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"Good God, woman, have you been here all night?"
The partially perturbed, partially breathless question shot out of Nathan LeBeau's mouth ten seconds after he'd flipped on the light switch in the back office and subsequently jumped when he saw something moving on the white leather sofa. Nathan's thin, aristocratic hand was dramatically splayed over his shallow chest in the approximate region of his heart, presumably to keep it from leaping out of said chest.
"How am I supposed to impress you with my hard work when you keep insisting on being an overachiever and staying here until all hours of the night?" He went to the office's lone window and drew back the light blue vertical blinds. "You're lucky you're not dialing 9-1-1 right now."
"Why would I be dialing 9-1-1?" Kennon Cassidy murmured, trying to clear the cobwebs out of her brain, the sugary taste out of her mouth and the protesting kinks out of her shoulders. She had little success in any of the endeavors.
"Because you scared me half to death," Nathan informed her with a toss of his deep chestnut mane. Blessed with incredibly thick hair, Nathan deliberately wore it long, in the fashion of a driven music conductor.
Nathan's words were addressed to Kennon Cassidy, technically his employer, more aptly described as his friend and, initially, his mentor.
Kennon sat up on the sofa and looked up at her tall and more than occasionally judgmental assistant. "What time is it?"
Nathan scrutinized her attire. "I'd say way past the time when your carriage turned into a pumpkin, standing in the field next to your musically gifted pet mice."
Kennon waved a dismissive hand in his direction. "You've been watching way too many classic cartoons, Nathan."
"Not by choice," he said defensively. "Judith insists that's all I can let Rebecca and Stuart watch when I babysit the little darlings. Can't wait until those two hit puberty and stage a revolt on my straitlaced sister."
Nathan put his hand on his hip expectantly as he regarded the slender, slightly rumpled blonde who had taken a chance on him when he had bluffed his way into the office four years ago. "You really need to move on, you know."
Her eyes met his. There was no way she was having this discussion. "No, I really need to get rid of this sugary taste," she told him. "Apparently I fell asleep with a cough drop in my mouth."
Rising, Kennon caught her reflection in the window.
She shuddered. God, she looked like death warmed over. Barely warmed over.
The next second, she stifled a yawn while trying to remember when she'd fallen asleep. "I just lay down on the sofa for a minute to close my eyes."
"Apparently you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams."
"What time is it?" she asked Nathan, this time in earnest. "Really," she underlined.
"It's tomorrow," Nathan answered. When she looked at him quizzically he backtracked for her benefit. "Tuesday. Eight-thirty a.m. May fourth. The year of our Lord, two thousand"
Kennon threw her hand up in the air to stop him. Nathan had the ability to go on and on if she let him.
"I know what year it is, Nathan," she informed him. "I'm not exactly Rip Van Winkle, you know."
"I hear he started out by taking long naps," Nathan told her dryly. He glanced at the open sketchbook she was currently using. "Were you working on the Prestons' house?"
That had been her initial intent. But what she'd really been working on was her self-esteem. Although she loved Nathan like the brother she'd never had, she was not about to dwell on that point for him. It was bad enough that her assistant knew about her breakup with Pete, or rather, Pete's breakup with her, since Pete had been the one to end the relationship and walk out. Granted, she hadn't been head-over-heels, can't-seem-to-catch-my-breath in love with the man, but it bothered her to no end that she hadn't seen the breakup coming.
One morning, after living with her for two years, Pete announced that he'd fallen "out of love" with her. And in love with some big-eyed, bigger-breasted, conscienceless little blonde whom he had the absolute gall to marry six short weeks after blowing a hole in her world.
Since she'd been so drastically wrong about the man she'd assumed she was going to marry, Kennon began to doubt her ability to make any kind of a decent judgment call.
She was finally putting her life back in order when she heard that Pete and his wife were expecting. It had hit her harder than she'd thought. She had a real weak spot when it came to children.
"Yes, I was," she replied, thinking it best just to go along with the excuse Nathan had just handed her. "I was working on the Preston home."
He pushed the sketchbook aside, clearly indicating that he saw nothing worthy of her expertise. "Okay, let's see it."
The truth was, she had nothing to show for her efforts. She'd come up with better ideas her first year in college. "See what?" she asked vaguely.
"See what you've come up with," Nathan said patiently.
"I think you've got this turned around, Nathan. I sign your checks, you don't sign mine."
"You also didn't come up with anything, did you?" he asked.
She shrugged, looking away. "Nothing worth my time."
"And that would apply to a broad spectrum of things," he replied, circling her so that she could get the benefit of his pointed look.
She knew Nathan meant well, but he needed to back off for now. "Nathan, I've already got one mother. I don't need two."
"Good, because you don't have two," he told her briskly. "I'm just a friend who doesn't want to see you wasting your time, missing a guy you shouldn't have given the time of day to in the first place."
She'd given Pete more than the time of day. She'd given him over two years of her life, she thought angrily.
"I don't want to talk about him," she said firmly.
Nathan nodded approvingly. "Good, because neither do I. Now splash some water in your face, put on some makeup and change your clothes," he instructed. As he spoke, he opened a cabinet that ordinarily contained hanging files but now held a navy-blue pinstripe skirt and a white short-sleeved oval-neck top.
Whipping them out on their hangers, Nathan held the prizes aloft before her, even as he put one hand to the small of her back. He propelled her toward the bathroom. "We want you looking your best."
Kennon stopped dead. "We? Exactly what 'we' are you referring to?"
"Why, you and me 'we,' of course," he said, trying to sound innocently cheerful. "You always this suspicious this early in the morning?"
She took the clothes from him. "I am when you suddenly start acting like a social directing steamroller."
"Fine." Nathan held up his hands in surrender, backing away from her. "Look like an unmade bed and scare away our customers. See if I care. I can always go back to sleeping on my sister's couch, having those little monsters jump up and down on me in those awful pajamas with the rubber bumps on the bottoms of their hard little feet."
She capitulated. If she didn't give up, the drama would only get worse. "I'll splash water in my face, put on some makeup and change my clothes," she sighed.
"That's my girl," Nathan declared with a grin.
She gave him an unsettled, puzzled look as she slipped into the pearl-blue-tiled bathroom and closed the door.
"By the way," he addressed the door in a matter-of-fact voice that wouldn't have fooled a two-year-old, "You're meeting a client in Newport Beach in an hour."
An hour? Nothing she hated more than being rushed.
And then she remembered.
"I didn't make an appointment with a client for this morning," she informed Nathan through the door.
"I know. I did."
It wasn't that Nathan couldn't make appointments. But whenever he did, he always told her. Bragged was more like it. He took extreme pleasure in being able to say he carried his own weight and drew in clients.
"When?" she asked. "I was here all day yesterdayand last night. I didn't hear you making an appointment and no one new called the office."
"It's a referral," he told her.
Dressed, Kennon opened the door so she could look at Nathan. She began to apply her makeup.
"Oh? From who?" Kennon flicked a hint of blush across her pale cheeks. She needed to get some sun time.
"What does it matter?" Nathan said with a quick rise and fall of his shoulder. "One happy, satisfied customer is like another. The main thing is the referral."
She put down her lipstick tube. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark. "From who?" she asked again. Nathan was being incredibly mysteriouseven for Nathan.
"Initially, your aunt Maizie," he said evasively.
"Initially," Kennon repeated. He didn't want to tell her. Why? "And the middleman would be ?"
"Of no interest to you," Nathan assured her.
"Nathan." There was a dangerous note in her voice. "Who is this 'mystery' person and why are you acting like a poor man's would-be espionage agent?"
Nathan surrendered, knowing he couldn't win. "The middle 'man' is your mother," he mumbled.
"My mother," Kennon repeated, stunned. "And Aunt Maizie? They talked? They actually talked?"
It didn't seem possible. Her mother never spoke to her aunt. And she definitely never sought Aunt Mai-zie out, on that Kennon was willing to stake her life. From what she and Nikkiher cousin and Maizie's only daughtercould piece together, it had something to do with the fact that Kennon's aunt had married her mother's brother, and her mother had not thought that Maizie was good enough for him.
Her mother was the only one who felt Maizie wasn't good enough. As for Kennon, she adored her aunt and had told Nikki more than once that she envied her cousin's relationship with such a forward-thinking woman.
"Anytime you want to trade, just let me know," Nikki had said to her. At the time Nikki was somewhat upset because she claimed that her mother was forever trying to play matchmaker and set her up with someone.
These days, Nikki was no longer complaining, especially since, according to what Kennon had heard, Aunt Maizie was the one who had set Nikki up with the sensitive, handsome hunk she had just recently married.
Kennon supposed that was one thing in her mother's favor. Ruth Connors Cassidy didn't play matchmaker, at least not anymore, she thought with a smile. Not since all the eligible sons of her mother's friends had been taken off the market.
But Aunt Maizie was making matches like gang-busters. What if her mother had gone to Aunt Maizie and asked her to ?
No. She was allowing her imagination to run away with her. Her mother wouldn't do that. Besides, she was through with men. To hell with all of themexcept of course for Nathan, she amended. But then, he was more like a brother than a man anyway.
Kennon frowned into the small oval mirror over the pedestal sink. "Since I look like something that the cat dragged in, why don't you go in my place?" she suggested.
Nathan shook his head. "A, you no longer look like something that the cat dragged in. And B, the client said he only wanted to deal with the owner. In case your brain is still a little foggy, that would be you."
"Since you took the referral, what else do you know?" she asked him.
"Only that your aunt sold him the house and the man has no furniture. He wants you to furnish his house."
There was no point in fighting this, she thought. And maybe this was what she needed, a new project.
Decorating a whole house could come to a tidy little commission. "All right, get me the address and I'm on my way."
"Got it right here," Nathan told her, taking a folded piece of paper out of his vest pocket. "Printed out a map for you and everything," he added, opening up the paper and handing it to her with a flourish. "Since I know how GPS-challenged you are."
"I'm not GPS-challenged," she corrected him. "I just don't like a machine telling me where to go." Kennon looked at him pointedly. "I already get enough of that from you."
Nathan took no offense. "You know you love it."
"Keep reminding me," Kennon instructed wearily.
She was still thinking that long after Nathan's voice had faded away and she had made the quick seven-mile trip to her destination. Right now, she felt like thirty miles of bad road. The last thing she wanted to do was meet a new client. But the economy being what it was, no job was too small at this point. And Nathan did say the man wanted enough furniture to fill his whole house. Hopefully, the man was not living in a one-bedroom house.
Dear God, Kennon, where's your optimism? Where's your hope? How could you have let that creep get to you this way? Nathan's right. The breakup was a godsend. It saved you from making a stupid mistake. You didn't love Pete, you loved the idea of him. Now get over it, damn it!
Following Nathan's map, she made another turn to the right. A few yards from the corner stood a magnificent two-story house.