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If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.
She sniffed the aftershave-tinged air once again and, following her nose, popped up from behind the counter with the half-filled straw dispenser in hand. She spied the man leaning into a booth, wiping the seat with a napkin. When he sat, she got a glimpse of his face and nearly dropped the straw holder.
Black hair, black golf shirt and black moodif the slant of his brows meant anythingsaid he might very well be trouble.
"I'll be right with you," she said as she spun around and hurried through the swinging door into the kitchen.
"Bogey at table one," she warned the girl at the dishwashing sink.
Lisa, up to her elbows in suds, gave Josie a typical teenager roll of the eyes. "Huh?"
"I think it's your uncle."
Genuine fear replaced Lisa's insolent expression. "No way!"
"Tall, dark, smells expensive?"
Lisa shook the bubbles off and dried her hands. "That could be anyone."
"Not my regular clientele."
"Does he have black hair and blue eyes?"
"Yes on the hair. I'm not sure on the eyes."
"All the girls at school say he's too gorgeous for words." Josie opened the door a crack and took a quick glimpse.
"Definitely gorgeous. In a stiff, formal kind of way." The kind of man who had never interested her. "Hurry, look. He's thumbing through his wallet."
Lisa peeked, then groaned and began to chew on her black-polished fingernail. "What am I going to do?"
Josie was wondering the same thing. She'd let down her guard after two weeks and had assumed the guy would never show up. "Go tell him you've found a job and want tostay."
"He won't let me. He'll make me go back to that school."
"I thought you said you got kicked out," Josie said.
"I did. But his little donations to fund new buildings can work wonders." She started pacing, running her fingers through her spiky green hair. "I'll die if he sends me back there."
"Calm down, Lisa. If the man's as bad as you say, surely he'll leave without a fuss."
"You don't know my uncle Michael."
No, but she knew his kind. Work and money meant everything. She could also hear the snob alert clanging in her head. "You're dealing with a pro, here." Josie smoothed her hands down the front of her uniform, then grabbed a piece of bubble gum from the shelf over the sink. "I'll give him a taste of what he'd expect from a small-time waitress, and he'll be out of here in a flash. Leave the man to me." * * *
Michael H. Throckmorton III leaned his arms on the table, then thought better of it. He'd already had to wipe crumbs and grease off the cracked vinyl seat of this fine eating establishment, Bud's Diner.
A bald old manBud?covered in sweat, wearing a filthy apron, squinted at a blaring TV perched precariously on a shelf in the corner. When a commercial came on, he turned and began raking a metal spatula across the sizzling surface of the grill.
The air, thick with the overpowering smell of grease, nearly choked Michael. A fly buzzed on the window ledge. He couldn't imagine how the place had passed health-department inspections.
Tuning out all but the task before him, he examined the outdated photograph of Lisa he always carried in his wallet. She was only fourteen at the time. A time when she used to laugh and tease him. When she used to hug him.
No time for nostalgia. It's unproductive.
Besides, Lisa's generous hugs were a lifetime ago, and so much had changed.
"What can I getcha?"
Rings adorned almost every fingerand the thumbof a hand holding a stubby pencil poised over a pad of paper. Silver charms and beaded bracelets jangled on the woman's wrist. His gaze moved beyond multiple necklaces and gaudy dangling earrings to her face. A pretty face, once you got past the loud jewelry.
The petite waitress had what appeared to be pinkish-colored hair. Or was the light giving it that strange cast? He narrowed his eyes, studying the shade.
She popped her gum, then forced a smile, looking anything but friendly. "Did you want to order?"
"Bottled water, please."
"No bottles. Just tap."
He needed to order something.Anything. The latest report from the private investigator led right to this greasy spoon.
"You know, we scored a hundred percent on our last inspection." She pointed her pencil at a certificate on the wall by the door.
Though he was perfectly within his rights as a customer to worry about such things, his face heated. He hadn't meant to offend with his hesitancy. "Fine. I'll have a glass of ice water with lemon. And " He flipped open a menu and ordered the first item that caught his attention. "A grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomato."
"Fries with that?"
"No, thank you."
She grinned. "Where're you from?" Then she snapped her gum again.
If she would stop that annoying chewing, she'd have a nice mouth.
Her brown eyes sparked, as if she could read his mind. "I'm from Charleston," he finally answered. "So you're in Gatlinburg on vacation?"
He nailed her with his oft-used intimidating expression, the one that cowed most people. "Actually, I'm looking for my niece. Lisa Throckmorton." He showed her the picture. "Have you seen her?"
"I can't really say." She didn't flinch. The woman was either good at hedging, or she was telling the truth. And she obviously wasn't easily intimidated.
"This photo is two years old," he said. "She threatened to dye her hair green the last time I talked to her. I have no idea whether or not she followed through."
"So what did you tell her?"
"When she threatened about her hair. What did you say?" He ran his hand through his own hair, determined to get the waitress back on track. "Never mind that. She's a runaway."
"Oh, that's too bad."
He scooted the picture across the table. "She's been missing nearly two weeks, but we think she may be close by. I plan to find her and take her home."
"Take her home, huh? How old is she?"
The waitress's eyes filled with suspicion. "Not quite old enough to be off on her own. Why'd she run away?"
If he didn't know better, he would think her tone held accusation that he was a poor guardian. But she wouldn't have any idea he was raising his sister's daughter.
"It's really none of your business," he said. "She has a family who loves her and wants her back."
"So you won't answer my question, huh?"
The impertinent waitress had just about frayed his last nerve. Not what he needed while wasting precious time. He glanced at his watch, thinking for a split second of the weekly loan committee meeting he was missing. "No, I won't answer it."
The woman's gaze bore into his as if she were trying to decipher his thoughts. The air between them crackled with unspoken censure, and for a moment he feared she could see through to his worry that he was failing his sister yet again, even now, after her death.
He shook off the crazy, morbid thought. "So, have you seen my niece?"
"She may have passed through." She stuck the pencil behind her ear. "Gotta put your order in."
She walked to the end of the counter, leaned across it and yelled, "Grilled chick, dressed," to the man with the shiny forehead and five-o'clock shadow. The sweaty cook acknowledged the order with a jerk of his head and then eyed the waitress; some kind of message seemed to pass between them.
Michael sat back in the booth, crossed his arms and settled in. He wasn't going anywhere until he found out if the message had anything to do with Lisa. She wasn't going to spend one more night alone on the streets. He would find her, even if it meant having to eat another meal in this dive.
After Josie delivered Michael's water, she made a bee-line to the kitchen.
Lisa stood beside the door, chewing on her fingernail. "What did he say?"
"He's searching for one Lisa Throckmorton, sixteen-year-old runaway." She arched her brow at the supposed recently turned eighteen-year-old. "You showed me a fake driver's license."
"I'm sorry. I was afraid you'd send me back if you knew."
"You're right about that. I could probably go to jail for harboring a minor."
Lisa squinched up her nose. "You didn't tell, did you?"
"No. But I was tempted.You'd better not lie to me again."
"I won't. I promise." She held her fingers up in a Girl Scout promise. "Did he leave yet?"
"No. He ordered a sandwich."
"Great. Now I'm stuck here. I was invited to a gallery opening tonight up at the craft school."
"This is serious, Lisa. I really should tell him you're here. He must be worried sick."
"Please, please, pleeease don't. I guarantee you he's not worried. He'd rather be off counting his money right now."
Josie spun her Mickey Mouse watch around7:00 p.m. "I want you to tell me the truth about your uncle. He didn't seem like the monster you've painted him to be. He came all the way from Charleston looking for you, after all."
"I told you before. He doesn't want me. He shipped me off to boarding school a year ago, only a week after my mom died."
"Well, maybe he thinks that's best. The school has a really good reputation."
Lisa's eyes brightened, and she blinked away tears. "He doesn't want me, okay? I heard him tell my grandmother the day after the funeral."
Josie wanted to shake the man. "Does he call you or visit?"
"He always cancels. He's too busy.And I hate that place." A sixteen-year-old girl whose mother had just died shouldn't be shipped off to boarding school. She should be with her family. And Josie knew all too well about craving attention from family.
"What's your uncle like? Not as a parent. As a person." Lisa rolled her eyes. "He's always on the straight and narrow. Churchgoing. Law-abiding. Serious." She thought for a second. "He, like, owns the bank. He's worked there since he was five or something."
"Sounds like a good role model to me."
"You promised me, Josie." She backed away, as if heading for the door. "If you tell him, I'm out of here. 'Cause he'll send me right back to that horrible place and all those snobby kids who won't have anything to do with me."
"And you've told him how they exclude you?"
"I think I mentioned it."
"I did tell him about the three girls on my floor who've spread lies about me. But he didn't believe me, because he knows their parents really well."
Well, that decided it. Josie wasn't about to turn the girl over to an uncle who would deny a problem and pack her off to school with kids who mistreated her.
Then again, she probably shouldn't take Lisa's word for it. Josie would stall answering his questions about Lisa's whereabouts until she could find out for herself what kind of guardian he was.
A serious, law-abiding banker, huh? He would be as easy to read as Bud's menu.
Michael finished the last bite of his sandwich and had to admit the chicken was tender and spiced to perfection. However, after the exhausting day he'd spent driving without stopping to eat, anything would have tasted good.
The waitress with Josie printed on her name tag jangled as she hurried toward his table, waving a slip of paper. "I've got your check right here."
She certainly was trying to rush him out the door.
He wasn't budging. "I think I'd like some dessert. What's the chef making today?"
The woman snorted a laugh. "Chef? If Bud over there is a chef, I'll eat my orthopedic shoes."
He glanced down at the old-lady shoes, which suited her personality about as well as a tiara on her head would. "Believe me, Josie, I had already deduced he wasn't trained at Le Cordon Bleu."
She smiled, but the tilt of her brows made her seem confused. She touched her name tag. "You know my name. What's yours?"
"Well, you're a funny man, Mike."
"It's Michael. I've never been called Mike."
"But Michael sounds so stuffy."
"Maybe I am stuffy. Now, what's on the dessert menu today?"
With a mischievous gleam in her eye, she parked one hip on the edge of his table, leg swinging, and pointed to the far wall. "The dessert menu's on that chalkboard. Same today as yesterday and every day for the past year or so. Pecan pie, apple pie or chocolate cake?"
"Make it apple, with black coffee."
"I figured you for an apple-pie man. Coming right up." Now what was that supposed to mean? "Would you please ask Bud to come take a look at this picture of Lisa when he gets a moment?"
"He's real busy. But I'll try." She shoved her pencil, not behind her ear this time, but into her bird's nest of a hairdo, then moved to wait on another table where she flirted with two men in dirty work clothes.
In observing her at a distance, he decided that somehow, miraculously, she equaled a whole lot more than the sum of her parts. Extreme jewelry, plus funky hair and rubber-soled shoes equaled attractive waitress.
How could that possibly be?
When Josie returned with Michael's pie and coffee, she slid into the booth across from him. She blew a pink bubble, then popped it with a loud snap. "So, tell me about you and your niece. Are you helping her parents search for her?"
He lifted Lisa's photograph and stared at the innocent, trusting smile. A smile that used to come so easily before her mother's drinking had gotten out of hand.
"My sister, Patricia, was a single mom. She died in a car accident a year ago."
"Oh, no. Don't tell me it was a drunk driver."
"Yes. Her." Way to go, Throckmorton. Tell her your life history, why don't you?
His unintentional revelation was greeted with silence. And a pitying lookwhich he detested.
"Anyway, she specified in her will that I be named guardian," he added.
"Why'd she pick you?"
He bristled. "Why not me?"
"Well, you appear to be single." She waggled her left ring finger. "No ring."
Yes, he was single. Definitely single since Gloria had dumped him. "An unmarried man can be a suitable guardian."
"I didn't say you were unsuitable. I'm just wondering why she chose you."
Josie was acting a little too interested. As if she was stalling.
The longer this woman gave him the runaround, the more likely it was he would be stuck in Gatlinburg, missing his appointment with Tom Mason. And Throckmorton's Bank needed Mason's company to take out that construction loan.
He checked his watch. "You know, I really want to find her and get back to Charleston. I have an important meeting tomorrow. Do you have any idea where she could be?"
"So this is all about getting back to your important meeting, huh?"
He sighed. This woman was impossible. Since when was it a crime to work hard? "No. It's about making sure my niece is safe. About getting her back to schooland round-the-clock supervisionwhere she belongs before she makes a stupid mistake." Like her mother made sixteen years ago.
"What kind of mistake?"