The clutter of invoices and receipts was overwhelming. With an eye at tackling a portion of the mess, Hector dug in.
Most of the Liberty Post’s employees were gone for the day, leaving the newsroom in a state of relative calm. Hugh was out on a story, and Birdie was upstairs in their apartment. Hector planned to spend an hour organizing the accounts before calling it a day. With the wedding only days off, the groom was increasingly frazzled. Hugh’s anxiety meant the accounts were badly neglected.
As Hector sorted the paperwork, this morning’s conversation with Landon continued to bother him. No matter what the retired banker thought, choosing to stay in Liberty for the summer wasn’t ideal. It meant delaying the search for a permanent job in Philadelphia, something long-term that would lead to a career.
Landon’s comment by the lake rose again in his mind. You may lack confidence in your abilities, but you strike me as a man with solid instincts. Even if Hector was unsure of a career path, did that indicate self-doubt? Sure, he’d bounced through too many jobs. What seemed bad luck or lack of preparation was anything but. Work had taken a back seat to the more immediate concerns that had dominated his life during two ill-fated marriages. A checkered job history didn’t mean he doubted his abilities.
Yet Landon’s comment stuck in his brain like a taunt demanding he question every assumption he held about himself.
He’d finished stacking bills on one side of the desk when Theodora marched up the newsroom’s center aisle. Given the wedding preparations, she’d become a constant fixture at the Post.
Tonight she wore a black skirt and a cowboy-inspired suede jacket with fringe swinging in time with her strides. The leather boots on her small feet were a perfect match. All she was missing was a hitching post for her horse—not that he could imagine her stopping by in anything but her beloved sky blue Cadillac.
She was carrying a basket of peaches.
“Not my first choice for dinner but I’ll take one,” he said by way of greeting. “I’d head for a drive-through, but I promised Hugh to get the accounts in order. Talk about a mess.”
With a grunt, Theodora lowered the basket to his desk. “Go on, take two if you’d like. Birdie can’t eat them all. If she does, I’ll scare up another basket.”
“Since when does Birdie eat peaches by the truckload?” Fruit was always a good idea, but not ten pounds at once.
She studied the female reporter working on the other side of the newsroom. Satisfied the newbie wasn’t eavesdropping, she said, “It’s the cravings.”
“You know how pregnant women get a hankering for certain foods?” When he nodded with understanding, she added, “Sabrina, the pharmacist over at the drugstore? Hers were the same—couldn’t get enough peaches when she was expecting. Ate them at all hours. Her husband took to sleeping in the guest bedroom. He got tired of rolling into peaches at night.”
“Forget about cravings. Find a remedy for Birdie’s morning sickness.” Last time he’d checked, she was camped out before the toilet bowl in her master bath. There wasn’t much he could do other than offer a pat on the back. She’d sent him back to the newsroom with a tepid thumbs up. “I thought morning sickness was a morning issue. Birdie’s shot the theory to hell.”
“Some women experience it at odd hours. You never can tell what’ll set it off.” Theodora took a peach from the basket and tossed it over. After he’d taken a bite, she added, “My friend in Columbus, Joan Maholtz? She couldn’t stand the smell of beef cooking. Made her sicker than a dog.”
“No kidding.” A discussion of women in pregnancy was unfamiliar terrain. He tried to find his comfort zone, an impossible feat.
“Susan, over at the antique store? She couldn’t stand the smell of plastics. Strangest thing. Offer her bottled water and she’d run off, gagging. Jewels, the new girl at the veterinarian’s office? She was in hell for months. The sight of eggs in a nice macaroni salad would have her retching for an hour. She was pregnant last spring and stayed clear of every picnic in the county.”
The old woman’s fascination with all things maternal was touching. Would Birdie’s pregnancy soften Theodora’s hard edges? Usually she fired off snappish comments or burst into fits of temper. He found this softer side of her personality endearing.
Or not. He suspected she was buttering him up when she said, “Have you talked to Delia? The dress she’s wearing to the wedding is a stunner. Real slinky thing. Every young buck in the county will be following her around at the reception.”
“They’ll score a dance if they carry chewing gum. It’s her drug of choice.”
“Don’t you care if she dances with all the eligible men but you?”
Logging into the computer, he fired up the accounting software. “No Theodora, I don’t.”
“Why not?” She stomped her foot. “Hector Levendakis, I hate to horsewhip your male pride, but you’re not young. Aren’t you itchin’ for a chance at love? Delia is a good woman. She likes you. What more is there to it?”
“Why not give her a chance?”
The reasons were too numerous to share with the diminutive matchmaker. He had more than ten years on Delia. She was too bubbly for his taste. And he wasn’t interested in a long distance romance. Despite Landon’s urging he stay for the summer, he hadn’t warmed to the idea of putting off the return to Philadelphia.
“Theodora, I know you mean well,” he said with as much patience as he could muster. “Stop pushing. I’m not interested.”
“You fool. I don’t mean well. I mean to grow Liberty.” She shimmied her shoulders with impotent rage. “Didn’t I get Mary to stay and wed Anthony? Didn’t Hugh fall for Birdie, and start the newspaper at my urging? If mating rituals were left to the young, Liberty would be a ghost town.”
Was she feisty and diabolical?
He’d assumed her meddling was the harmless pastime of a woman with too much time on her hands. Evidently there was more to it. “If you want to grow the town, convince Hugh to hire more reporters. He might bring in a young buck who’s perfect for Delia.”
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You’re here, and I mean to make you stay.”
Finishing his peach, he tossed the pit in the garbage. “I’m honored, but you’re wasting your time. I’m focused on my career.”
“You don’t have a career. Not yet. I’m working on it. Even if you did, do you want to end up like Meade? All she does is work.”
“There are worse fates.”
“At the moment, Birdie is the one dealing with a bad fate—the sister kind. Meade is driving her to distraction with suggestions on the proper way to host a wedding.”
“Ease off. If she didn’t help, Birdie couldn’t pull off the wedding. Not with three weeks of lead time.”
“Hell and damnation—what are you talking about? Three weeks or three years, it wouldn’t matter. Meade’s been walking right over her sister, telling her to do this or that for the wedding. She’s a tyrant. A regular Attila the Hun. In case you’re stupid, let me spell it out. Meade loves nothing more than being top dog.”
“Guess what? You’re just as irritating. You latch onto ideas like a pit bull.”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch.”
He nodded pointedly at the clutter on the desk. “Do you mind? I’m working here.”
“Then work. All I’m saying is, lack of male companionship has turned Meade into a cranky old maid. You want to end up just as unlikeable?”
“Theodora, no one has referred to women as ‘maids’ since the Elizabethan era. More importantly, Meade isn’t old. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on your career. People do it all the time. She’s not one of my favorite people, but she’s a successful businesswoman. I hope I do half as well.”
“She needs to get laid.”
Discussing a woman’s private life was out of bounds. Rattled, he began punching receipts into the accounting program with gusto. Better to dig in. Theodora would take the hint and push off.
But she’d already dropped the subject. Her weathered face creased with disgust as she looked down the aisle.
“Cain and Jezebel, I’ve done it now. I’ve uttered her name and here she is. Hector, pick up the phone. Find an exorcist.”
Unsure what she meant, he peered around the basket of peaches. Meade was gliding up the aisle with the calm superiority of a queen at her coronation. As usual she looked stunning, her platinum hair swept back to compliment high cheekbones and large, wide-set eyes. She didn’t possess her younger sister’s flashy looks. What she did have was more dangerous, a refined beauty paired with a mind as scintillating as the diamonds glittering at her ears.
She tossed a dismissive glance his way before regarding Theodora with ill-concealed impatience. From the looks of it, she held them in equal contempt.
“Theodora. Hello.” She gave the basket of fruit the once-over. “Are the two of you planning a baking spree? Peach cobbler for twenty? I’m sure it’ll give you something useful to do.”
Theodora hauled the basket into her arms. “I’m not baking tonight but if you must know, your tone burns my biscuits. Watch it, missy.”
Meade retreated from the ire flashing in the tiny titan’s eyes. “Let’s start over,” she replied, and her Adam’s apple bobbed in the pillar of her neck. She was haughty but with Theodora nearby, she was also nervous. “Where’s my sister? We’re running late.”
“How the hell should I know? I just got here.” To his astonishment, Theodora butted her out of the way and planted the basket in his lap. “Give these to Birdie, will you? I’m late for a fitting. I’ve got a hankering to wear something glittery to the wedding.”
“Cocktail dress or full length?” he asked, following her cue and ignoring Meade. Two could play the hostility game, and he’d had enough of her for one day. If her father was correct and he did lack confidence, any none-too-subtle jabs she flung his way wouldn’t help.
“I’m wearing a ball gown. A swishy thing in sea green.”
“Sounds pretty.” He regarded the basket she’d dumped in his lap. “I’ll take these up. I’m sure they’ll help Birdie feel better.”
“I don’t know if they’ll help, but she’ll want them the next time she’s hungry. Between bouts of sickness she’s eating like a Clydesdale. If the nuptials weren’t in a few days we’d have to let out her wedding dress.”
“Should you ask the caterer to have peaches on standby at the reception? It’s the bride’s big night. She ought to have whatever she likes.”
“Good idea. I’ll call after my fitting.”
The light banter lit something in the back of Meade’s clear blue eyes. “Birdie isn’t feeling well?” she asked no one in particular.
Theodora pretended not to hear. “I’ll see you later,” she told him. Making a beeline around Meade, she marched out.
Her departure went unnoticed. “What’s wrong with my sister?” Meade demanded. “She can’t be sick, not tonight. We have an appointment with the florist.”
“I can’t! The wedding is next weekend.”
Her distress changed the dynamics of their conversation. She didn’t like having her schedule altered, and the panic in her eyes was appealing. He decided to play it for all it was worth.
“Take my word for it. You’ll never get Birdie out of her apartment tonight.” A woman with Meade’s power didn’t encounter many speed bumps, and he couldn’t resist adding, “You want the facts? She’s praying to the porcelain god. She won’t finish anytime soon.”
“Hector, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She came close enough to peer down her nose. “Has Birdie caught a bug? Why didn’t she call? Why am I here if we aren’t keeping the appointment? I’ve been going since 8 A.M. I’m exhausted.”
Revealing her sister’s pregnancy was tempting. It wasn’t his place. She’d find out soon enough.
Choosing the better gambit, he got to his feet. “Save the temper tantrum,” he said, matching her superiority with insouciance. “You’re not the only one who’s put in a long day. Hugh’s got bills from January he forgot to pay. Even better? He stopped inputting receivables in the accounting program last month. Houdini couldn’t unravel the mess.”
“And you can? Hard to believe.”
“I’m trying, which counts for something.” He got into her face. “Mark Birdie off your schedule. Call the florist and explain. Or don’t. What you do doesn’t concern me as long as you stop dumping bad vibes. Find a landfill. I got enough of your negative energy this morning.”
Height gave a primal advantage, and he liked the way she unconsciously appraised the sturdy line of his shoulders before lingering on his throat. “Are you baiting me?” she asked. She seemed incapable of meeting his stony gaze.
“It’s an idea. Should I? Seeing that you think so highly of me?”
“I don’t think highly of you.”
“And I don’t care.”
Her lashes were thick and artfully blackened with mascara, her drowsy gaze revealing a heady mix of attraction and unbidden desire. Pressing his advantage, he backed her against the desk. The invasion of her space fisted her long, manicured fingers.
Women were always drawn to him, but Meade seemed unprepared for the sexual awareness heightening between them. Her expression was too open, too expressive. She appeared incapable of hiding a natural reaction most women would conceal behind witty banter or a cool response. Which suggested innocence beneath her demure pose. It was fetching.
As were her eyes, lifting to capture his with a beguiling curiosity. Gone was the rude businesswoman who shielded her emotions behind sharp intellect. For a wondrous moment thought sifted from his brain, his attention narrowing on the scent of jasmine rising off her skin and the flecks of gold strung through the blue of her eyes.
A faint patchwork of lines marred the skin above her upper lip and between her brows. He reminded himself that she was a woman of forty, a notion difficult to square with her youthful vitality and overall good health. If she were age fifty he wouldn’t have cared—the animal magnetism they’d unleashed was potent and pure, as compelling as his desire to run his hand along the pale skin of her throat. He fought the urge.
And understood: if beauty was a trump card, she’d outplayed him.
Needing to break the exchange, he said, “Go upstairs and help your sister. She needs the company. Hugh’s out on interviews.”
Meade roused from deep waters. “I should.”
“I’ll take these up.” Tamping down his desire, he slung the basket of peaches under his arm. “After you.”
The spell he’d cast diminished with each step she took up the stairwell. She seemed no longer aware of him. Inside the apartment, she set her purse down on the kitchen counter without the slightest inclination to draw him back into conversation. The way she withdrew into herself was impressive, the polished calm returning, her gait measured as she moved past.
The lights were dimmed in the living room. From the master suite, the piteous sound of retching sent her to investigate.
With regret, he let her go.
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