Authors: F. E. Greene
A Richer in Love Romance
F. E. Greene
by F. E. Greene
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover graphics - Jawwa and Katerina Kovaleva. Interior graphics - Nadejda Tchijova
and Roxana Balint.
All Rights Reserved
Published 2016 by
F. E. Greene
Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without prior written permission of the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
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Soli Deo Gloria
Table of Contents
ILLION DOLLAR BACHELOR BACK WITH BEAUTIFUL EX?
THURSDAY, NICE – Is Britain’s most uncatchable bachelor back with his ex-fiancée? The once-blissful CatKip was spotted frolicking on a private beach in the south of France. Friends say the couple hopes to mend the shreds of their three-year affair with lavish dinners, shared spa treatments, and intimate nights on the Richmond family yacht. But will randy Kip ever settle down, even with a sultry stunner like Catrella Delcombe?
Lou grasped the tabloid in one hand, crumpling its pages while she brandished it like a protest sign. She hated when customers left their personal trash, including trashy magazines, on the tables. She hated even more her own compulsion to read the gossipy claptrap printed on their crispy-thin paper.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about!”
“What’s that, Lou?” Moggie’s tone was anything but concerned as she wiped fingerprints from a display case filled with cakes and muffins.
“This! All this extravagance and waste and indulgence! Why don’t they just burn their money in a barrel and barbecue some boudin over the flames?”
Moggie glanced around the café. “Steady on. You’ll scare the customers. Count to three and breathe.”
Lou followed the familiar instructions. Inner peace did not surface. But she did stop talking, which was all Moggie really wanted, and as Lou finished clearing the 4-top, she checked the café to make sure no one was running for the door.
Two patrons. Separate tables. Both female Brits sipping afternoon tea. One dressed to the nines, the other wearing ASDA fashions. Neither had set aside their serviettes like they were preparing to leave. Still, Lou figured her outburst probably cost her two tips.
C’est la vie.
Tourists rarely made their way into Imogens Café despite the fact that it was located in the center of Stratford-upon-Avon. The café catered to locals and had a substantial set of regulars, most of whom ran their own businesses or worked in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Tucked inside an L-shaped mini-mall, Imogens prided itself on being an oasis from the mayhem of souvenir shops and tourist traps.
When tourists did stumble upon it, Lou made sure they felt welcome. With her Southern upbringing, it was second-nature to treat any guest like kin. Although some folks acted surprised, even disappointed, to discover a fellow Yank in an English tea room, Lou would win them over with a few well-timed Cajun expressions and exuberant explanations of what they meant.
Cajuns were to America what the Irish were to Europe – cheerful and animated with a magical history and a
all their own. Lou mentioned her heritage every chance that she could. It made her feel less like a castaway.
Hands filled with dirty dishes, Lou returned to the now-spotless counter. “All I know is, I hate Kip Richmond. He’s everything that’s wrong with the world. Totally spoiled. Chasing some pretty face after he’s already dumped her. I bet he does nothing useful in a day. Nothing! And here the rest of us are slogging away just trying to stay alive!”
Moggie watched Lou’s rant with her typical serenity. Tall and big-boned, Moggie’s stocky build seemed like unusual casing for such tranquility. Nothing rattled Moggie. Hardly a pushover, she was passionate about plenty, but she kept a distinctly British lid on her opinions and her moods. Her long hair never left its tidy braid. She bought her t-shirts at charity shops.
So did Lou. Money was more than tight. Each month she lived down to the last penny.
Which was why she wanted to spit fire each time she read about Kip Richmond and all those other trust-fund bachelors who treated the world like their playground and supermodels like their jungle gyms.
“Hate is a strong word,” Moggie reminded Lou in a diplomatic tone. “And for someone who hates the CatKips of this nation, you seem to keep up with their stories. Are you sure that’s the problem?”
Quick as Lou’s temper had surfaced, it changed to something else. Fear. Regret. Guilt and incompetence. She should be in Santa Fe, not Stratford. She could work in the U.S. as easily as she could in the U.K. Dual citizenship had its benefits.
It also had drawbacks. If she left the U.K. now, someone might notice. They might track her to Santa Fe, which put her sister in jeopardy, too – even more than Améline already was.
Lou felt her defensive shell start to crack as she stared into Moggie’s astute gaze. She couldn’t leave behind the two women who’d brought her back to life after her mother had died. Silently Lou prayed, as she often did, that Amy had her own guardian angels in Santa Fe. The prayer, as always, brought tears to Lou’s eyes.
“I’ll see to these.” Skillfully Moggie took the stacks of plates from Lou. “Go cool off in the court. You haven’t even paused for a cuppa today. I don’t pay you any less if you stop for lunch.”
Nodding, Lou glanced at the Kit Kat clock on the wall. Three p.m. Two hours until closing time. The black cat’s goggle-eyes swept back and forth like it knew a secret, one it desperately wanted to tell.
So many secrets. Secret sisters. Secret homes. All because of greedy men – hucksters and thugs and
-for-hire – who lived outside the rules.
Lou ducked out the service entrance door that was painted to resemble a Warwickshire meadow. The door sat opposite the dessert counter and cash register, between the dining room and kitchen. Only she, Moggie, and Beryl ever used it. The door opened into an enclosed court that served as little more than a conduit for locals avoiding the tourist traffic.
Even so, the shop owners in the mini-mall kept the court decorated as an oasis of their own. Spare tables and chairs – some wooden, some metal – were scattered along the brick walls. Flower baskets teeming with a rainbow of blooms dangled from rusty hooks. White Christmas lights were draped along the eaves.
Although the mall was covered, the court had no roof, and Lou craned her neck to check the sky. Another sunny July day in the heart of England. She wished she felt as good as the weather.
“You’re American, then?”
The prim announcement made Lou jump three feet in the air. When her left leg hit a chair, it clattered against a table. If she’d been holding a cup of tea, it would have spilled all over her clothes – and probably onto the silk business suit of the woman who’d scared her to death.
While she caught her breath, Lou glared at the intruder who was as rich as Jean Lafitte from the look of it. The woman must have taken etiquette lessons from the Queen. Perfect posture. Slender build. Angular features and a tough-as-nails glare that Lou recognized whenever she saw it. Her daddy had mastered the same no-nonsense face. All business and zero bluffing.
The woman’s straight brown hair followed the shape of her head, then flipped like an ocean wave below her neck in a failed attempt to seem feminine. Taupe pumps added a few inches to her petite frame. Her green eyes – the same color as her own, Lou noticed – watched Lou’s high-strung reaction with no hint of amusement. She was completely aware and not caring one bit.
“Who are you?” Lou asked.
“Answer the question.”
Lou peered around the court. Completely deserted. Was this a joke?
“I’m half and half,” she replied. “My mama was from London. My daddy was from the States.”
“What part of London?”
Surprised, Lou took a moment to respond. People usually asked about the
, not the
The woman issued a tiny sniff that seemed almost approving. “Do you go there much?”
Lou felt like she was staring down an alligator. “To London? Not ever.”
“Good.” The woman began fishing in her leather handbag. “I have a proposition. My son needs a date for a gala this evening, and I want you to accompany him.”
“The gala is here in Stratford. We have just enough time to make you presentable. Is that your natural hair color? It seems rather too red.”
“Hold on a second.” Lifting her hands, Lou took a step back. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why we’re having this conversation. And I don’t know what you’re assuming about me, but I’m not a call girl.”
Irritation made the woman squint as she pulled out a smartphone. Its leather case matched her purse. “Of course you’re not. We’re talking about my son.”
“So far, everything we’ve talked about has made no sense. Look, I’m sorry if I offended you back in the café. Life’s been hard lately, and I can’t do that stiff upper-lip thing.”
“Why is life hard?” Unlocking her phone, the woman fixed Lou with her Rasputin-like stare.
“My sister’s sick,” Lou admitted. “She has cancer. Amy lives like I do – working minimum wage, staying off the grid. She doesn’t have insurance, and even though they caught it early, she needs a ton of money to get a –”
When the woman cut her off, Lou bristled. “About sixty thousand dollars.”
French-manicured thumbnails clicked against the phone’s surface. “Done. I need your bank details.”
“I don’t have a bank. I live a cash-only life.”
That threw the woman off her game. “Where do you keep your money?”
“I don’t have any money to keep. I’m living hand-to-mouth like a lot of folks these days.”
The woman inhaled like she was preparing to meditate, but her sharp features only tightened. “You’ll need to provide me with some way to transfer the money to your sister, if not to you.”
“I can do that.” Lou’s own nerves started to fray again. “But what’s the catch? No one pays a stranger a small fortune to go on a date with her son.”
“Luckily for you, I am not ‘no one.’ Neither is my son. And I have only one condition. After the gala is over, you will promise to seek no further contact with him. One and done, as you Americans like to say.”
Half-American, Lou thought. She let it go. “Why?”
“This is a negotiation, not psychotherapy.” Words fired from the woman’s mouth like bullets from a gun. “Do you agree to the terms?”
“I don’t even know your name,” Lou protested. “Or your son’s.”
“You may call me Lydia. My son’s name is irrelevant. What is your answer?”
Lou knew what she wanted to say. Yes. A thousand times yes. Her sister’s life was literally on the line, and this woman’s offer could indirectly save it. But if Lydia was supposed to be some sort of postmodern fairy godmother, then Lou wondered what she’d done to cheese off the universe.
Closing her eyes, Lou pictured her sister’s face – a face she hadn’t seen since she was seventeen. Seven years of nothing but image-free emails sent to addresses that changed on a regular basis. Safety first. It had been the family motto almost since their dad was arrested. Would agreeing to this make them more safe or less?
Cancer had become the bigger threat, Lou decided. Safety meant nothing if Amy was dead.
“Okay, I agree.” Lou prayed she was making the right choice. “One and done.”
“Excellent.” Lydia murmured the word with zero enthusiasm. “I will not be at the gala, but my bodyguard will, so please do try to be on your best behavior.” She resumed typing. “Where do you live? My stylist will meet you there.”
“Bodyguard?” The word sent a
down Lou’s spine. No money had been transferred. It wasn’t too late to renege. “Why does your son need a bodyguard?”
Lydia must have caught the backpedaling in Lou’s question. As her fingers slowed momentarily, her voice lost its rat-a-tat sharpness. “It’s our family policy for public events. A preventative measure only.”
Less than comforted, Lou muzzled her doubts. She also maintained her boundaries. “Your stylist can meet me here.”
The irritated squint resurfaced as Lydia looked up from her phone. She studied the back of the café like it crawled with vermin. “Are you sure?”
“There’s more room here. Where I live is very…cozy.”
Ignoring the detail, Lydia returned her phone to her purse. “Fabrice and his team will be here in thirty minutes. A car will arrive to collect you just before eight on Wood Street. Please be prompt.”
“But my shift doesn’t end until five.”
“Fabrice works miracles, but even he must be given adequate time to do so.” Lydia glowered at Lou like she might be playing hardball. “Perhaps if I have a word with your employer –”
Lou scurried around the table to put herself between Lydia and the door. “That won’t be necessary. I’ve worked here for years. They’ll be okay with it this one time.”
“Good, since this is a one-time situation. Have I made myself clear? One date, and you’ll make no attempt to contact him after.”
Again Lou agreed. If the son was half as nuts as the mother, then one date might prove to be one too many.
“Excellent.” The word was no more convincing than before. “My son will be aware that I have made this arrangement, but he will not know of the payment. Even he has his standards. I will tell him that you are the daughter of a Stateside business colleague who is summering in England. My son will believe that he is doing a favor for both you and me. It is the only way I can convince him to escort you.”