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Brooke Bernard returned from lunch to find every parking spot in the Archway Center occupied. Leaving her car on the street wouldn't have bothered her except for the fact that two prime spaces right in front of Smile Central, where she worked as a receptionist, were occupied by a single gas-guzzling luxury car that belonged to a man with an ego the size of an oil refinery.
On this particular Monday she was in no mood to tolerate such arrogance. Particularly not from a guy who'd recently broken up with her best friend, Renée Trent, who worked next door at the Hair Apparent beauty salon. Renée and Oliver both claimed that they'd drifted apart, but Brooke found it hard to believe. Egotistical as he might be, Oliver was extremely good-looking, and Renée had been fond of him.
Today was his unlucky day, because Brooke really, really wanted to give some man, any man, a piece of her mind, and with his thoughtless act of parking piracy, Oliver had made himself an obvious candidate. Also, Brooke needed to spend the rest of her lunch break checking out the bulletin board at the Archway Real Estate office, which Oliver owned. She might as well confront him while she was there.
After hiking a block and half from her car to the Archway Center, Brooke was huffing a bit hard for a twenty-five-year-old woman. She couldn't blame the weather, which was as clear and crisp as one might expect for mid-March in Southern California. She blamed Oliver for that, as well.
She stalked into Archway Real Estate ablaze with righteous indignation, only to discover that the front desk was unoccupied and the agents in their cubicles paid her no heed. To complete her senseof anticlimax, she could see Oliver through the glass front of his private office conferring with a couple of people who appeared to be clients.
Pushing her sunglasses up onto her head, Brooke shifted her attention to the printed fliers and hand-lettered notices pinned to the bulletin board. A lost poodle, a litter of free kittens, college students tutoring math. Where were all the renters seeking roommates?
The last time she'd checked there'd been zillions of possibilities. Still, that was ages ago. She supposed most people moved at the start or end of the school year.
An ad for a home to lease caught her eye. Three bedrooms, fresh paint, large kitchen While the rent seemed exorbitant to her, it was in line with prices here in the upscale town of Brea. Brooke happened to know that the house, located on the street Renée lived on, belonged to Oliver. He rented it out and lived in another of his properties, a luxury condo in the center of town. Must be nice to own more houses than you needed.
Well, she didn't require fancy digs or a guy who'd sell his best friend for a profit. Brooke preferred simple places and people who cared about each other.
Also, at present, people who had a room for rent because she needed one, badly.
The door to Oliver's office swung open and he ushered his clients out. Where'd he gotten the sharp new haircut that made his dark hair seem even thicker? Had he switched salons after parting ways with Renée?
As Oliver and his visitors headed in her direction, Brooke pretended to be fascinated with the bulletin board. Her back turned, she listened to the two clients thanking Oliver. His smooth words assured them that they'd made the right choice by listing their house with him.
In the window Brooke could see reflected handshakes and farewells. And then she registered the moment when Oliver spotted her. An unwelcome tingle ran along her spine.
"Hey." He stopped at her side. "What brings you here?"
Brooke swung around, refusing to be cowed by his height or distracted by those sea-blue eyes. "You're hogging two spaces."
His pretense of innocence fueled her indignation. "I had to walk a block and a half because of you."
"My apologies." He didn't exactly sound contrite. "Still, you can't assume the space would have stayed empty till you got there."
"Of all the ridiculous"
"Also, my client uses a cane, in case you didn't notice. I had to leave him room to get out. Since I'm only staying a few minutes, I figured, why waste gas by shifting the car?"
Brooke hated logic. People who stole parking spaces shouldn't be forgiven, no matter what excuse they used.
"Who cut your hair?" she demanded.
He grinned. "Renée. Why do you refuse to believe we're still friends? She told me you're gunning for my hide."
"I am not. I " She halted.
"It's just that all men are jerks," he filled in for her. "Right?"
"You should know."
Oliver's grin widened. "What's he done now?"
Brooke folded her arms, embarrassed. Thank goodness none of the other agents was close enough to overhear. "If you're referring to Kevin ."
"Your true love, the one who sold you a song and dance about how his wife threw him out and begged you to let him move in with you? If I can recall all the details of this soap opera, he's also the one who showered you with gifts he charged to a friend's credit card. A friend who happens to be your boss."
"He paid Dr. Salonica back. Besides, they weren't gifts, plural. Just a bouquet of roses." The menboth in their fortieswere golfing buddies who often did each other favors. Her boss, who was an orthodontist, had allowed the charge because Kevin didn't want his wife to find out he was having an affair during their separation.
"And he omitted to tell you that he has two little girls, and that he was the one who chose to play hooky."
"He " Brooke halted. Kevin Corcoran deserved no excuses. He'd created a mess for her and for his family. "Okay, I'm ticked off at him."
"What's his latest transgression?" Oliver persisted.
She averted her gaze. "He and his wife are reconciling."
"I'm sorry to hear it. I mean, for your sake."
The last thing she sought was sympathy. "It's a good thing. I mean, because of their daughters." Brooke didn't especially care to admit that she'd spent the entire weekend sobbing into a pillow. She did hope the couple reunited. "The problem is, now I have to find a place to live."
"What's wrong with your apartment?"
This was the most painful part. "Kevin insisted on handling the rent while he was living with me. I gave him my half every month, but somehow he got behind."
"Somehow?" Oliver pressed.
She hated to think the worst of a man she'd trusted. He had been fun to be around, impulsive and admiring. And for a while he'd filled a hole in her life. "He had to support his kids and okay, that's no excuse. Anyway, yesterday the landlord served me a three-day pay-or-quit notice. The bottom line is, I have to be out by tomorrow."
Oliver glowered. "That lout stole your money? Somebody ought to teach him a lesson."
"Don't go pounding him!" Brooke begged. "You wouldn't, would you?"
He shrugged. "No, but you should insist he bring the rent up-to-date. From what I hear, he has a good job as an insurance agent."
"He means well. But it's hard supporting two households." So Kevin had told her repeatedly.
"Let me guess. He claims that if you press him for the money, you'll be hurting his family."
She winced. "Let's not go there. I don't suppose you've heard of anybody looking for a house-sitter? That would save me a bundle."
Oliver's scowl vanished. "This is what I love about you, Brooke. Your life may be a disaster, but nothing keeps you down."
"There's something about me you love?" she shot back. "That's news."
"Why not? You're entertaining. Kind of like watching a ten-car pileup on the freeway," Oliver teased. "And since I'm in such a benevolent mood, I'll ask around about house-sitting. Meanwhile, why don't you stay with Renée? She has three bedrooms."
"I hate imposing on friends."
"You asked me to find you a free place to live."
"Since when are we friends?"
Oliver chuckled. "I see your point."
With a cheerful wave, Brooke whisked out the door and into her office. As she took her place behind the desk at Smile Central, she wondered if any of the nice moms in the waiting room might like a live-in nanny who was available evenings and weekends. That would solve her housing problem, and she loved kids. She couldn't very well inquire without endangering her job, however. And her job was already on shaky ground.
The problem was the dozen roses that Kevin had charged to Dr. Salonica's credit card. The orthodontist's wife, Helen, had spotted the charge, traced the flower delivery to Brooke's address and then had accused her own husband of courting the receptionist. Flustered, he claimed he'd sent them because Brooke's mother died.
Well, she had died. Ten years earlier.
Since then Helen had dropped by Smile Central twice to snoop, but she'd found no further cause for suspicion. Of course not. The very idea of passion flaring between Brooke and her pudgy, balding boss was preposterous.
Now, if she could just find a place to stay. Worst-case scenario, she might have to sleep in her car for a while. It wouldn't be the first time.
No use worryingsomething would turn up. It always did.
For oliver, Mondays were a juggling act. As were Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. What had he forgotten? Oh, yes, Sundays, too. And when he wasn't selling houses, he was supervising the ten agents who worked at his brokerage.
He got his exercise walking door-to-door, distributing fliers and chatting up potential clients, and he generally ate on the run. The exception was the rare occasion he joined Renée and Brooke at the sandwich shop that was located two stores down. Renée had been a charming companion for a while, and Brooke amused him with her flyaway cinnamon hair, her infectious laughter and her positive, carefree approach to life.
He'd never met anyone so completely different from himself. Growing up the middle child of financially strained parents, Oliver had always had a determination to accomplish two things: to amass investment capital and to become a major player in the business world by the age of thirty-five.
At thirty-one, he'd made numerous legitimate strides in that direction. The problem with owning a business and properties, however, was that they ate huge quantities of money. On paper, he looked great. But in practice, cash-flow crunches made this nonstop juggling act of his a necessity.
Adding to the pressure was a breakthrough opportunity that he'd just set his sights on. Not quite on a par with, say, Microsoft just before it released Windows, but the best shot he was liable to have for a long while.
After checking around the office to see if anyone needed a house-sitterand no one didOliver picked up his laptop and headed out. En route, he put in a call to Renée, who was at home, since the salon was closed on Mondays.
"I just stepped out of the shower," she told him coolly. "If this isn't urgent, I'd prefer to call you back."
"It won't take long." He described Brooke's situation.
As he spoke to Renée, he tried not to think about how sensational the willowy blonde must look in her delicate silk wrapperif she wore even that much. Renée definitely was his type, yet they'd lost interest in each other after a few months of dating. Oliver supposed that was partly because of his schedule, but he'd also gotten a strong sense that Renée backed away from real intimacy. No hard feelings on either side.
"I could strangle Kevin!" she responded. "I wish Brooke had told me."
"She thought that would be taking advantage." Cell phone pressed to his ear, Oliver stood beside his car.
"She can certainly stay here for a couple of weeks, until my remodeling starts." Since she'd bought her house the previous fall, Renée had been busy working out a color scheme and selecting tile, carpet and appliances. "Once Josh tears up my kitchen and pulls out the carpets, there'll be fibers and fumes everywhere."
Contractor Josh Lorenz, who lived across the street from Renée, had a long list of clients, all admirers of his high-quality workmanship. His current projects included the restoration of Oliver's rental. The former renters, who'd recently moved to Nevada, had been famous for their loud power tools, cluttered porch and noisy teenagers. When they moved out, they left the house in bad shape.
Oliver beeped his car open. A motorcycle had slid into the remaining half space, so at least Brooke's inconvenience had turned out to be another person's good luck. "Where are you going to stay?"
"With a neighbor, Tess Phipps. She's the divorce attorney."
"I remember when she bought that house. Nice lady." Oliver had a passing acquaintance with most of the home owners in the Harmony Circle development. The comfortable enclave, set among Brea's northern hills, offered its more than three hundred residents a pool, a playground and a clubhouse, where monthly potlucks were held. Its communal atmosphere made an excellent selling point.
"I hope Brooke can find another place to stay by then," Renée said anxiously. "I can't ask Tess to put her up, too."
Oliver positioned the phone in a holder and affixed a hands-free headset before switching on the ignition. "I'm sure she will." That little scatterbrain had a knack for landing on her feet.
"I'm surprised you're interested in helping her. I thought altruism wasn't your style."
"It isn't." Having fought his way to success on his own, he figured that if he could do it so could others. In his opinion, when an able-bodied person stuck out his hand, someone ought to slap a job application into it right away. Brooke, however, hadn't asked for charity. "Besides, I'm not the one taking her in."
Renée laughed. "Altruism's okay, as long as I'm doing it?"