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Cecy Scatterton tried not to let the curled lip of the Neiman Marcus manager bother her. Why had she ever splurged and bought a dress here? Tears wiggled their way under her lashes, and she blinked furiously, trying to keep them at bay. She produced her most genteel Southern smile.
"I'm afraid that store credit just won't do," she told the manager. "I'd like a cash refund."
"Store credit is more than generous under the circumstances, Ms. Scatterton. The only thing identifying this dress as ours is the brand name. You have no receipt, no attached tags." The manager folded her arms and stared Cecy down. "Our return policy is clearly posted throughout the store."
"But --" Cecy began. But what? You see, Ms. Ice Queen, I've been hopelessly irresponsible with money and my life in general, but today I'm turning over a new leaf ?
"Ms. Scatterton, do you really want to push this? I could point out that this dress smells of perfume and hair spray. There are deodorant marks inside it. And the bag you've chosen to bring it back in is of last year's design."
Cecy thought about her entirely empty refrigerator, the one last packet of dried soup in her pan" and Barney, her orange cat. His breakfast had consisted of an unlucky cricket and some crumbled saltines. She thought, about her rent bill, which had been racking up ten-dollar-perdiem late charges since last Friday. Her tears loomed closer.
store credit, Ms. Scatterton?" The manager was saying.
"Yes," Cecy said quickly. "'I'll take it. Thanks." She signed the bottom of the required form. ""Where is your gourmet section, please?"
Barney licked his crooked littlechops and twitched his tail in gratitude. Imported foie gras and chutney were evidently more to his liking than crispy cricket h la saltine.
Cecy dunked the last chunk of a chocolate dipped biscotti into black French coffee she had flavored with honey. It tasted wonderful, and she savored the food down to the last crumb.
Then she picked Barney up and snuggled him under her chin. As she kissed him he protested amiably and wriggled up over her shoulder, hanging his paws down her back. The snooty gourmet section of Neiman's had filled their growling stomachs, if not their nutritional needs. And, Cecy thought, trying to look on the bright side, it hadn't cost anything, strictly speaking. She'd gotten them imported food of the finest quality without passing so much as a nickel over the counter. Of course, there was that silly matter of the twenty-two percent interest on her store charge card, but what did it signify? If she couldn't pay her rent, she had no hope of paying her charge cards. She had to eat, however, until she found a way out of debt.
She walked with Barney into the living room and sat on the sofa, scratching his belly. As he writhed with pleasure, she looked about her.
Knickknacks sprouted from every available table, shelf, and crevice. Seven Lladro figurines fought for air across the mantel. The china cabinet bulged with small crystal animals. The left wall crawled with costly porcelain plates, fiftysix of them. The right wall stood awash in a sea of small but original watercolors and oil paintings. A series of vases lined the hearth. Cushions and throws smothered her furniture. The room, Cecy reflected honestly, was way too small for all this stuff.
And then there was The Box. The Box lurked under her fancy scrolled coffee table, covered with a heavy brocade cloth. She shuddered at the thought of its contents.
But just as her thoughts began to turn gloomy again, Cecy's doorbell rang. It had to be Leo, her UPS man! What had he brought her today? Was it her order from Bloomingdale's, or the nightie from Victoria's Secret? She shivered with excitement and sprinted for the door. The familiar consumer's high warmed her cheeks and upped her heartbeat. She loved opening packages. Adored it. Lived for it, in the six months since her brother Brock had passed away.
As she reached for the doorknob, her feet slid and flew out from under her. Cecy's thoughts were suspended for a moment, then knocked out of her along with her breath as her nose, pelvis, and knees connected with the tiled floor. She'd tripped over a stack of glossy catalogues.
With a howl of pain, she let her tears flow. When she opened the door holding one hand over her bloodied nose, even the sight of Leo's friendly face wasn't much comfort. Nor was the lovely satin nightie in Passionate Peach -- she had no one but herself to wear it for.
Cecy sat in the emergency room, stoned on a handful of Midols and a minibottle of champagne from the Neiman's gift basket. It was all the painkiller she'd had in the apartment, and her nose still throbbed.
Across from her sat a man -- actually two of him -- with coal black hair, almond-shaped dark eyes, and lips that curved to trigger a woman's darkest fantasies. His long, rangy body was giftwrapped in cowboy boots, denim, and a pressed cotton shirt. One of his large hands was bandaged, the middle fingers taped to a makeshift splint.
Cecy was holding a bag of ice to her nose and wondering muzzily what he'd look like in only the boots when the nurse on duty stepped out and called her name.
Cecy stood up, wobbly, and said, "Tha's me." She took two steps, then stopped-she'd forgotten her pocketbook. Turning to get it, she swayed and stumbled over the toe of a cowboy boot. For the second time that day, the floor rushed toward her, but this time it stopped. A steel-like arm encircled her waist and set her firmly back on her own feet.
"Watch it, sweetheart. You okay?" His voice was deep, lazy, without accent. It made her liver quiver. It made her heart stop.
"Mmmmm," she managed. Her blood began pulsing again after its momentary hiatus, and she stared into those depthless dark eyes. Her rescuer had a wildly sexy five o'clock shadow on the lower half of his face, and she desperately wanted to burn her own skin on it. Everywhere.
"Ms. Scatterton?" the nurse repeated.Something About Cecily. Copyright � by Karen Kendall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.