w/a Victoria Barrett
St. Martin’s Press
“Barrett pits a headstrong independent woman against the mysterious artist who illustrates her greeting cards and who refuses to reveal his identity, until love forces his hand. Delightful.”
– Affaire de Coeur
© 2006 Vicki Hinze
Amanda Jensen slammed down the phone.
No grown woman should have to contend with this nonsense. It was enough to drive a stable person insane. Why couldn’t her mother just accept her for who she was and encourage her to be the woman she wanted to be?
She supposed that being the only daughter of the Biloxi, Mississippi, social icons, Edward and Veronica Jensen, and not being attuned to them or to their lifestyle, had made her hurting and disappointing them inevitable. Probably, inescapable. Oil and water just don’t mix. But each does have its value. So why couldn’t her mother recognize Amanda’s value and spare them both these miserable conflicts?
The motion detector installed to warn her of shoppers’ arrival in her mall store, The Card Shoppe, chimed. Hating buzzers that grated at the ear, Amanda’d had the company substitute a little bell that softly tinkled; a pleasant, soothing sound. Appreciating it even now, she gave the phone a resigned sigh, then did her best to calm down and rid herself of a grimace before greeting her sorely-needed customer. Her time for proving the lifelong dream her mother called “Amanda’s ridiculous little commercial venture” was nearly up. And failure, God help her, appeared imminent.
She smoothed a wrinkle from the skirt of her red silk sheath, pasted on a smile that probably looked more like a snarl then, standing behind the cash register, she turned toward the entrance.
Her favorite customer, Chatty, shuffled in. Amanda felt certain Chatty was homeless–all of the signs were there–though the woman denied it. She never had been able to pinpoint Chatty’s age. Under the garb, it was hard to tell, but she was probably between fifty and sixty. Her pink floppy hat was soaked with raindrops; the sleeves of her three-sizes-too-big Army jacket, rolled-up; her jeans, faded; and her mismatched sneakers, dragging shoestrings that left a muddy, wet trail in her wake. Though rain-splotched head to toe, Chatty looked warm enough, and she was carrying her brown grocery bag, which she’d protected and kept dry, so all must be okay in her world.
Mumbling to herself, Chatty meandered over to the two cushy chairs before the display of the Tender Touch cards Amanda carried exclusively. She wrote the verses herself–another ridiculous venture, according to her mother–and the mysterious Jonathan Maxwell illustrated them. Amanda knew Jonathan only by name and from his notes, though they had worked together via mail for two years, and she’d fantasized about the man every day of them–a fact she admitted, of course, only to her closest confidant, Chatty.
“It’s cold out there today, Mandy.” Chatty lowered her grocery bag to the teal carpet, near the fern positioned between the two chairs, then sank down onto the chair’s cushion with a relieved sigh. “Ah, I’m ready for my tea.”
Amanda couldn’t not smile. With Chatty’s flyaway gray hair peeking out from under the brim of her hat, her vacant glances, and her shade-shy-of-aware ways, she often reminded Amanda of Bewitched’s Aunt Clara–or she would have, if Aunt Clara’d had an attitude. “It’s already steeping.”
“Mmm. It appears the tea isn’t all that’s steeping around here.” Chatty sent Amanda a wary, sidelong look. “What’s the matter, pet? You’re looking a tad miffed.”
“Mother just phoned. Bradley’s on his way over.”
Amanda didn’t linger to hear Chatty’s reaction to that disclosure. She knew her retort would be short, snappy, and snippy. Though they hadn’t met, Chatty found Amanda’s parents’ choice of a prospective husband for her about as appealing as their daughter found the man: not at all.
Amanda returned from the little kitchenette in the back of the shop with a tea tray, bearing a steaming teapot, her best china cups–Chatty deserved only the best–fresh lemon wedges, and snowy, linen napkins. She set the tray onto the little table in front of the two chairs, then sat down beside her friend and waited. Chatty always poured.
“Why don’t you give that man his walking papers?” With a little grunt, she reached for the pot. “He isn’t fit to carry your sack.”
Glancing up from Chatty’s grocery bag, Amanda reached over the fern and accepted the cup. “He’s isn’t that bad.”
“He’s worse, and you know it. The man drives you up the wall.” Chatty filled her own cup. “Ditch him, I say, and get on with finding yourself a real man. Maybe meet your Jonathan. Now, he has potential. You’re half-in-love with him, and you haven’t even met him. Imagine what could happen if–”
“I can’t.” Boy, didn’t Amanda just wish she could meet Jonathan, or ditch Bradley. She sipped at the steamy brew. Japanese green tea felt so good going down the throat. Soothing. “We’ve been over this a thousand times, Chatty. Jonathan insists on keeping his anonymity, and ditching Bradley would break my mother’s heart.”
“And I say, maybe her heart needs breaking.” Chatty opened her mouth again, likely to express her doubt Veronica Jensen had a heart, but then thought better of it and held her silence.
Grateful for the reprieve, Amanda watched the fragrant steam lift. “I admit it. She’s a snob, an art patroness with a long nose she loves to look down at other people. But the bottom line is what it’s always been: She’s my mother.”
“And that gives her the right to make you miserable?”
“She doesn’t mean to make me miserable. It just kind of happens.” Innately compelled to defend her, Amanda frowned. “You don’t understand, Chatty. Mother and I live in different worlds. It’s . . . complicated.”
“I don’t see what’s so complicated.” Chatty harrumped, then muttered, a knowing gleam in her eye. “Your mother–a twit, if you’ll pardon my saying so, pet–wants you to marry a man you can’t stand because he’s a social snob like her. And you think you have to date him just because you’ve hurt her enough already by bucking her and opening this shop, when she’s wanting you to marry the man you can’t stand and take your rightful place in society.” Chatty blew out a sigh that ruffled the gray silk hangings surrounding the Tender Touch card display. “Pardon my saying so, pet, but you’re being a twit, too. About this, anyway.”
Amanda didn’t take offense. She and Chatty had met during The Card Shoppe’s grand opening and, in the time since then, had become good friends. The adorable woman was both blunt and honest; she genuinely cared about Amanda. And Amanda loved never having to wonder what Chatty was thinking because she rarely hesitated at speaking her mind. “Twit or not, she’s my mother and I love her. I don’t like hurting her.” Amanda shifted on her seat. “Opening the shop was a real blow. Any more shocks and I’ll put her under.”
“Bah, she’s as healthy as a horse.” Knitting her brows, Chatty stuffed a lemon wedge into her pocket. “You, on the other hand . . .”
“She’d be devastated,” Amanda countered, rubbing her cup’s rim with the pad of her thumb.
“She’d be embarrassed.”
She would. Horribly. “That, too.”
“I know how you feel, pet, and your not wanting to hurt her is admirable.” Chatty patted Amanda’s forearm reassuringly. “But the truth of the matter is as simple as sunshine. You stuck out your neck to open this shop because it was what you wanted professionally. Don’t you think your personal life deserves at least that same consideration?”
Amanda pushed her spiky, black hair back from her eyes and cast her friend a pleading look. “She wants me to marry him.”
“No news there. She’s wanted that for months.”
“Yes, but now she’s becoming more insistent, and so is he.” They’d joined forces to push her up against the wall, and Amanda hated it.
Chatty stilled. A long moment later, she tilted back her head to look at Amanda from under the brim of her floppy hat. Her soft green eyes glittered resentment and curiosity. “So what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to marry the man. He irks me, Chatty.” Amanda sighed and slumped back in her chair. “But we both know Mother holds the loan on my shop. I have three months. Just three months.” Panic laced Amanda’s voice. “If I don’t prove this shop a success by then, she can call the loan–and she will do it. You know she will.”
“And then you’re up the river without a rowboat.” Chatty let her gaze drift toward the front of the store, at the rack of sunglasses and the little table loaded with Valentine’s Day goodies: lacy red sachets, velvet-covered journals, sweet-smelling potpourri. “I hate to have to agree with you, pet, but I do. If Veronica can call your loan, she’ll do it, to force you to toe the line. But you can’t marry the man just to avoid a family feud.”
“I know.” Amanda groaned, more resentment burning in her stomach. It was a lose/lose situation.
“So what’s your battle plan?” Chatty spied the quill pens near the register and that familiar, appreciative gleam lit in her eyes. “Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. It’d be the perfect time, I’d say, to launch a war.”
Chatty was right. This was a war. And failure wasn’t an option. Amanda would succeed, or bust trying. She turned her thoughts to her Valentine’s Day plans and, feeling her enthusiasm bubble, she then disclosed them to Chatty. “It’s going to be a winner. It really is. I know some of my promotional schemes have fallen flat, but this one is going to be a stellar success.”
“What is it?” Excitement flickered through Chatty’s eyes. She refreshed her tea, then added lemon.
“A Meet Your Secret Admirer party.” Amanda’s pulse quickened. “I wrote the invitations and hired Jonathan to illustrate them. People have been signing up all week.” She waved toward the end of the register counter to the mailbox she’d covered i n red satin and white hearts. “They fill out their card to their ‘admiree’ and then I seal and mail them. The seal proves they’re authentic, from the shop,” she digressed to explain the safeguard against crazies using them to lure innocents for nefarious purposes. “Then Valentine’s night, all of the couples meet here for a formal affair–very romantic. We’ll have roses, champagne, the whole nine-yards.”
“It sounds wonderful!” Chatty set down her cup and walked to the front of the store, her shoestrings still leaving a slinky, wet trail on the carpet. She pointed out into the mall, center court, to the huge bronze sculpture roped off by brass-pole, velvet swags. “You can have tables-for-two out there, candlelight. A band right under the tip of Cupid’s arrow, near the little bench, and dancing . . . Oh, Mandy, people will love it!”
Reassured by Chatty’s excitement, Amanda smiled. “I think so, too.”
Chatty looked back over her shoulder at Amanda and sobered. “Have you ever really noticed that statue of Cupid?”
“Cupid’s Arrow?” Amanda asked, reciting the name the renowned and reclusive artist, Millicent Fairgate, had tagged the sculpture.
Chatty slid her a worried look. “It’s the only statue around, pet.”
Amanda resisted the urge to squirm. She’d avoided close scrutiny of the piece because her mother had purchased and then had donated it to the mall for the holiday. “It isn’t easy to miss.” The bronze stood a solid ten-feet tall. Yet curious now , Amanda walked over to Chatty. “What about it?”
“The arrow nocked in his bow points directly into the entrance of your shop.”
Surprised, Amanda studied the giant bronze. “It does.” She grunted. “Maybe that’ll bring us good luck.”
“It hasn’t so far, and I’d say it isn’t likely to this morning.” Chatty grimaced, obviously vexed. “Here comes Mr. Perfect.”
Chatty swiped past the fern, rustling its leaves, put her cup down on the little table, and then grabbed her grocery sack. “I don’t care if Bradley Wade is the youngest partner in the history of your father’s law firm, pet, the man’s still a twit. Handsome as sin, but a twit.”
Through the store’s front windows, Amanda saw women in the mall crook their necks to watch Bradley. He was handsome, in a perfectionist kind of way, and she’d like to disagree on the twit remark but, she couldn’t honestly do it. “He has good qualities.” Weak, but the best she could manage.
Bradley sauntered into the shop, glancing around as if he were appraising it. He did have appeal: Dark hair, bedroom eyes. Perfectly dressed in only the best, he carried himself like a winner. A very successful winner. And maybe he would be a winner, if he’d broaden his horizons a little, develop some compassion, and look outside himself to the needs of others just a tenth as often as he looked within to his own.
That was Amanda’s biggest gripe about him, and one she just couldn’t seem to work past–though she didn’t much care for the Inspector General way he looked at her shop or at her, either. The shop was lovely, teal and gray and softly scented with vanilla; warm and welcoming. And her red sheath flattered her coloring, her nape-length, spiky black hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. She was lean and attractive, if not classically beautiful. Certainly, she deserved better than him glaring at her throat , her hands, and earlobes, and then giving her a resigned sigh.
Ah. The reason hit her. No jewelry. She resisted sighing herself. He knew she hated jewelry, of course, and yet he still resented her for not wearing it. As if she hated it to deliberately deny him the opportunity to flash his generosity to observers he wanted to impress. A vintage Bradley reaction, unfortunately. About as deep as a pane of glass.
He cast a disdainful look Chatty’s way, as if wondering what in the world a woman wearing rags could be doing in Amanda’s shop. “Amanda.”
“Good morning, Bradley. I’d like you to meet my friend, Chatty. Chatty, this is Bradley Wade.”
Chatty held out a hand and offered him a smile.
Bradley looked at her as if she carried plague. “Charmed.” He nodded, then turned his back on her.
Clearly in a snit, Chatty grumbled her way to the cash register counter, picked up the quill pens she’d been eyeing earlier, dropped two of them into her sack, and then walked out of the shop.
She headed straight across the mall to the statue of Cupid, sat down on the bench and, within seconds, engaged in a serious discussion with the bronze.
Amanda saw red. She glared at Bradley. “Why were you rude to her?”
“Me, rude?” He lifted a brow. “Darling, has it escaped your notice that ‘your friend’ is a bag lady and a thief? She stole two pens from you. I would think you would ban that kind of riff-raft from your shop, not refer to her as a friend.”
“Riff-raft?” Amanda had to work at it to swallow an outraged bellow. “Don’t call Chatty names, Bradley. I mean it.” Knowing her voice was elevating anyway, she couldn’t seem to stop herself. “She’s my friend, and I don’t give a damn if she walks out with the whole store.”
He crossed his arms akimbo. “Spoken like a true businesswoman.”
His sarcasm, and the inference that he shared her mother’s certainty Amanda was doomed to fail, infuriated her. “Look, I realize Chatty’s a little eccentric, and she’s not apt to find herself welcome at garden club luncheons or country club balls, but she’s welcome in my shop any time, and that’s that. As for her stealing, well, she knows things aren’t important. People are. She cares about me, and I care about her. Now if you can’t accept that and be nice to her, then you’d better leave.”
Red crawled up his neck, staining his skin, then crept to his face. He was angry all right, nearly choking on it. He glared at her, then left the store without uttering another word.
The bell tinkled, signaling he’d gone. Still trembling from the confrontation and intending to go apologize to Chatty, Amanda turned for the entrance.
A gorgeous man stood near the cash register. About six-two and dressed in a navy-blue suit with an exquisite glove-fit, he held his gaze averted so Amanda couldn’t see his eyes, but his hair was black, a little shorter on his nape than hers, and he had a strong jaw and the kind of broad shoulders a woman in need could lean on. Appealing package. But why hadn’t she heard him come in?
Well, she had been a little preoccupied, screaming like an idiot banshee. She probably wouldn’t have heard a bomb explode. Oh, no. Had he heard her? Talk about raunchy first impressions.
He glanced her way, and she looked into the most fascinating gray eyes she’d ever seen. Empathy shone in their depths. Her stomach knotted and her face went as hot as Bradley’s had been red. The man had stood there long enough to witness the conflict and, God help her, he’d heard every humiliating word.
Was there a first impression worse than raunchy?
Doubting it, and wishing for a hurricane, a tornado, or any other disaster that would let her avoid this embarrassment, she paused, but nothing happened. Figures. She slid Cupid’s Arrow a glare for refusing to bring her even a smidgen of good luck, then brazened out meeting the man on her own.
Walking over, so the counter would be between them–truthfully, she needed the support of leaning on it–she stepped up to the register then addressed the man, doing her darnedest to dredge up a smile. “Good morning. May I help you?”
“Good morning, Miss Jensen.” His voice sounded soft and rich, as soothing as her Japanese tea. “I understand the woman who was just in your store has been shoplifting.”
He knew her name; had to be with mall security. Oh, God, he couldn’t mean to arrest Chatty!
Amanda’s chest went tight. Think. Think!
He’d heard the argument so he’d surely know better, but she had to lie. What other choice did she have? “Are you talking about Chatty?”
He nodded and Amanda let out an absurd laugh, hoping it passed the muster and she didn’t land herself in jail with her friend. “Of course not. That dear woman wouldn’t steal from anyone.” Amanda pointed to the tray. “We had tea, Mr. . . ?”
“Jones,” he said. “Max Jones.” His brows knitted together and his jaw tensed until his discomfort became more overwhelming than evident. “I’m not sure exactly how to put this.”
Amanda offered him a tentative smile. No one so gorgeous and gentle-voiced should ever be so uncomfortable. “Just say it, Mr. Jones.”
“Call me Max, please. Everyone does.”
“Max.” He was letting her get away with the lie and, more than a little grateful, her smile widened. Now here was a man with compassion.
He rubbed at his neck and visibly stiffened, as if forcing himself by sheer will to meet her gaze. “Chatty is my aunt.”
Amanda blinked, then blinked again. Chatty never had mentioned having family. Especially wealthy family, and from the looks of his suit–definitely custom–and the Rolex winking out from under his starched shirt cuff, Max Jones was far more than just financially comfortable.
He dragged a fingertip over his temple. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that my aunt is a little . . . eccentric, Mandy.”
He must be Chatty’s nephew. Only she ever had called Amanda, Mandy. “We all have our eccentricities. Chatty’s are just a little more visual.”
“They are that.” He smiled.
Amanda’s knees went weak. Gorgeous, compassionate, smells like a slice of heaven, and a killer smile. She almost sighed. Forgivable, though. Men like him didn’t just walk into her shop, much less walk in claiming to be the nephew of a friend Amanda had thought homeless–despite Chatty’s claims to the contrary.
“I’ve been away on business and just returned to the coast,” he said. “I was told you knew about this . . . situation. Now, I learn you had no idea.”
He paused, letting his gaze wander over the collection of wind chimes, then the hour-glasses and atomizers, as if weighing his options. Finally, he looked back at her. “I’m sorry, but I guess there’s no easy way to tell you this.”
Amanda instinctively braced. From the tense look of him, whatever was coming had to be god-awful.
He stretched an arm across the counter and placed his hand atop hers, as if by touching her, he would absorb the shock. “Earlier this morning, Chatty confessed that she’s been ‘borrowing baubles’ from you since the day you opened your shop.”
Amanda stared at him, not sure what to say.
“I’m so sorry, Mandy, and I’d like to make restitution–without involving the police, for obvious reasons–if you’d be agreeable to it.” Sincerity radiated from him. “Chatty doesn’t mean any harm, she’s just . . . well, eccentric.”
Relieved that this was all there was to it, Amanda thought she should move her hand. She should, but she wasn’t going to. His was large, his fingers long and fluid, his nails short and blunt and well-manicured. And his palm was warm on the back of her hand. So very warm. He’d hated telling her this. Not just because he didn’t want his aunt arrested, but because he genuinely resented having to upset Amanda. Compassionate, soothing . . . and comforting. She liked all of that about him. A lot . And she felt a deep need to ease his mind. This situation clearly worried him. “I know, Max,” she said softly. “Chatty’s been rather obvious, at times actually deliberate, in letting me know about her bauble-borrowing.”
Surprise flickered through his eyes, and maybe a sliver of admiration, though Amanda couldn’t fathom what there was to admire in a businesswoman admitting she’d allowed herself to be duped out of merchandise since the day she’d gone into business. “If it’s any consolation, she never takes any of my expensive items. Her cut-off seems to be around the ten-dollar mark.”
“It isn’t consoling. Stealing is stealing. But I appreciate you trying to make me feel better about this.” He pulled out his checkbook. “Oddly enough, she’s kept an accounting of all her, er . . .”
“Baubles?” Amanda suggested, hating it that he felt he sat on the hot-seat. Having spent most of her life there, she knew too well what an uncomfortable place it could be.
“Yes.” He scratched the tip of his gold pen across the check, filling it out, then tore it from the pad and passed it to her. “I’ve added sales tax. If you find that’s insufficient, please let me know.” He let his gaze drift away. “I do feel terrible about this, Mandy.”
Terrible and embarrassed-to-the-bone. “Please, don’t.” This time her smile was genuine. “I’ve always had the distinct feeling that if I’d called Chatty down for her borrowing just once, she’d have stopped.” Amanda gave his hand a gentle squeeze , then glanced at the check.
Something about his handwriting tugged at a familiar cord in her, but unable to peg exactly what, she put the check into the register, then snapped the cash drawer shut.
“Why didn’t you call her down on it?” Curiosity lit the irises of his eyes with mesmerizing silver flecks. “And when I asked, why did you deny knowing about the thefts?”
Even mesmerized, Mandy couldn’t hold his gaze. He’d think she was a lousy businesswoman, just like Bradley. And, while she didn’t give two figs what Bradley thought, for some goofy reason, Max’s opinion of her mattered. It had to be her reacting to the compassion in him. Still, truth was truth and, in coming here, he’d earned it. This hadn’t been easy for him. That was obvious. “She’s my friend. I didn’t want her to get into trouble.” Amanda shrugged. Sure his censure would follow and not wanting to see it, she dropped her gaze lower, to his gray silk tie, and confessed. “I thought you were with mall security.”
A little chuckle escaped him and, from the tender smile that curved his lips, he didn’t think at all like Bradley. “On the QT, I’m a businessman, not at all secure, and I find your protectiveness . . . touching.”
Unaccustomed to praise, and to men admitting their flaws, Amanda liked both far more than she should. “What are friends for?”
“Support, caring, sharing–all the things you’ve given to Chatty. Thank you for that, Mandy.” As if he regretted letting her see inside him, Max turned his voice from tender to crisp. “Tell me, how did you and Chatty become friends?”
Relieved that he hadn’t wondered why the daughter of Edward and Veronica Jensen would stoop to the “unacceptable commercialism,” Amanda felt the knots in her stomach melt. “Chatty’s a warm, wonderful woman.”
“She is,” he agreed. “Though people seldom see that side of her.”
Amanda’s focus sank deeper into his eyes. They were so beautiful. Magnetic. And she fleetingly wondered how many women had found themselves lost in them.
“Did you meet here?”
“Yes, we did. Grand Opening day.” Amanda smiled. “Chatty came in cold and wet, bless her heart, carrying her grocery bag, like always. She introduced herself, wished me every success, and then snitched two Christmas ornaments on her way out of the store.” Amanda let out a little laugh. “I was so stunned, I couldn’t move.”
Max looked torn between laughing with her and groaning. “Is that why you didn’t have her arrested?”
“No.” Amanda shrugged. “I know I should have, but I just couldn’t do it.”
She focused on a point beyond his shoulder. “I guess because anyone can get down on their luck.” Less than comfortable with being so frank, she shifted on her feet. “It sounds like a silly reason, but it’s not. I’ve become very fond of her. In her own unorthodox way, Chatty is kind and gentle. She really cares about people and their hopes and dreams, and she has a quirky way of looking at things that makes me laugh.” Amanda looked back at him, knowing she’d gone solemn and he was far too astute and observant to miss it, knowing she should hush now, before she made a damn fool of herself. But something in his eyes urged her on. “I’ve heard too little laughter in my life to squander it over the borrowing of a few baubles.”
The look in his eyes told her he understood and, as if sensing her discomfort, he emotionally withdrew. “I trust we’re considering this matter settled then, without the police?”
“Thank you.” He smiled, and his eyes lit up from their bottoms. “Chatty’s lucky to have you for a friend.”
Amanda crossed her chest and rubbed at her arms. “I’m the lucky one.”
Looking thoughtful, he turned to walk out of the shop, then stopped and glanced back at her. “Mandy, would you have dinner with me tomorrow night?”
Her heart skidded to a near-halt then thudded hard, threatening to cave through her chest wall. Liking him, and incredibly intrigued–Why does the eccentric aunt of a wealthy man dress in rags and run around carrying a grocery bag?–Amanda smiled. “Yes, I will. Where shall we meet?”
“Antonio’s?” he suggested. “Eight o’clock?”
Antonio’s? Now what would he know of a place like Antonio’s? It was a hole-in-the-wall off of Highway 90 near Rue Magnolia, far from the glitz and glamour the casinos had sprinkled along the Gulf Coast, and a choice that would send her mother into a dead faint. Definitely not a socially-acceptable restaurant, but Amanda had been there many times, and she loved the food. “Can’t wait,” she said, chiding herself because that statement held a little too much truth, and Antonio’s delectable linguine and white clam sauce had nothing to do with it.