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Oh, yes. I do believe in miracles! Cathy Clarke said to herself as she looked across the crowded dining room of The Country Place restaurant. She felt her knees go weak at the sight of the prospective client seated with her friend, Simon Taggart.
Lincoln Avery was even handsomer than ever, and when he looked up and smiled as she approached the table, pleasure and appreciation radiated from Linc's cobalt blue eyes. He rose and held out both hands toward her. As he curled her fingers within his grasp, he said, "How's your hook shot?" He leaned forward to brush his lips across her cheek.
Cathy surprised herself by turning her head so that their lips met briefly. The contact sent a spark winging through her--the kind of electric contact she had dreamed of twelve years ago, when she was a shy, lanky sixteen-year-old. He's even more beautiful than he was then. It's a sign. I know it.
With her hands enveloped in Linc's long, warm fingers, Cathy's thoughts whirled. She'd never forgotten his shattering blue eyes and the way they seemed to see right through her. He still held his head with a touch of arrogance; the black hair above his wide forehead was a little unruly; and his lean features were just as she remembered them. Then she realized she was standing there grasping his fingers and gazing upward.
"It's wonderful to see you again, Linc," she said calmly. With great reluctance, she removed her hands from his, and tried to remain composed as his gaze remained fixed on her. She knew she looked sophisticated in her beige linen suit, and her long hair was wrapped in the elegant twist she'd practiced for weeks before allowing herself to wear it inpublic.
"You've changed," he remarked profoundly.
"And for the better, I'm sure," Simon broke in. "However, the other diners never saw the 'before,' and as much as I'm sure they're enjoying the 'after,' I refuse to eat standing up when there are perfectly good chairs available."
Dropping into the chair Linc held for her, Cathy reached over to pat Simon's hand. "You poor thing. You're embarrassed. He's such a tender plant," she explained to Linc.
"Brat," Simon said equably. "Are we going to reminisce or are we going to talk business?"
"First we're going to order," Cathy declared. "I'm starving."
"Well, at least your appetite hasn't changed," murmured Linc as the waiter approached.
"This is probably the one decent meal she'll get all week. You should taste her cooking." Simon said wryly, settling back in his chair as the slender blond waiter described the day's offerings.
After they'd ordered, Simon turned to Cathy and asked, "What about this hook shot, and where did you two meet?"
"Brothers," she responded cryptically.
Linc grinned as he explained, "I was at Penn State with Cathy's brothers, Greg and Tom, and they took me home with them on weekends. I was from Oklahoma, while they lived just outside Philadelphia, so I appreciated the invitations. Cathy was usually around ... make that always around," he added with a teasing grin. "When there was an odd number we'd use her to even up the teams for pickup basketball."
"Beast! It was the high point of my life when you guys showed up. At least at first. I loved to brag to the girls at school about the college men I met."
Linc continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "Anyway, she was so basketball crazy and competitive that I taught her some moves. I was playing for Penn then, and thought I was a real hotshot. She said her goal was to play on the Olympic team, so I had this vision of reading about her in the sports columns ... where she always gave me credit as her inspiration."
"Why did you say 'at first'?" Simon asked Cathy as he moved to one side to allow the waiter to serve him.
Cathy eyed her veal parmigiana hungrily and answered without thinking. "Having extra brothers around got to be a drawback. Tom and Greg always encouraged their friends to critique my dates. Boys my own age were intimidated. I couldn't get a date for my senior prom."
Linc smiled sympathetically. "If I'd known, I'd have come back from law school and taken you myself."
Cathy regarded him with disgust. "Now you tell me! I had such a crush on you it was all I could do to keep from following you around like a puppy. You were always so very nice to me."
"Do I get a second chance? Or is it too late?"
She repressed an urge to throw her arms around his neck. If she died trying, Lincoln Avery was going to see her as a mature woman. A compatible friend. She realized she had compared every man she dated to him. They all came up lacking, but she'd never let him know that. "I came to lunch to pitch Clarke's Services to you, Linc. You wouldn't want me to mix business with pleasure." She hoped he couldn't read her thoughts. Or hear the beating of her heart.
"After lunch. Let's eat before our food gets cold," he answered.
Cathy directed her attention to her meal. "Isn't this wonderful? I've looked forward all morning to eating here."
Cathy's eagerness to do business amused Linc. "Little Catherine Clarke" had grown up very nicely, which he should have expected, but he found it hard to picture her in such an unusual business--running errands for busy people.
Seeing her after all these years triggered a host of warm memories of family life; the Clarkes had treated him as if he were another son, including him in holiday celebrations and giving him the run of their house. Cathy had been a leggy, wide-eyed teenager, the younger sister he had never had. As he ate he found himself wondering if she were living in a safe area of Atlanta and if she was careful about driving alone at night.
With the arrival of their cinnamon coffee, Cathy became even more businesslike. She withdrew a flat note pad from her handbag and poised a slender gold pen above it. "Now you can fill me in on your requirements, Linc. That is, if you trust me to handle this for you." Her smile held just the right blend of confidence and reticence.
"Do I have a choice? If I turn you down I take the chance of living from boxes like the typical harried bachelor." He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. "Simon told me your company contracts to run mundane errands. I'm definitely interested in that part, but how does that make you qualified to prepare and decorate my condominium to my specifications?"
"I'm expanding. I want companies who are bringing in busy executives and their wives to make one call and one call only. Clarke's Services," she explained. "I have decorators and home furnishings people who will contract for anything you need, and then put it in place. When you arrive, all the top services, from cleaning to caterers, will be in place."
"What if I want to comparison shop?"
Cathy favored him with a smug smile. "It's getting late to find someone else to do the job. If you'll tell me exactly what you need, I'll have Marybeth prepare a contract this afternoon while I alert people. That way I can sign agreements with them Monday. How long are you going to be in town?"
"I fly out Sunday at noon."
"Can you come to dinner at my place tomorrow night? I'll have the basic contract ready and we can fill in the blanks."
The invitation surprised Linc. He realized he no longer knew Cathy. Did she make a habit of inviting near-strangers to her apartment? Perhaps she'd decided to consider him the same as one of her brothers, and intended to treat him as she did Simon. For some reason, the thought was annoying, but he nodded his agreement anyway. The grown up, businesslike Cathy intrigued him. So did the secrets that seemed to lurk in her gray-green eyes and behind her sleek, graceful movements.
"At your own risk, Linc," Simon interrupted. "The last time I was there we ended up throwing out dinner and ordering pizza."
"Simon, I've been practicing. I've mastered two things, and no one's died on my front step in weeks," she protested. "Come casual, Linc. Sixish will do."
Simon demanded, "Who have you been practicing on? Marybeth? Anyone who eats the junk she does is no judge. What's her fad diet this week?"
"Something disgusting to do with rotating gross amounts of hot dogs, boiled eggs and bananas for three days. She says she's guaranteed to lose seven pounds."
"You're spoiling my digestion," Linc murmured. He watched as Cathy extracted a brochure and business card from her purse and jotted her home address on the back. Handing both to Linc, she said, "You shouldn't have any trouble finding my place. I live the other side of Piedmont Park."
She neatly stored the note pad and pen and made a casual move toward the check resting on the oval tray. Linc reached out to stay her fingers, staring at her until she raised her eyes to his.
"I know you liberated business women do this sort of thing every day, but when I have lunch with a beautiful woman, the pleasure is mine," he said in a soft voice that brooked no argument.
Her docile acceptance surprised him, but Cathy rose, thanked him and said her farewells before leaving. Linc noticed that half the men in the room watched her exit. Why did the Clarkes allow her to live so far away from home? And in a city like Atlanta. She needed someone to watch over her.
As she retrieved her venerable Pinto wagon from the underground parking lot, Cathy felt as if she'd been struck by lightning. Seeing Linc after all these years had nearly made her forget business. The man was absolutely a menace; maturity and self-assurance made him fifty times as attractive as she remembered him. And from what Simon had told her, he was that gem among gems, a professional bachelor.
Her invitation to dinner wasn't as spontaneous as it sounded. She wanted him to see her as she was--a mature, successful woman of twenty-eight. An equal.
Cathy assured herself her crush on him was a thing of the past. She wasn't interested in romance; her business would always come first. She'd worked too hard to establish Clarke's Services. Thus far her clients had only been private individuals, but her expansion plans could also lead to contracts with companies, introducing her services to large blocks of new customers. The whole enterprise was a source of pride to Cathy; she considered herself a pioneer in the burgeoning service field.
It was gratifying to be on the front edge of what trade journals and business magazines called as the fastest growing industry in the country. Besides, she was now furnishing full and part-time employment to over twenty housewives and college students, which gave her a sense of personal satisfaction.
At times she was amazed she'd had the courage to break away from her sheltered upbringing to strike out on her own. It felt so good to be independent and to have carved out a segment of the business world with her own efforts, and she intended to stay that way. No man was going to shut her up in a suburban box. Cathy remembered how her announcement had amused Simon the day before.
"Simon, I have to meet more professional bachelors," she'd said.
Simon had stared at her, astonished, as she dropped her briefcase in the middle of his Aubusson carpet and threw herself into the upholstered chair at the other side of his desk. His hazel eyes had twinkled with amusement. "Cathy, I don't know what to say. This is so sudden."
Cathy rewarded her friend with a disgruntled look and unbuttoned the tailored red blazer with its discreet "Clarke's Services" logo. "Don't be ridiculous. I like men, but I'm tired of everyone I date assuming I'm in a hurry to get married. Why on earth should I give up my freedom? They won't accept the fact that my greatest focus has to be my career."
She slipped her feet from her low-heeled pumps and flexed her toes blissfully. "Take this week for example, but not today. Right now I'm exhausted. Four of my schleppers have been out all week with the flu, and I just finished walking Mrs. Fullmer's saluki for what seemed like miles. Where he gets his energy, I don't know ... spoiled thing."
"Ah, but you get paid an exorbitant rate for every weary moment of it. Don't you advertise a service that saves busy and well-heeled people time and energy?"
"Well, I hadn't anticipated walking dogs when I set things up. That one just sort of sneaked in," she grumbled. "If my expansion, offering complete settling-in services for newcomers, takes off, I'll have you put a clause in the contract that says 'No Dog Walking'." Cathy leaned forward, suddenly animated. "Simon, Atlanta is growing so fast that my idea is a natural!"
Ignoring her burst of enthusiasm, he said lightly, "Let's get back to the original topic. What's made you anti-marriage?"
Cathy rested her head on the back of her chair and peered at him beneath half-closed lids. "Remember that stockbroker I went to lunch with last week? He took me to The Peasant, and we were just starting to eat when who should show up but Tania Gooding. You know how gorgeous she is," she said.
"She practically crawled into his lap before I could introduce her, and then before my food could stick in my throat she'd asked him out to dinner tomorrow night. He turned her down flat. After she flounced off, he told me he preferred the kind of woman men marry. Women like me!"
Simon roared with laughter. "I take it that was an insult?" he observed dryly.
"Of course it was. I told him if he had a yen for domesticity he'd best look elsewhere."
"Maybe you should consider opening a dating service for your rejects."
Cathy narrowed her eyes at the twinkle in Simon's eyes. "I'm really serious, Simon. What is there about me that makes men think I'm looking for a husband?"
Simon steepled his fingers in front of him, his facial muscles tight, as if he were restraining a laugh. "I hate to be the one to point this out to you, Cathy, but you're not precisely unattractive. And you're bright and funny. A man can't be blamed for pursuing you."
Cathy made a rude sound. "The first thing most men do is refer to Clarke's Services as my 'little business,' as if I were simply filling time until I found the right man. Have you noticed how many women's careers take a back seat to their husbands'? My mother is wonderful, but she never had a career, and has no interest in starting one at this stage of her life. Instead, she's a pillar of her garden club. She's happy with her choices. I chose differently, but I'm excited about what I'm doing. What I need are men friends who understand. Are you available?" She pretended to leer at him.
"Don't look at me that way."
Simon's mock expression of horror fueled Cathy's sense of humor, and she eyed him speculatively. Her gaze swept the tight, light brown curls above his bony face, then moved down over what she knew was an unpretentious body. "I'm crazy for you, Simon."
"Try to control yourself. We know each other too well ... like brother and sister."
"We do, don't we. I'd like to meet someone who doesn't want to marry any more than I do." She grinned. "You wouldn't be able to put your heart into it."
Charlie watched Simon's eyes crinkle with amusement. The two had been friends for so long that their teasing about mutual attraction was a standard joke. His failed marriage had made him leery, and his caseload of divorcing couples had given him a slightly jaundiced view of the happy state of matrimony, but Simon needed a wife in the worst way. She knew their relationship suited him perfectly--as it suited her. They laughed at the same things and understood each other's values--but there was no spark. And she definitely wasn't looking for that spark. In fact, she wasn't sure such a thing existed for her.
"Don't hurt yourself rejoicing. I might change my mind ... and my standards," she teased as she looked at her watch, then asked, "What's the real reason you wanted to see me?"
"A friend from law school is moving his corporate law firm to Atlanta. So many of his clients have headquarters here that he's decided to bring his office to them. He's already bought a condo, and wants me to find someone to get it ready for him ... to 'turn it into a home,' he says
...before he moves here in about three weeks. He's also a perfect candidate for all the services you arrange so well."
Simon paused and shuffled several papers in a manila folder before continuing, "He hasn't the time or the wife to do it, but I'll warn you in advance that he may be a demanding client. Of course, if you do a good job, other members of the firm will probably sign on as they arrive in town. Incidentally, he also fits your description of the 'professional bachelor' you're looking for."
Cathy rose and rounded the desk to drop a noisy kiss in the middle of his forehead. "Simon, you're a true friend. Three weeks isn't much time, but by calling in some favors, I can line up people to see to his needs. In three weeks he'll think he has a wife making magic in that condo." She grinned mischievously. "This also means I get first dibbies on him."
"You'll have to work fast. Women gravitate to him like ants to a cookie. Always have. What annoys me is that his social life never interferes with his work, which makes me jealous." The wry grin was back on Simon's face as he rose.
Cathy was always surprised to discover her eyes were level with his; Simon just seemed to think taller than five foot ten inches. She hugged him with a rush of sudden affection. "Don't worry. In spite of my talk, I'm more interested in his business. When can I meet with him? For a rush job like this I'll have to sign contracts by Monday." Even though the deadlines would mean working evenings and weekends, she couldn't seem to keep from smiling. Broadly.
Setting her away from, he said, "Try for a little dignity, and meet us for lunch at The Country Place tomorrow. Twelve-thirty okay? Or do you have to run Mrs. Fullmer's Saluki then?" "Jane Albert promised she'd be recovered enough to take over the pampered pooch tomorrow. If not, the poor dog will have to make do with ten minutes in the back yard," she quipped as she bent to retrieve her shoes. "I'll be so downtown and businesslike you won't recognize me."
"That'll be the day. Just try to cheer up between now and then," Simon teased.
Posted July 26, 2010
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