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|Publisher:||Nite Owl Books|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
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A Scent of Jasmine
By Sylvia Nobel
Nite Owl BooksCopyright © 1996 Sylvia Nobel
All rights reserved.
Fierce Arizona sunlight beat down on Andrea Dusseaux as she stood near the curb staring down at the three bulging suitcases which held the sum total of her worldly possessions.
"Smart move, Andie," she admonished herself aloud, wishing she'd asked the cabdriver for help. "Now what?"
A feeling of awe overcame her as she turned to admire the graceful Victorian architecture of the Sundial House Restaurant, the last place on earth she would have imagined Mo to establish roots. The very words "establish" and "roots" seemed a contradiction when thinking of her adventurous friend.
When she tried to move forward, almost stepping out of her left pump, she gasped in surprise. A chunk of melted tar clung to the heel after she extricated it.
"Damn!" she muttered under her breath, and then looked up as a voice from the tree-lined patio called, "Hi. Are you Andrea?"
The sight of the smiling olive-skinned teenager in white shirt, black slacks and bow tie lightened the feeling of momentary frustration that had knotted her stomach. She answered his smile with one of her own. "That's me."
An easy gait brought him to her side. "I'm Manuel," he volunteered, picking up two of the bags. "Welcome to Sundial House. Maureen's hung up in the kitchen and said for me to take you there."
"Lead the way," she answered, blotting her neck with a handkerchief while wheeling the third suitcase behind her over the bumpy walkway. She hurried ahead of him to hold open the massive wood and stained-glass front door, then followed him inside.
In the narrow, antique-filled foyer, Andrea threaded her way past half a dozen customers waiting beside the highly-polished mahogany staircase, and continued through the dining room where the waiters were putting finishing touches on the white-draped tables. She stepped aside as a young waitress with a tray of bud vases filled with fresh flowers rushed by.
Andrea paused while Manuel backed into one of the swinging doors to allow her entry into the surprisingly modern kitchen — a stark contrast to the old house. As a myriad of delicious smells assailed her, a blast of heat took her breath away. Somewhere in the back, a radio blared.
The wide smile of welcome on Maureen Callaway's familiar round face sent a rush of delight tingling through her.
"Andie! God, am I glad to see you! I'd give you a big hug," she said, wiping her hands on her long white apron, "but I wouldn't want to get anything on that drop-dead suit." The clear hazel eyes appraised her with affection and then fell on the jumble of bags Manuel plumped down beside her.
"What the hell is all this?" Mo inquired, mirth twinkling in her eyes. "I hope they're stuffed full of cash from your divorce settlement."
Andrea gave a wry smile. "I wish." She dropped the luggage strap and placed her hands on her hips. "What happened to the cool April weather you promised me?"
Mo grimaced. "You had to pick the one freaky hot day to make a liar out of me."
"I'll forgive you after I've had an ice cold shower and changed into ... "
"That's gonna have to wait along with the thousand questions I want to ask you," Mo interrupted, darting a worried look at the clock. "I'm in a real jam today. The lunchtime cook is stuck in Nogales, my hostess called in sick, and you're gonna have to bail me out."
Andrea stared, nonplussed. "Me? How?"
"Robin!" Mo barked to the chubby, dark-haired girl chopping lettuce on the stainless-steel table nearby. "The oven buzzer! Get those rolls out before they burn!" She puffed out a breath as she returned her gaze to Andrea. "You said you wanted hands-on experience in this business, so you'll get hands-on. I've got reservations up the ying-yang, and guess what? You're my hostess today."
Andrea's stomach plunged in panic. "But ... but ..." she stammered. "I don't know what to do! I need some time to ..."
"There is no time," her friend moaned, a pleading look entering her eyes. "Grab the stack of menus off the reception desk before the you-know-what hits the fan. Come on, Andie. You can do it! Just pretend you're hosting one of those fancy parties you're so good at."
Madison McKee shifted his weight and leaned back against the sharp corner of the antique buffet to allow two heavy-set women to jostle past him into the dining room. The aroma of food made his stomach rumble, and he fought down another wave of consternation. Twenty minutes had elapsed since the time they should have been seated.
Ordinarily he would not have been so impatient, but it seemed as if the frazzled blonde hostess had seated everyone in the world except him and his waiting party of six other hungry people. He turned to his grim-faced companions and gave an apologetic shrug. Tension tightened his jaw, and once again he fastened his gaze on the hostess. His secretary could have chosen any number of fine downtown restaurants. Why did she have to choose this one?
He approached her for a second time. "Miss," he said, with forced politeness, "I'm sure we had a reservation for twelve-thirty. It's under the law firm of McKee, Pritchard, Skyler and Dunn."
She laid the stack of menus down abruptly. "I'll check again."
"Or," he suggested, stepping close behind her. "It might be under my name, Madison McKee."
Lightly tapping one foot, he watched her scan the reservation book and heard an obvious sigh of irritation when he leaned over her shoulder to read the names. She seemed flustered, and he thought it curious that her hand shook as her slender fingers traced the list.
Suddenly aware of the warm sensual scent of her perfume, he took a step back and let his eyes trail over her. In spite of his agitation, he found himself admiring her impish upturned nose and flawless complexion. Loose strands from her shoulder-length hair clung to her neck.
"Sorry. There's no such reservation. And as you can see," she said, waving an arm toward the lunch crowd, "I don't have a table for seven right now."
Madison glanced into the teeming dining area. "I can see that. But, that is your problem. Mine is to make sure my clients are taken care of, and you're making that difficult. We have an important meeting to get back to."
She said nothing, just stiffened and glanced aside, blinking rapidly, her full pink lips compressing into a thin line.
What was the matter with her? It wasn't as if he was asking for the moon. He was simply asking this woman to do her job. "Look," he sighed, lightly touching her forearm in an attempt to appeal to her sense of reason. "When I asked in the beginning, you said it would be only ten minutes."
"I'm doing the best I can," she said icily, averting her gaze. "I can seat you at two separate tables. Would that do?"
Madison felt his temper rising. "And shout at each other across the room? I think not." Annoyed as he was, his gaze strayed to her full rounded breasts, accentuated by the form-fitting silk blouse.
"What would you like me to do, Sir?" she asked confronting him, with strong emphasis on the 'sir.' "Move someone else?"
Madison drew back in surprise. For the first time, he looked directly into her extraordinary turquoise eyes and saw something there that unnerved him. Inexplicably, he couldn't think of what his next remark was going to be.
Andrea stared at the green flecks gleaming from the depth of his penetrating brown eyes. Who was this arrogant man? I think not? she fumed, recalling his sarcastic words. How dare he address her in such a manner? She resisted the urge to slap the insolence from his face. Instead, she forced a wooden smile. "I'll check on the table."
Determined strides bore her into the dining room as she swallowed back angry tears. Although this imperious man didn't look like him, his conduct unleashed the sense of insecurity and helplessness Bernard had so expertly instilled in her for eight years. It made her blood boil to once again experience the feelings of inadequacy and it reminded her of how she'd permitted Bernard's subtle domination to manipulate and stifle her personality.
Ironically, when this stranger walked in earlier, she'd been impressed by his air of self-assurance and noticed, along with every other female in the room, his exceptionally handsome chiseled features. Broad shoulders strained against the material of a beautifully-tailored gray suit. In an absent-minded gesture, he'd combed his fingers through the mass of wavy chestnut hair. She'd even admired the dimples that underscored his smile when he'd first approached her.
But now, his appeal had faded as his demanding manner eclipsed the positive impression she'd formed earlier.
A pony-tailed waitress excitedly ran up to her waving a check. "They're leaving. Give me a minute to put the tables together and you can bring in that gorgeous hunk and his party."
Andrea breathed a sigh of relief. "You're welcome to him," she muttered under her breath.
She paused to compose herself and, with renewed confidence, returned to the front desk, her mood lightened by the prospect of getting rid of this irritating man. She forced a smile. "Your table is ready, Sir."
"Thank you," he said curtly while gesturing to his companions.
You owe me one, Mo, she thought, for putting me on the spot. She led the way across the noisy room, her confident steps faltering as she imagined his hostile gaze boring into her.
She handed out menus, noting his companions' satisfied expressions as they drew their chairs up to the well-appointed table by the bay window that overlooked the colorful garden.
"Charming," said one of the men reaching for an olive from the iced relish tray as the exuberant waitress approached them with a basket of hot rolls.
"Good things come to those who wait," she announced eagerly. "Welcome to the best table in the house."
Andrea cringed inwardly at the girl's syrupy enthusiasm, and the way she boldly fastened her eyes on Mr. Obnoxious.
"Thank you, Susan," he said, noticing her name tag.
As Andrea moved away, she heard him quip, "It's so comforting to see a friendly face." Seething inside, she fled to the mercifully empty foyer and collapsed on the stool, slipping her tired feet out of the high-heeled pumps. She exhaled a deep sigh. Finally everyone had been seated. The antique clock above her head chimed one. Had it only been two hours? It felt as if she'd been in the trenches for days.
In the momentary lull she caught sight of her distorted reflection in the mahogany-framed mirror, noting with a sense of dismay the limp strands of hair dangling around her flushed face. She'd looked a lot more presentable a few hours ago, she thought with a rueful smile. But the long flight from New York, coupled with heat and stress, left her feeling older than her thirty-one years. In addition, she felt irritated that she'd allowed her composure to be shaken by a complete stranger.
She cast a sideways glance into the dining room and studied the man's refined face again. He was something — at least to look at, but his conduct toward her was inexcusable.
The jangling of the telephone jarred her from her thoughts and she picked up the receiver. A woman at the other end of the line asked for a table at noon the following day. Andrea flipped the page, running her finger down the sheet. She added the woman's reservation to the list and then her hand froze as she noticed the name directly below it. "Oh, no!" she gasped. The name Madison McKee jumped off the page. Party of seven, 12:30.
In a preoccupied voice, she confirmed the woman's reservation and hung up. For several agonizing moments she sat still, one hand pressed to her lips. Why hadn't it occurred to her to look at the next page? Wait a minute! It wasn't her fault. For all she knew the big-shot lawyer's secretary could have goofed and made the reservations for the wrong day. But the most likely scenerio was that the hostess had made the mistake.
Suddenly she felt mortified, remembering how rude and confrontational she'd been to the man, embarrassing him in front of his guests. It was bad enough that he had to wait so long for a table. And what if he was one of Mo's regular customers? Regular or not, she knew she had to do something. She slipped her shoes back on and rose from the stool. She'd better tell Mo.
One peek into the hectic atmosphere of the kitchen canceled that thought. There stood Mo amid the clutter of pots and pans, serving spoon in hand, staring at ten or fifteen unfilled lunch orders, mumbling incoherently to herself.
No, Andrea decided, backing away from the door, she'd have to handle this herself. A nice bottle of wine might serve to pacify them. She would reimburse Mo for the expense if the offer didn't meet with her approval.
Gathering courage, she smoothed the wrinkles from her pristine-white linen skirt, fixed a placid smile on her face and marched to his table. The little speech she'd planned died on her lips when she noticed that Susan was already clearing away the lunch dishes. Oops! Too late for wine. Now what?
"Time to tempt you with our spectacular desserts," Susan said in her cloying voice. "They're so luscious, that once you've tried them, you'll never be happy with anything else," she added with a suggestive wink in Madison McKee's direction.
What a little flirt, Andrea bristled, wondering why she should even care about the girl's behavior.
"Excuse me," she interrupted, taking the cue. "We'd be happy to offer you dessert on the house." She ignored Susan's double take and met Madison McKee's questioning look. "It appears that the hostess wrote the reservation on the wrong page," she said apologetically, fully expecting to see a gleam of triumph in the man's eyes. Instead she saw a brief look of concern.
"Thank you for offering," he said in a surprisingly courteous tone, "but we haven't time today. Another occasion perhaps?"
Puzzled by the transformation, Andrea nodded politely. "It will be our pleasure, Mr. McKee."
As Madison watched her turn and move gracefully across the room, her shoulders set straight and proud, his gaze involuntarily slid down to her shapely bottom and then back up to the regal tilt of her head.
His feelings of remorse sharpened. Damn! He should have realized she was the owner. Justified or not, he'd had no business being rude to her, or to anyone for that matter. Was it the heat, or the fifteen-hour days that were getting to him? Probably both, he thought as he hastily paid the bill, deciding he'd best take a moment to apologize to her for his less-than-gracious behavior.
As he and his party headed for the door, he searched the foyer, but she was nowhere to be seen. Pressed for time, he ushered his companions out to the waiting limousine.
During the short ride back to his office, Madison felt annoyed that his thoughts kept returning to the blonde woman, instead of concentrating on the important meeting ahead. For some reason he couldn't explain, he hated to have her think of him as such a lout. He tried to remember his exact words to her. Had he been that difficult? he wondered, remembering the look of anger and defiance reflected in her eyes. No, it had been more than mere annoyance regarding his overbearing manner. There had been something indefinable, almost like a flash of horrified recognition.
A question from one of his companions drew his attention from the puzzle, and by the time they'd entered the building and began the ascent to the twenty-third floor, he'd dismissed the incident from his mind.
The elevator doors gave a soft swoosh as they opened into the walnut-paneled waiting area. Madison waved to Blanche Kittering, the receptionist, who was on the phone, and motioned to her that he was taking his clients to the conference room. Once there, he seated them at the long, oak table and invited them to study the re-zoning information that his secretary had set out.
He excused himself and crossed the expanse of plush green carpeting to the reception desk. "Any messages, Blanche?"
She turned her attention from the word processor and eyed him over the square reading glasses perched low on the bridge of her nose. "Which stack do you want?"
"The smallest one," he teased, returning her mischievous smile. The buxom woman with the blue-black, beehive and exaggerated false lashes had been a fixture in his father's office even before he'd decided to follow Madison McKee, Sr., into law.
Blanche handed him a few notes and thumbed in the direction of his office. "Your father's in there waiting for you."
He raised a brow in surprise. "What's he doing here? I thought he was lost somewhere on the golf course. My mother said she'd hardly seen him for a week."
She shrugged, palming her hands upward. "Who knows? I think he's having trouble adjusting to retired life. After all, he headed up this place for almost forty years and it's only been two months."
"I guess he's forgotten that's why he brought me up here from the Tucson office."
"Humor him," she said with a wry smile.
Madison nodded, then took four long strides to the door of his office and swung it open. His gaze fastened on the vivid contemporary watercolor that had been delivered that morning. The painting served as a nice contrast to the somber, cherrywood floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The only thing out of place now, he noted with amusement, was his father.
Excerpted from A Scent of Jasmine by Sylvia Nobel. Copyright © 1996 Sylvia Nobel. Excerpted by permission of Nite Owl Books.
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