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Too Many Brothers
By Roz Fox
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDaphne Malone put down her phone, threw her hands in the air and danced a zany victory dance around her perpetually unmade bed. She'd just been offered a job. Not the greatest in the world, but a start. In the middle of her jazzy dance to a blaring CD, a strand of curly dark hair caught on one of the four posters, bringing her up short. The jolt sobered her. This was real. A job. In a few hours.
She dashed to her cluttered closet, and because Daphne never did anything slowly, she rummaged around frantically until she uncovered an old beach bag. With her free hand she began pawing through costumes she might use today. She couldn't decide, so she tossed in accessories. The bag was already bulging, and she still hadn't settled on a costume. Maybe she'd phone her mom for advice. Calandra Malone had taught both her daughters how to sew at an early age, which was why Daphne had such a splendid array of clown suits.
She grabbed the phone from her nightstand and hopped around, pulling on a pair of clean white jeans while punching in her parents' number. Daphne juggled the cellular between her cheek and shoulder and braided her long hair into a single, more manageable plait.
"Mom? Guess what?" she said the instant Callie Malone answered. "I've got a job at a birthday party this afternoon over near Commerce. I am so excited!"
Daphne rolled her eyes. "It's near East L.A., not in East L.A. Yes, Mo ... ther, I know Kieran says that part of the city isn't safe for a woman alone. But I'm going to the home of someone who's a friend of a friend of the wife of one of Dane's partners. It's a party for ten seven-year-olds. How safe is that?
"Okay, okay! I'll check in when I get home." Daphne glanced at her watch. "I called to see which outfits you think I should take, but I need to run. Be happy for me, please. It means money, at least, until I get the break I'm really waiting for." Daphne lowered the receiver at the last possible moment, listening to Callie, who continued to spout dire warnings. She ended with one good suggestion. "Take a variety, Daphne, and see which feels right when you get there. Just ... be careful, sweetheart."
Daphne added her favorite clown suits to the bag, all the while wishing her parents and her three older brothers would believe she could take care of herself. After all, she was twenty-six. Granted, Kieran subsidized the apartment, but only until she could get herself established. Meanwhile, why couldn't the lot of them stop hovering? Her sister, Becky, was a year younger and they left her alone. Of course, Becky had a solid marriage, a good career, and she was already a mom herself. Daphne's jobs had been a disaster up to now, and her love life - well, that didn't bear mentioning.
Lugging the beach bag down to the vintage chartreuse VW Bug that her brother Perry had lovingly restored, Daphne let a perfect late-summer afternoon rejuvenate her spirits. She was an eternal optimist. She wasn't going to let her mother's undue alarm change that.
Placing the directions to the party on the empty seat, Daphne dropped her sunglasses over her eyes and chugged off along the familiar streets of Culver City - the suburb of L.A. where she'd lived forever.
Like a pro, she cut from the I-10 freeway to the Santa Ana Freeway, eventually exiting on Atlantic Boulevard. A cop's siren screamed over her new Josh Groban CD. Daphne automatically moved to the right and rolled to a stop. Squinting into the sun out her side window, she watched in amazement as five police cars sped past. Daphne couldn't tell if Kieran was driving one. Her brother did sometimes patrol this area. She hadn't spoken with him since the previous Friday because she'd spent the week babysitting her oldest brother's kids. As a rule, she'd know Kieran's schedule. The Malones were a close-knit family in spite of her complaints about their hovering.
Five blocks farther down the road she discovered the police had cordoned off the street she was supposed to turn into. Not familiar with this neighborhood, she wasted time locating an alternate route on a map stored in a side pocket of her car.
The roundabout journey took her down some scuzzy streets. Remembering her mom's lecture, she locked both doors. After making a U-turn, she finally found the street she wanted. The homes here were older, but she was relieved to see they were well maintained. The one she sought was at the bottom of a dead-end street. A partially wooded lot bordered it on the left, intersected by trails. Neighbors probably walked their dogs there or jogged through the trees.
Daphne hefted her beach bag, draping it nonchalantly over one shoulder as she checked the house number. She mounted the steps and knocked.
A harried, very pregnant woman opened the door. She introduced herself as April Ross. After exchanging a few words, April led Daphne into a living room that was a mess of floating balloons. "Forgive me, please. The first helium tank I rented didn't work, so I had to take it back. This is Natalie, the birthday girl. Nat, Daphne Malone, our party clown. Honey, will you take Daphne to the guest bedroom so she can change into her costume?"
April finished tying off a balloon and added, "The guest room has a sliding glass door leading out onto the patio, where I've set up for the party. I know you said you'll probably change costumes during your program. I thought it'd be easiest to run back and forth into the house through the slider."
"Sounds perfect. Thanks, April. I'll scoot off and dress so I can help you greet the kids. Or tie balloon bouquets. Whatever you prefer. In any case, I'd better hurry. I see a couple of moms bringing kids up the walkway now. I'll just go, get out of your hair." Daphne moved toward the hall.
"Thanks for your offer of help. I'm frazzled and I hate being late," April wailed. "Oh, and Daphne, thanks a million times over for bailing me out on such short notice. Nat had her heart set on a clown to do magic tricks. Like I told you, I booked through an agency, but apparently the receptionist flipped two pages at once on her calendar. Another family got first dibs because they'd phoned first."
"No problem." Daphne grinned. "Tell your friends, in fact. I need all the bookings I can get between now and when I find permanent work in my real field."
Daphne chatted with the birthday girl as they walked down the hall. She loved kids, and often babysat her niece and nephew whenever Dane and his wife, Holly, needed her. Natalie Ross was cute and talkative. Before she scampered off, Daphne learned that Nat wanted her to paint the faces of all the kids attending the party.
So, she'd been right to bring all that stuff. Daphne intended to make this the coolest party ever. Humming happily, she dumped her costumes and face paints out across a cheery yellow bedspread. Matching curtains blew gently in the breeze.
She circled the bed and closed the miniblinds. Still feeling exposed, Daphne pulled the lined drape across the glass slider for privacy, leaving the door open for easy access to the patio.
Muted sounds of children's laughter and boisterous shouts drifted through the closed hall door. Daphne kicked off her sandals and skimmed out of her jeans. She had her T-shirt nearly off, when a scraping sound at the slider made her swing around.
It'd be impossible to say who was most shocked, Daphne or a scruffy-looking man who stood poised on the balls of his feet as he stealthily shut and locked the glass door. The drape slipped through his fingers, silently closing them in together.
Excerpted from Too Many Brothers by Roz Fox Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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