From across the shop, the bubble–gum-popping Delia Molek tossed another leering glance.
On principle Hector wasn’t against women staring at him like sirloin sizzling on the grill. He was a man after all, and the sexual sparks Delia threw his way gave his ego a boost. But he was also a man with decency bred to the bone, and warning bells clanged in his head.
Money or looks—women hunted for one or the other.
A guy might have nose hair long enough to braid and the social skills of a chimp, but the gentler sex, picking up the scent of greenbacks, would trail him in droves.
Hector couldn’t boast much in the way of material success. Since wrapping up the job as a bounty hunter, he was out of work. Clearly his lack of prospects didn’t matter. The way Delia was staring at him, he nursed the sinking suspicion she’d mentally stripped him down to his skivvies.
Increasing the distance between them, he strode up the row of tables. The number of place settings the caterer had laid out for Hugh’s inspection was mind-boggling, everything from simple stuff for a picnic to place settings befitting royalty. The groom was leaning toward a high-end look. Hugh nodded approvingly at the Baccarat goblets and china rimmed in gold.
Hector dragged him away from the spread, and out of earshot.
“Why did she tag along?” he demanded. Together they appraised Delia, blowing another bright pink bubble. “She’s not in the wedding party. She shouldn’t be here.”
Hugh smirked. “Don’t play dumb. You know why Theodora brought her along.”
He did, but that wasn’t the point. “Tell Theodora I’m not in high school looking for a date for the prom. I’m an adult. I don’t like meddlers.”
“I’ll get right to it,” Hugh remarked dryly. He regarded Liberty’s town matriarch, grilling the caterer at the front of the store. The caterer, shriveled in her chair, couldn’t get a word past Theodora’s barrage of questions. “Think she’s packin’ her Saturday Night Special? I don’t want to get my head blown off right before the wedding.”
“Your fetching bride is related to her, right? That makes Theodora family and therefore your problem. Get her off my back. If I’m desperate for a date, I’ll use an online dating site.”
“Theodora believes finding the right woman will keep you in Liberty. She doesn’t want to lose you to Philly.”
Did Delia think the same? In one of those tactical maneuvers women used to overrun the battlefield, she drew in a long breath. Pert breasts strained beneath her knit top.
His pulse scuttled. This much incoming he could do without.
Severing the connection, he followed Hugh to the back of the store. “Delia’s just a kid,” he whispered, coming to a halt behind a rack of tablecloths.
“Not true. She’s in her twenties.”
“Early twenties. Even if she were old enough to date, I’m leaving after you get back from your honeymoon. Not that I know how to run a newspaper while you’re gone, but I’ll manage.”
“You don’t have to run it. I’ll videoconference with the staff every morning. Just keep them on a tight leash. Don’t let anyone near petty cash, and no travel without my approval. I don’t want problems. The Liberty Post hasn’t even celebrated its six month anniversary yet.”
“That’ll make the rag about the average age of the newbies you hired.” Not to mention Delia.
“What did you think? I’d find experienced reporters willing to work for slave wages? I’m building a daily newspaper from the ground up. Who doesn’t scare up cheap labor by scouring colleges for recent grads?”
“You have other options. Your bride-to-be has a large inheritance tucked away at the bank. Come to think of it, you should hire an experienced office manager.”
“I’m making a go of the newspaper without Birdie’s inheritance.”
“Great. You’re a guy with honor. All the same, I need to get back to Philly.” He didn’t add how much he’d miss the people of Liberty once he returned to the City of Brotherly Love.
Less than a month ago he’d joined the team of bounty hunters Theodora hired to track down Birdie’s mother, Wish Kaminsky. He’d been down on his luck after stock market losses pummeled his dreams. His sense of duty had compelled him to find a way to repay the losses of his two ex-wives—and those of his enraged ex-fiancé. Thanks to the payout for ridding the town of Wish, he’d restored the women to financial solvency. He’d also earned the personal satisfaction of driving Wish from the town of Liberty forever.
How to top the recent success?
The future was murky. His sister was a successful accountant in Philadelphia, and she’d promised to help him craft a resume. Five years from forty, Hector was still looking to board the ship to success. He enjoyed working with people, which meant a job in sales wasn’t out of the question. Or something in marketing. He’d always been able to think on his feet, spinning ideas like cotton candy in his frothy brain.
Theodora brought his reverie to a halt. The petite titan strode forward at an impressive gait for a woman her age. Her raisin-skinned face was scrunched with concentration or irritation. It was hard to tell. Odds were it was the latter.
She regarded Hugh. “Well? Did you choose a setting?”
Hugh pointed at the Baccarat. “This one.”
“You’re sure? I fancy the picnic dishes.”
Hector peered over her shoulder at her choice. The dishes were bright yellow with tiny cowboys riding the rim. “You’re kidding, right? This stuff is for a kid’s birthday party.”
“I like it.”
Hugh took the plate from her grasp. “If the reception were in your backyard, they’d work. Not at the Williams’ estate.”
“Why the hell not?”
“The mansion screams ‘elegance.’ Landon is bringing in a crew to get the ballroom up to snuff. I hope we have enough guests to fill it.”
Theodora harrumphed with disbelief. “Meade invited hundreds of guests. We’ll fill the ballroom.”
“How many people? I never saw the final list.”
“If you start fretting, I’ll lose my mind. Birdie’s nerves are all I can take. And how did I lose the argument about where to hold the reception? Hell and damnation, who needs a ballroom? I’d picked out nice big tents for my backyard.” She shimmied her shoulders in a burst of irritation.
Hector wiped the sheepish grin from his face. He couldn’t help but like the raging wildfire of Theodora’s personality. Life beat most people down, leaving them cynics or too exhausted to give a damn. Not so with the elderly woman before him.
He was still privately singing her praises when she diminished herself in his eyes. Snapping her fingers, she drew an eager Delia from across the store.
“I like the fancy dinnerware too,” Delia said in a breezy voice that revealed her exceptional skills at eavesdropping. She sashayed up to Hector. “What do you think? Fancy place settings or something simple?”
“I’m with Hugh. I haven’t seen Landon’s estate, but I’ve heard the ballroom is a sight to behold. It’s got to be elegant dinnerware.” People in town talked about the mansion like it was a mysterious palace twenty minutes outside town. From what he’d gathered, there hadn’t been a party at the estate since the death of Landon’s wife years ago. “A formal reception will be a nice switch from the wedding in Liberty Square. Casual to elegant.” To Hugh, he said, “I’ll bet the Liberty Post runs photos on the front page.”
“Already scheduled,” Hugh said. “One of my newbies will accompany the wedding photographer to Landon’s estate. Don’t tell Birdie. It’s a surprise.”
Delia fluttered long lashes. “I can’t wait for the reception,” she said. “I’ve bought the perfect dress.”
Theodora gave Hector a meaningful glance. “I’m sure Hector can’t wait to see it.” With the subtlety of a Jewish matchmaker, she added, “He’ll be waiting to ask for a dance. I hear Landon picked out a fine band.”
“Oh, I can’t wait!”
Hector suffered the itchy desire to flee. The bright-cheeked waitress swayed an inch, pressing her overheated flesh into his side. If she dropped her head to his shoulder, Theodora would host a cowboy-themed wedding. Something with balloons and a rodeo.
Only he wasn’t ready for the hitching post. Not with a girl so young.
Hugh rode in to the rescue. “Don’t you have another appointment?” he asked Hector with ill-concealed mirth. “Something with Landon? If he needs help with the ballroom, lend a hand. He may be in over his head.”
With relief, Hector moved off. “I’m on it,” he said.
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