front of Gran? Her advanced years and frail condition hadn’t diminished her keen insight. Was he doing the right thing? He still wasn’t convinced. If he could discuss it with Landon or Tanya, he’d feel more confident, but he didn’t want anyone else knowing the engagement was a lie.
Cody, one of his mechanics, stuck his head through the door granting entry from the garage to the office. “Hey boss, the ten thirty is here already.”
Where had the morning gone? He glanced at the clock on the wall, having already taken his watch off for the workday. “They’re an hour early. What are they in for?”
“Put their car in bay three and let them know it will be about a half hour. I have a phone call to make, and then I’ll take care of it for them.”
After the door closed behind Cody, Archer picked up the shop phone from its base. He opened the top desk drawer and stared at the number written in Madison’s handwriting. The struggle to make the call kept his fingers from dialing her number. Part of him worried she’d changed her mind—regardless that she’d just sent him the list they’d agreed to write—and the other part didn't want to invite her further into his life.
The more distance between them, the less complicated their situation. Except that wasn’t possible. In less than a week, their acquaintance had shifted from not knowing each other to a one-day event of playing pretend, to attending several events as her date. They were spiraling into something for which he suspected neither of them was prepared. Warning sirens screamed in the rear of his mind, but he ignored them.
He dialed the number, then held his breath waiting for her to answer.
“Madison Nichols,” an ultra-professional voice answered.
Used to her casual side, the sleek business tone reminded him how little they knew of each other. “Hi, it’s Archer.”
“Oh, hi.” Her voice relaxed. “I sent you an email about an hour ago. Did you get it?”
“I got it. Mine will be to you by this afternoon.” He cleared his throat. “Also, I looked at my calendar, and I’m free for all the dates you sent except for your niece’s birthday party.”
“Great. We can talk more about them after this weekend.” An awkward silence covered the span of a few seconds. “We’re still on for Saturday, right?”
Against his wishes, he sighed. “Yes.”
“Not exactly. Mainly, I wish I’d never lied in the first place.”
“I know how you feel, but I think it’s sweet you’d go to such lengths to make her happy.”
Grabbing the business card, he flipped it over multiple times as an outlet for his nervous energy. “Do you have any plans for tonight?”
Another pause. “No. I’m working late again, but after that I’m free.”
“I got to thinking, if we’re to pull this off, we should spend a little more time together. Saturday’s only a few days away, but maybe we could have dinner tonight, get to know each other better and be more comfortable in the other’s presence.” He inhaled a long breath, hoping Madison couldn’t hear the draw of air over the phone. The lulls in conversation were unbearable, and he took her silence as a negative. “You probably have other things to do. I’ve already occupied enough of your time.”
“No, it’s not that at all.” A nervous laugh came through the line. “I thought the same thing earlier. Something tells me your Gran won’t be easily fooled.”
He released a sigh. “No, she won’t. She’s sharp as a tack.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“If this were a real date which restaurant would be your first choice?”
“That’s easy,” she answered quickly. “Rod’s Diner.”
“It’s not romantic or fancy in the least, I know, but there’s something to be said about its cozy booths and food.”
“We’ll go there then. What time will you leave work?” Remembering he had a client waiting, he glanced at the clock. Their conversation had spanned less than five minutes.
“I’d planned to stay until seven, but that would put us eating around eight at the earliest, and Rod’s closes at eight. Hmm…” She drew out the final word and was quiet while deliberating “A few of the tasks I wanted to finish can be done from home, and I’ll focus on them when I get back tonight.”
“Would tomorrow night be better?”
“No, I have a meeting with a potential new client. Tonight is fine, say six?”
“I’ll pick you up at five forty-five then?”
“If you’re coming from the opposite direction, I can meet you there,” Madison offered. “No need to go out of your way.”
Cody popped his head through the door again and tapped his wrist, silently reminding him of the waiting customer.
Archer nodded his acknowledgement and held up a finger to let him know he’d be out there shortly, then returned to the phone conversation. “This might not be a date in the customary sense, but I’m a traditional guy. If you have no strong objections, I’d rather pick you up.”
“I have to run now, but give me a call if anything changes.”
The call ended, and Archer returned the phone to its base. He grabbed one of the tablets he’d purchased last year for the shop and opened the program for the online safety inspections. For the next six hours he threw himself into work, but his dinner with Madison remained on the periphery of his thoughts.
At a quarter past four, he left the shop in Cody’s capable hands and drove home. Covered in grease from a particularly busy day, he took a shower and decided to shave the two days’ growth. During the week, he rarely shaved, but he assumed Madison liked men with a smooth face—most professional women he had known did and that was all he had to go on.
Not that he was trying to impress her, but he’d never forget the blind date he’d gone on three years ago with a woman who was a lawyer. Her nose had turned up when she found out he was a mechanic, and he’d ended the date early after she’d insulted him several times. Since then, he constantly had to remind himself he couldn’t judge an entire group by one person, but her condescension had stung.
His roots were blue collar. Before his father had taken up the nomadic life when he met Archer’s mom, he’d worked at a factory. Granddad was a truck driver who’d worked hard his entire life, up until the week before he died three years ago. He’d earned an honest living and supported his family, the same way Archer planned to do when he had a family.
While he might never be able to give every luxury, he’d provide his future wife and children with everything they needed, including love and attention. He’d built his business from the ground up and was proud of his success. Some months were sparse, but business was increasing. Today proved that.
However, as much as he hated to admit it, Madison intimidated him. Not so much the first night they’d met because she’d been dressed casual, but when she’d come to the shop immediately after work on Friday in a tailored suit and handed him a business card, he’d realized they were on different levels.
Don’t judge her if you don’t want her judging you.
Funny how one date years ago could affect him now, especially when it wasn’t a real date they were going on. Regardless, he and Madison would be spending a lot of time together over the next month, and she was doing a huge favor for him. Because of that, he wanted her to enjoy his company and vice versa.
She is the one who asked you to be her date
. Good point.
Madison was different than Tiffany, his awful, aforementioned date. She knew upfront how he earned a living and hadn’t stuck up her nose. Not only that, she’d initiated more contact with him.
He looked into a mirror. Were the jeans too casual? They were comfortable, and fit the atmosphere of Rod’s, but he could change into khakis if Madison was going to dress up.
Get a grip, Archer. You’re thinking too much into a simple dinner getting-to-know-you-dinner.
The jeans won once he reminded himself of Madison’s attire the first night they met. She might be a professional, but she was also down to earth. That much he’d garnered from their brief conversations. Besides, he was who he was—he’d never changed for anyone but God, and he didn’t aim to start now.
Satisfied with his attire, he sprayed cologne on his neck, then combed his hair. On impulse, he grabbed the keys to the ’65 Mustang. Several weeks had gone by since he’d last driven her, and a late spring evening was the perfect chance to work her out. Entering the garage through the kitchen door, he stared at the poppy-red paint on his graduation present from his grandparents. He’d spent his high school years helping Granddad restore the car, not knowing his grandfather had always meant it as a gift for him.
To Archer’s mind, the real gift was the memories he’d made with Granddad. During a time when he’d been searching to find himself and come to terms with his parents’ abandonment, his grandfather had been a steady example of a solid, Christian man. They’d had many conversations while working on the Mustang, regarding life, God and everything under the sun. As much as he loved the car, he treasured those memories more.
He started the engine, sat there for a few seconds and listened to it purr like a kitten. Backing out, he navigated around his truck, which remained parked in the driveway as usual. He rolled down the window, losing himself in the fresh air of spring so that by the time he reached Madison’s house, he’d lost all nervousness.
When he’d dropped Madison off last week, it was dark and he hadn’t been privy to a detailed view of her house. It was a split-level, common in the area at the time her subdivision was built. Now, in the light of evening, he could see that the property was well kept. Three feet of brick surrounded the bottom perimeter, and beige siding was above that. Low-maintenance landscaping consisted of three shrubberies along the front of the house.
He got out of the car, left the keys in the switch. He strode to the front door and rang the doorbell. While he waited, he read the Irish blessing painted on a plaque hanging from a hook on the door that greeted all visitors.
Madison appeared as he read the last line, and she opened the screen door. She wore a tunic-length red top and a pair of skinny jeans that showcased long, athletic legs. On her feet were sandals with thin red straps which allowed a view of her painted toes. Her wild red hair was tamed with a barrette.
Although Madison had found an outfit that was a perfect blend of casual and cute, there was nothing overtly unique or exceptional about the clothes. It was rather modest—which he appreciated—and plain, despite the bold color choice. Still, attraction pulled at him for reasons he couldn’t explain. Madison was beautiful, gorgeous even, but not his usual type. He had to find a way to fend off the draw to her, a lure that would only complicate matters to a higher degree.