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By Stephanie Bond Janelle Denison
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE STYLIST HELD A HANDFUL of dark hair high above Cindy Warren's head, the scissors poised only inches from her scalp. "Are you sure you want to do this, ma'am?"
Cindy bit her lower lip, wavering. Long hair was easy, uncomplicated. And a security blanket, her mind whispered.
Standing behind another salon chair a few feet away, Jerry cleared his throat meaningfully and pushed the fuzzy Santa hat he wore back on his bald head. An institution at the Chandelier House hotel, the elderly black barber gave trims to male guests, but declined to use his artistry on female heads. His implied subtle comment nettled her. Whose hair was it, anyway?
She looked up once again to the length of hair, then to the woman's name tag. "Tell me, Bea, how long have you been working in our salon?"
"Counting today? Hmmmm. Three - no, four days. I graduated from beauty school two weeks ago, ma'am."
Cindy digested the information as Jerry spun his seated customer around to face the action. "Well, I'm due for a change," she murmured, to no one in particular, sitting erect with new resolve. "Long, straight hair is ridiculous at my age. I need to either have it cut, or become a country music singer."
Jerry gave her a pointed stare. "Hum a fewbars."
"What's wrong with long, straight hair?" Jerry's customer asked.
Cindy's gaze darted to the man's reflection and her breath caught in appreciation of his appallingly good looks. "Excuse me?" she squeaked, then warmed with embarrassment.
The visitor, a striking man with pale blue eyes and a prominent nose, sat tall in the chair, his long, trousered legs extending far below the gray cape Jerry had draped over his torso. His dark curly hair lay damp and close to his head, compliments of Jerry, and a mirror trimmed with glittery gold tinsel reflected his crooked smile. "I said, what's wrong with long, straight hair?"
Squashing a zing of sexual awareness, Cindy bristled. "I-it makes me look like a coed."
"Most women would be thrilled," the man offered with a shrug.
"Well, not this woman," Cindy said, growing increasingly annoyed with her unexpected - and unwanted - physical reaction to him.
Jerry leaned over the man's shoulder and said in a conspiratorial voice, "She's trying to impress someone."
"Jerry," Cindy warned, narrowing her eyes.
The customer nodded knowingly at Jerry in the mirror.
"Oh, yeah," Jerry drawled, pulling off the plastic cape to reveal the man's crisp white collarless dress shirt and burgundy leather suspenders.
"Jerry, that's enough!"
"Boyfriend?" the man asked Jerry.
"Nah," the barber said sadly, shaking the cape. "Ms. Cindy doesn't date much - works day and night."
"Really? Day and night." The man made a sympathetic sound. "Then who is she trying to impress?"
"Some corporate fellow," Jerry said, whipping out a brush and whisking it over the man's neck and broad shoulders.
"Jerry, I've never impressed anyone in my life!" Suddenly, she realized what she'd said. "I mean, I've never tried to impress anyone."
The old barber ignored her. "Headquarters is sending a hatchet man next week to check us out, and to check out Ms. Cindy, too, I reckon."
"Other than the obvious reason -" the man flicked his glance her way for a split second " - why would this fellow be checking out Ms. Cindy?"
"'Cause," Jerry said, nodding toward their topic of discussion, "she runs this whole show."
His customer looked impressed. "Is that so?"
"Yes," Cindy said, looking daggers at Jerry. "That's so."
"Ma'am?" prompted a shaky Bea.
"Don't do it." The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on the padded arms of the chair.
With ballooning irritation, Cindy scoffed and waved off the stranger's opinion. "If men had their way, every woman would have hair down to her knees."
The man steepled his fingers and glanced up at Jerry. "I would have said ankles. How about you, Jer?"
"Ma'am," Bea pleaded, "my arms are about to give out."
Cindy raised her chin. "Cut it. This will be my early Christmas present to myself."
"Punishment for being naughty?" the man asked Jerry.
"Punishment for being nice," Jerry amended.
Fuming, Cindy nodded curtly to the hesitant hairdresser. "Do it."
"Don't do it," the man said, his voice rich with impending doom.
"Whack it off," Cindy said more forcefully. "Layers all over. Make me a new woman."
The handsome man's eyes cut to Jerry. "Is there something wrong with the old woman?"
Jerry pursed his lips. "She's a little impulsive."
Cindy set her jaw. "Let's get this over with."
Bea swallowed audibly. "I'll leave the back shoulder length, ma'am." The woman closed her eyes.
Alarm suddenly gripped Cindy. "Wait!" she cried just as the shears made a slicing sound. Bea opened her eyes and stared.
The man winced, and Jerry grunted painfully when the hairdresser held up more than a foot of severed dark tresses. As the remnants fell back to her shoulders, Cindy tried to squash her own rising panic and painted on a shaky smile, encouraging the new stylist to continue.
Maybe, she thought, keeping her gaze down and dabbing at perspiration along her neck, this woman would stay longer than the seven days their previous hairdressers had averaged. Cindy had urged her staff members to give the salon their patronage, and felt compelled to take the lead. But twenty minutes later, when Bea stood back to absorb the full effect of her latest creation in the mirror, Cindy understood why none of her employees used the unproved stylists.
"Good Lord," Jerry muttered, shaking his head.
The man whistled low. "Too bad."
"You hate it, don't you?" Bea asked Cindy, her face crumbling.
"N-no," Cindy rushed to assure her. She lifted a hand, but couldn't bring herself to touch the choppy, lank layers that hugged her head like a long knit cap. "It'll just take some getting used to, that's all." She inhaled and smiled brightly.
"Think he'll be impressed?" the man asked Jerry, doubt clear in his voice.
"If he can get past the hair," Jerry said, nodding.
"Do you two mind?" Cindy snapped, feeling a flush scald her cheeks. She tugged the cape off her shoulders and stood, brushing the sleeves of her blouse. Jerry, she could overlook. But this, this ... arrogant guest was tap-dancing on her holiday-frazzled nerves.
The infuriating man stood as well, and in her haste to leave, Cindy slipped on a pile of her own hair and skidded across the marble floor, flailing her arms and legs like a windup toy. He halted her imminent fall with one large hand, his fingers curving around her arm. Cindy jerked upright to stare into his dancing blue eyes, then pulled away from his grasp. "Th-thank you," she murmured, her face burning.
"The haircut must have thrown off your balance," he observed with a half smile.
Feeling like a complete idiot, Cindy retrieved her green uniform jacket and withdrew a generous tip for the distraught Bea, then strode toward the exit. Her skin tingled with humiliation and her scalp felt drafty, but she refused to crumble. She simply had too much on her mind to dwell on the embarrassing episode with the attractive stranger - the upcoming review, going home for Christmas and now her hair.
Cindy squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. No matter. After all, the unsettling man was simply passing through. And Manny would know what to do with her hair.
Excerpted from Christmas Party by Stephanie Bond Janelle Denison Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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