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"This is a wonderful thing you're doing, Gia."
Gia Grant laughed uncomfortably at the compliment from the church pastor. "The Bronsons are wonderful people," she demurred. "I didn't know how tough it could get for the elderly until seeing the way things are for Larry and Marion. And thanks again for letting us use the church basement tonight to organize everything so we can get started."
"Of course. The Bronsons have been church members since my father was pastor here. We want to do all we can."
"That reminds methank your mom, too, for the cookies and the brownies and the cupcakes. I was surprised when the Bronsons wanted to come tonightthey just don't go out muchbut it's turned into a rare social event for them. Complete with goodies," she added with a nod toward the opposite end of the big room, where the elderly couple who were her next-door neighbors were chatting with other members of the church.
Gia had launched a grassroots effort to help the Bronsons. They were on the verge of losing their house because their fixed income wasn't meeting the cost of living expense increases and the additional medical expenses mounting with their age.
After making several calls and searching the internet for help for them, she'd discovered there weren't a lot of options available to older people in their predicament.
But she couldn't just sit back and watch what was happening to them without doing something. So she'd spread the word in their surrounding neighborhood that help was needed.
Small business owners who knew the Bronsons had put out donation jars at their checkouts. The church had sounded the alarm in their newsletter, and Gia had persuaded a local news station to do a human-interest piece on them. It mentioned both the donation fund Gia had started for them and the need for manpower to do repairs and maintenance on their house.
Gia's highest hope was that she could raise enough money to keep the Bronsons out of foreclosure. If she couldn't do that, then she at least wanted to get the place in order so that it could be sold before that happened.
Tonight, neighbors, friends and church members had gathered to form a plan of action to spruce the place up, and now that the meeting was finished it had become a social hour. Gia was happy to see the eighty-nine-year-old Larry and his eighty-seven-year-old wife, Marion, enjoying themselves.
"I was also wondering if you might have dinner with me some night " Pastor Brian said, interrupting her thoughts.
Gia had wondered if that was coming. Although she didn't belong to the Bronsons' church, the minister had asked to be part of her efforts to help the older couple, and that had meant seeing him here and there. He'd become more and more friendly over the past few weeks.
At first Gia had thought he was merely trying to entice another sheep into his flock. But then a personal undertone had developed when he talked to her and she'd begun to wonder if he was interested in her.
Thinking that he probably wasn't, she'd still considered what she might do if he asked her out.
At thirty-four, Pastor Brian was only three years older than she was. He was nice looking, with golden-blond hair and hazel eyes. And he certainly came equipped with the attributes she was determined to look for in a man from here on outhe was upstanding and honest. There wasn't so much as a hint of wrongdoing in any aspect of himhe was a minister, for crying out loud.
But the fact that he was the head of his church put a crimp in things. Not only wasn't Gia a member of his religion, his job brought with it obligations and duties that were an uncomfortable reminder of the family ties that had bound her ex-husband and caused her to take a backseat in his life.
Plus, even though it had been nearly a year since her divorce was final, she felt as if she was just beginning to catch her breath, and she wasn't ready to get into the whole dating thing again yet. With anyone.
And then there was the fact that she was divorced.
"Thanks for asking, Brian, but no," she answered. "I like you, I do. But right now just the thought of dating gives me the willies. And even if it didn't, I'm divorced. And your congregation is old-fashioned. I've overheard Marion's church-lady friends talking about finding you a wife"
"I'm surprised they haven't formed a committee. By now I think I've been introduced to every young single female they're even remotely related to."
"You haven't been introduced to the ones who are single through divorce, I can promise you that," Gia said. "Because believe me, when it comes to who they want to see you with, it isn't anyone with that in her background. In their eyes, that's damaged goods and definitely not a prospect for their Pastor Brian."
The minister smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I told my folks I was going to ask you to dinner and they said the same thing," he admitted. "But it would only be dinner and I thought I might risk a little scandal
Oh, good, I could go from being a shut-out in-law to a church scandal, Gia thought.
"But I'm really not ready," she repeated honestly. "I'm just barely getting my being-single-again sea legs."
He shrugged. "It's okay. I just thought I'd askno harm, no foul. I'm still with you a hundred percent on this project to help Larry and Marion."
"Thank you. I appreciate that." Gia pointed at the restroom sign. "I'm headed to wash my handsI got into something sticky." And had just avoided getting into something even stickier .
"Yeah, I think I'm ready for another cup of coffee myself," he said, leaving Gia free to go into the bathroom.
Safely behind a closed door, she went straight to the row of three sinks, breathing a sigh of relief now that that was over.
It hadn't been too awkward, she decided.
The minister had taken her rejection in stride, so she thought it would all be okay. She hoped it would all be okay. And at least she knew now that she hadn't been imagining thingsbecause even as she'd thought he might be showing her undue interest, she'd also wondered if she was flattering herself.
She washed her hands and took stock of her reflection in the mirror above the sinks. Dark eyes. Decent skin. An okay nosenot too prominent, not misshapen. A mouth she was afraid might be too wide, especially when she smiled. And dark, curly, curlyreally curly hair that she had to keep six inches below her shoulders so the weight of it would keep it from bushing out like a fright wig.
A neglectful husbandwhose eye had begun to wander at the end of their marriageand then a divorce had her making more assessments of her looks than she had since she was a teenager. And finding flaws. So even as she'd thought the pastor might have been showing her undue interest, she'd also been skeptical of the possibility that she could attract a man's attention.
Of course, there was also the fact that she was only five feet three inches tallthat made her one of the few people the five feet five inch minister was taller than .
That was probably the real reason, she thought suddenly, doubting herself all over again.
Gia's second sigh was a bit demoralized.
Oh, well. At least she could say she'd been asked.
She finished washing her hands and after drying them with a paper towel, she used the towel to brush wrinkles from the black slacks she'd worn to work today with her plain white blouse. Then she tossed the used paper towel in the trash and left the restroom.
Which was when she noticed someone new coming down the steps into the church basement.
A latecomer, was her initial thought.
Before she took a second look and recognized the man.
Unless she was mistaken, that was Derek Camden.
She'd never met him. But not only had the Bronsons' dislike and resentment of the Camdens brought the well-known family to her attention whenever they were in the news or in magazine or newspaper articles, she also had some small knowledge of this specific Camden. He'd been involved for a brief time with her best friend Tyson's cousina woman Tyson referred to as the family nutcaseand Gia had seen a snapshot of the two together.
Being reasonably sure that was who he was, she moved to intercept him before he got out of the stairwell and could be seen by anyone else.
"Can I help you?" she asked in a hurry, hoping not to draw the attention of the Bronsons.
"Umm I don't know. I heard through the grapevine that tonight was the night people were getting together to talk about helping Larry and Marion Bronsonthat's the group I'm looking for ."
"But you're Derek Camden, aren't you?" Gia said.
"I am. And you are ?"
"Not going to let you in here."
His face erupted into a grin.
The face that she'd already noted was even more striking in person than it had been in the photograph. And he'd looked incredibly good in the photograph.
His hair was an even darker brown than hers wasverging on blackwith just a touch of wave to the top that he left slightly longer than the short sides. His nose was the perfect length and shapethin and straight. His mouth was just lush enough. He had the sexiest hint of a cleft in his chiseled chin. And nothing she'd heard about the Camden blue eyes had done his justice, because they were the vibrant blue of the delphiniums she loved to look out at through her kitchen window every morning.
And it all went with six foot two inches of muscular masculinity not at all hidden behind the tan slacks and cream-colored shirt he was wearing with his brown tie loosened at the open collar, and the suit coat he had hooked by a thumb over one impressively broad shoulder.
"You're not going to let me in here?" he repeated, as if her thinking she could stop him amused him no end.
"No, I'm not," Gia asserted. "It would ruin the Bron-sons' night."
It only occurred to her as she said it that this man appeared to be about her own age and maybe didn't know what had been done by his family generations before. That maybe he was there purely in response to word getting out, and had genuinely just come to help. Without knowing that his family was at the heart of the Bron-sons' hardship.
"I'm sorry, did you know that there's bad blood between the Bronsons and your family?" she asked.
The alarm in her tone only made him laugh. "A lot of people don't like the Camdens," was all he admitted to.
"This is more than just" she wasn't sure how to put it so she repeated his words "a lot of people not liking the Camdens on some sort of principal"
"It's okay. I came to help anyway," he assured as if he didn't view an aversion to his family as an obstacle.
"Yeah well it wouldn't be okay with Larry and Marion, and I'm reasonably sure they wouldn't take help from any Camden," Gia said more bluntly because she was concerned that he wasn't getting the picture. "And this may not look like it, but it's a night out for them, they're having a good time talking to people they haven't seen in a while and I don't want it wrecked for them ."
She had no doubt the presence of a Camden would do just that.
"But I do want to help them," Derek Camden said.
He was kind of stubborn. Great looking and amiable and certainly nothing more than tickled by her blockade, but difficult to persuade.
"They lost their hotel years ago to H. J. Camden. So maybe if you give them the Camden store that was built where their hotel was." Gia suggested to get her point across. And to test his response and possibly learn whether or not he knew the history.
It worked, because he flinched charmingly and Gia had the impression that he knew exactly what she was talking about. "I don't think I can do that. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to do something. And by the way, who are you?" he asked without any rancor.
"Gia Grant. I live next door to the Bronsons."
"And you've taken them under your wing," he guessed. "The guy who cuts my hair down on University had a donation jar. He said there was some little lady behind this. Is this whole thing your doing, Gia Grant?"
"We're friends and neighbors. The Bronsons are good, good people and I can't sit by and just watch what's happening to them"
"Which is what, exactly?"
Gia glanced over her shoulder at the long lunch table where the group that was left was talking. They hadn't yet noticed that she wasn't back from the restroom, but that wasn't going to last forever.
"The longer I stand here, the more likely it is that someone is going to see you and, honestly, I won't let you put a damper on Larry and Marion's night."
"But I do want to help," he insisted.
He nodded that oh-so-handsome head sagely. "We're interested in more than just stuffing some cash in a donation jar. My grandmother isn't too much younger than the Bronsons, and let's say they've struck a chord with her. She sent me to represent the family and make sure whatever needs the Bronsons have are met."
"Then donate a lot of money. Anonymously, or they won't take it."
He inclined his head as if that might be a good solution but he just couldn't accept it. "We don't want to just throw some money at the problem. We want to find out what all of the problems are and lend a hand getting them addressed in the best way possible so these people can finish out their lives comfortably, safely and securely."
"You're admitting that what your family did way back when caused the problems, and now you have a responsibility to make things right," Gia surmised.
"We just want to help," he said, firmly holding that line and acknowledging nothing else.
Gia shook her head. "The Bronsons are in trouble. But they're proud people. I've convinced them to accept help from their friends and neighbors, their church, by assuring them that the help is coming from people they've given business to for decades, from the same people they've helped in the past or would help if the need arose even now and they could. I've promised them that it isn't charity, it's people who know and care about them just wanting to do something for them. But they hate youI'm sorry to be so direct, but that's just a fact. I know themthey'll think that anything you do will have an ulterior motive. If they know you're behind a dime, they won't take it."
"Maybe you can persuade them to," he proposed.
"I don't know how I'd do that."
"I'll bet you can think of a way " he said pointedly.
"You do owe them," Gia said matter-of-factly because it was true. And even though she knew how the Bronsons would feel about accepting anything from the Camdens, she also knew that they were in need of more help than what her efforts were producing. The Camdens' assistance could go much further in solving the elderly couple's problems.
"Maybe you could introduce me as a friend of yours and leave out the part about me being a Camden."
"They'd recognize you. They might not know exactly which Camden you are, but they follow your family like fans follow celebrities, begrudging you every step of the way. And they might be old, but mentally, they're both sharp as tacks. Nothing gets by them, and you wouldn't, either." With another glance over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking in this direction, Gia added, "And really, I want you to leave before they spot you."
"I'm not giving up," he said then, but he did step one step higher, which made him tower above Gia even more. "So how about I leave it to you to convince them to accept my help?"
He reached into his shirt pocket with his free hand and pulled out a business card. "All my numbers are on that."
Gia accepted the card.
"If I don't hear from you, you'll have me knocking on your doordon't forget you already told me that you live next to the Bronsons."
"I can't make any promises," Gia said, knowing full well that she had to do what she could to convince Larry and Marion, because the Camdensno matter how despicablestill had the kind of resources the Bron-sons needed.
"I'm relying on you anyway," he said, investing her with the responsibility despite her hedging.
"I'll do what I can if you just go!"
He grinned again and took another step up. "I'll tell you one thing," he said as he did, "you're the prettiest bouncer I've ever been ousted by."
"As if a Camden has ever been kicked out of anyplace," Gia countered.
"You might be surprised."
"Just go!" she said, trying not to think that he was lingering in order to stare at herwhich was how it appeared, because his beautiful blue eyes seemed to be taking in every inch of her and his expression said he was enjoying the view.
"Get back to me soon or I'll come for you " he threatened in a way that didn't sound as if they were still talking about helping the Bronsons.
"No promises," Gia repeated firmly to let him know he wasn't wearing her down.
But he was. Just a tiny bit.
Enough so that, as she turned from the sight of him backing up the rest of the steps so he could go on studying her, she felt a smile come to the corners of her mouth.
Because although she had no idea why, just the way Derek Camden looked at her made her feel better about herself than the dinner invitation from the minister had.