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Authors: Zondervan Publishing House

Sweet Olive (9780310330554)

BOOK: Sweet Olive (9780310330554)
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Judy Christie

In memory of
Charlie R. Pace

Chapter 1

amille Gardner debated whether to use valet parking as she approached the winding driveway, aching to be somewhere else.

Anywhere other than Samford, Louisiana.

Her head had not stopped pounding since her uncle had yanked her out of the Houston office late yesterday. With a threat and a jab at her honor, he had thrown her to the one town she had vowed never to visit again.

She glanced down at her heels, already pinching her feet, and felt her back grow damp against the scratchy truck seat. The damp September air, mixed with teenaged memories, made her claustrophobic.

Unsure about how she would be received at the fancy oil-and-gas gathering, she hesitated. If she self-parked, she’d sweat through her silk shift by the time she arrived at the door. If she surrendered her keys, she’d have to stand around and chitchat with people she didn’t know when she got ready to leave.

A Mercedes sedan with an LSU sticker and a Lexus SUV with a tiny Ole Miss flag pulled around her and interrupted her
pondering. A BMW convertible with a license plate that read
followed, the driver tapping her horn.

“Sorry.” Camille offered a wave. The striking driver acknowledged her with a slight frown and a toss of long, blond hair.

The pickup looked like a mule compared to the purebred sports car, and Camille exhaled. Her contact lenses burned her eyes, and her short hair stuck to her neck.

She confirmed that the puny air conditioner was set on maximum cool and watched young men in black pants and white shirts park cars and run back up the hill, like participants in some sort of sporting competition.

For a moment, she wished she could trade places with them—but running wouldn’t bring peace. She had tried that, dashing from this assignment to those all over Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, anywhere J&S wanted to send her.

And still she had wound up back here.

She might as well get this over with.

Letting her foot off the clutch, she shook her head and coasted past the regal house, envying prime parking spots occupied by luxury cars and shiny SUVs.

As guests strolled by, she inspected their clothes, relieved to see her short dress and high-heeled slingbacks would blend right in. The engraved invitation had read
Louisiana casual
, conjuring up an image of shorts and camouflage T-shirts, but this was most assuredly not that kind of crowd.

Her corporate wardrobe, purchased for the job she hoped she hadn’t lost for good, should handle Samford perfectly. Jewelry was the only real difference between her attire and that of the women who walked past. Make that
with a capital J.

Camille preferred to spend her extra money on art and relied
on a single strand of pearls for these events, a gift from her uncle when she had closed her first big deal. But even Uncle Scott’s blustery generosity could not temper her irritation at his bullying these past few days.

After two blocks with no hint of a parking spot, Camille eyed the clock on her cell phone and conceded her mistake. Tossing her keys to a valet, even in the ancient pickup, would have been more professional than a tardy hike up to that imposing entrance.

With gritted teeth, she whipped onto a side street.

A dead-end street.

Cars lined both sides, and Camille allowed herself a groan.

In the time it took a moth to flit across the hood of the truck, she considered returning to her hotel room.

But that sort of thinking had gotten her shipped here in the first place. Her goal was closer than the vehicles jamming the boulevard, and she refused to give up now. She could do this.

Identifying the most welcoming home on the block, a Craftsman-style cottage, she pulled into the driveway. The house had a screened porch and an oversized hanging basket exploding with impatiens.

A lone lamp shone from a front window near the porch. A large bright painting hung over the sofa—a primitive watercolor, although the distance and dimness made it tough to tell more.

A gnarled magnolia tree covered in glossy green leaves sat near the driveway. Even after fifteen years, Camille recalled the light and lemony smell of the blooms in summer and was tempted to roll down her window.

Before she could act on the thought, though, a movement caught her eye.

A man knelt to adjust a lawn sprinkler a few feet from her and turned just as she noticed him.

Muttering a “sorry” he couldn’t possibly hear, she gave a quick wave and put the vehicle in reverse. Popping the clutch too quickly, she lurched and killed the engine.

She gave what she hoped was an “I’m not a nut” smile, started the truck, and coasted back a few feet, unsure of her next maneuver.

The vehicle might be a collector’s dream, but it had the turning radius of a cement mixer. She couldn’t wait for her corporate SUV with its rearview camera, power steering—and frosty AC.

The guy in the yard watched, his eyes hidden by a pair of classic Ray-Ban sunglasses, as Camille rolled back a few more inches, pulled forward, rolled back, and then pulled back up a few feet to reposition the vehicle.

Between her agitation at running late, handling this monstrosity of a vehicle, and the amused stare of the man, Camille felt sweat trickle down her arms. She didn’t have to look to know her shift was now wrinkled.

She put the pickup in reverse and sucked in her breath, as though that would help squeeze through the tight space.


In surprise, she slammed on the brakes, skidding across a patch of carefully tended grass. Her purse slid off the seat, emptying onto the floor. She glanced down to see her lipstick roll out of sight, while the truck moved an inch or two closer to a crape myrtle, its blooms the color of a slice of watermelon.

“Wait! Stop!” the man in the yard yelled again and threw a hand up. He started toward the truck, gesturing for her to lower the window. Camille fumbled for a button to ease it down before
realizing she had to use the old-fashioned handle. The stubborn crank brought the glass down about an inch before sticking.

Fooling with the handle, she let off the clutch again, causing the man to take a quick step back when the truck lurched forward. Her face felt flushed.

“Sorry.” She turned off the motor. She threw her weight against the heavy door and shoved it open a few inches, breathing as heavily as if she had just run a race.

“No offense,” the guy said, ambling closer, “but do you know how to drive that thing?”

His southern voice didn’t sound as aggravated as Camille, infused with embarrassment, would have expected.

In his thirties, probably a year or two older than she was, he wore a baseball cap, cargo shorts, and a T-shirt advertising a New Orleans triathlon. Tanned and trim, he seemed to be holding back a smile.

Camille swatted the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. “What a lousy week!” she blurted—and immediately would have traded her favorite sculpture to have the words back. Glad she couldn’t see past his sunglasses, she delivered an apology so convoluted that even she didn’t know what she was apologizing for.

“No big deal.” He let loose a smile that made his face even more appealing. “This isn’t an easy street to navigate. With that fund-raiser around the corner, it’s chaotic.”

His words—delivered again in that delicious, deep drawl—relaxed the knot in her stomach.

She exhaled an unsteady breath. “I traded my car in … This is a company loaner.” She tapped on the steering wheel, annoyed anew at the trick Uncle Scott had played. “Me and the White Witch haven’t exactly bonded.”

He tilted his head, as though puzzled. “That’s not your usual corporate vehicle.”

“Not your usual corporate assignment,” she said, her tone light. “I’m only in town for a few days, and my SUV will be delivered after that.”

Knowing she was babbling, she opened her mouth to introduce herself, but before she could speak, he glanced at the sports watch on his tanned wrist.

“I’m sorry. I’m holding you up,” she said.

He threw another of those knee-weakening smiles at her but didn’t disagree. “If you cut your wheels hard, you’ll miss that tree and that line of cars.”

Camille turned the key in the ignition and inched back, stopped, inched back more, and looked over at the guy, checking his watch again.

“Why don’t you let me …” His voice trailed off as he gestured at the street.

Camille, despite another feeling of defeat, nodded.

He offered his hand to help her out of the cab, his touch sending a tingle down her spine. She smoothed her skirt when she got out.

“Nice.” He eased into the driver’s seat. She thought for a second that the compliment was aimed at her, but then she noticed him rubbing the old leather on the steering wheel. “She’s a stunner.”

Camille folded her arms across her chest and muttered under her breath, resenting for an instant how easily the man maneuvered the truck.

When he jumped out, he held the door for her. “Don’t feel bad about this. I flattened that recycling bin once in my father’s
pickup.” An easy laugh accompanied the words. “My brother will never let me live that one down.”

“I owe you.” She gave a small salute as she climbed back into the truck. “Thanks for the help.”

“Any time.”

She turned her head as she drove away and watched him walk into the house. With his killer smile and almost palpable charm, he was the antithesis of the people she was about to encounter. She wished she were spending the evening on his porch.

Camille made the block and approached the party with renewed resolve, feeling like a general headed into battle.

Drawing from her mother’s kindness and her uncle’s tactics, she’d be out of Samford in a few days, back to her corner office, and shopping for her first house, about a tenth the size of this place.

She smiled when the college-aged valet opened the truck’s heavy door, claim check in hand. “Cool. What year is it?”

“Older than you and me.”

“It’s a beauty.” His eyes widened as he looked inside. “Three-on-the-tree?” He didn’t wait for her answer, hopping into the truck as though it were the Porsche in front of them. “Long-bed too. You don’t see many of those anymore. Sweet ride.”

“Lucky me,” she murmured and then spoke louder. “It’s a 1970. Give it a little extra gas to get going.”

Watching the blue-and-white Chevy sputter down the hill, Camille headed toward the entrance.
Sweet ride.
She’d have to tell her mother that one.

As she approached the entryway, a large man in a brown
sport coat stepped out. A woman who looked like a middle-aged hippie trekked up the hill. A younger, Hispanic man stood at the massive front door, his sleek tux complementing his rugged good looks.

“I’m Camille … Camille Gardner.” She looked from the handsome guy to the man in the sport coat. “Thank you for hosting me this evening.”

The older man swiveled, a half smile on his face. With the look of an over-the-hill college football player, he was one of those men whose age was hard to determine. “The famous Camille Gardner!” He grabbed Camille’s hand, jerking her arm up and down as if it were a pump handle.

“I’m Senator Slattery Richmond. Welcome to Louisiana!” His deep, gravelly voice sounded both hoarse and booming at the same time, almost like a barker at a fair.

“Thank you, Senator Richmond.” She plastered on her civic-function smile. “I’m here to represent—”

“I know exactly who you are. You’re that hotshot trouble-shooter from J&S Production.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “It’s about time you got here. With our deadline, we need action.” More loudly, he said, “Call me Slattery.”

Camille ran her hand through her hair, noting the curious stares of those nearby. “Tonight’s about raising money for a good cause … and thanking Louisiana for all its support.” She threw him a pointed look. “There will be plenty of time to talk business in the next few days.”

She gazed past him to the hippie woman, who had made it to the top of the hill and looked as out of place as Camille had felt in the stranger’s driveway. “I’m Ginny Guidry,” the woman blurted out, as though called on in class.

Wearing a flowing skirt that almost touched the sidewalk and a pair of Birkenstocks, she was younger than Camille had first thought, maybe in her early forties. Her brown eyes were framed by classic black horn-rimmed glasses, which added a scholarly look.

Ginny’s large mouth, with bold red lipstick, moved into a tentative smile. She dabbed her forehead with a Kleenex as she spoke. “We hoped J&S might send someone tonight …”

Her southern drawl trailed off when Slattery stepped closer, nudging her out of the way. “If you’ll step inside …” He turned and headed up the brick steps.

With Ginny on her heels, Camille fell in behind him, but she stopped midway and held out her hand to the man in the tux, giving him a smile. “I’m Camille Gardner from J&S.”

Taking two quick steps down, Slattery, agile for his size, stepped right in front of her. “That’s Larry,” he said, as though the man were one of the stone lions that flanked the walkway. “If you need anything tonight, let him know.”

Uncomfortable, Camille stepped around her host, extending her hand again.

For a brief second, Larry stood rigid, his brown eyes going from Camille to Slattery. Then he shook her hand, his palm calloused. “My pleasure,” he said in a voice so deep it felt like it tickled her ear, a trace of a Spanish accent underneath. He threw Ginny Guidry a quizzical look as he spoke.

Ginny laid her hand on Larry’s arm for a second as she moved past, her rumpled blouse brushing against the shoulder of his flawless tux.

By now a cluster of guests had stacked up, and Slattery cleared his throat. “If I may?” he said, his tone impatient as he
grabbed Camille’s arm. The old-fashioned gesture struck her as an effort to corral her, but she forced a smile and stepped into the home.

Slattery steered Camille as though her elbow were a rudder, doing a quick round of introductions to the crowd a few feet inside the Richmonds’ door.

Camille said little more than “hello,” smiling as she studied the crowd. The Guidry woman had stopped a few feet away, fidgeting with a cocktail napkin from a small mahogany table. She glanced from Camille to Slattery and back to Camille, her expression even more unsure than it had been out front.

BOOK: Sweet Olive (9780310330554)
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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