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Authors: Mardi Ballou

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BOOK: Emergency Ex
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Was he getting cold feet? Why had the old girlfriend come out of the shadows of the past now? There was no such thing as
coincidence
. Despite knowing she shouldn’t, Brenda gave in to a stab of jealousy. Maybe Keith was gearing up to dump her. Maybe he planned to wait until after her birthday to give her the bad news—

She pushed away the growing sense of unease. Being on the brink of turning thirty was affecting her more than she’d expected. But maybe she and Keith could talk about this tension when they met after work. If she still felt weird by the time she got together with him for dinner at Bistro Bacchanalia, one of her favorite restaurants—the one with the best view of the Golden Gate in addition to fabulous food—she’d stop dodging the bullet and insist they talk about…them. This on top of talking about her birthday.

Meanwhile she had to clear her head of exes and jealousy and insecurity as she prepared for the day’s business. Brenda flung herself into a hot shower. Once toweled off, she imbibed a gallon or so of her darkest, strongest brew—necessary fuel for her upcoming, civilization-depends-on-it business meeting.

After making sure Chelsey was set, Brenda took off. Eight a.m. meeting with Lars Hinkleschmidt, one of the cocoa bean purveyors who kept Lockheart Chocolate an industry leader. She’d caved on the meeting place—his office rather than hers or neutral territory. That was the only point she’d cave on.

Lars, always the gentleman, at least on the surface, rose when his secretary escorted Brenda into his lair. She extended her hand in greeting, noting Lars’s firm grip. Nearing retirement age, the businessman evidently worked out. “Mona will be back right away with coffee and bagels.”

Brenda, on the verge of sloshing when she moved from all the coffee already imbibed, sat in the indicated chair and gave a noncommittal shrug. “What’s this about raising your prices by fifty percent? Effective immediately?”

Lars pursed his lips. “Right to the point, Brenda.”

“Exactly. I’m busy and so are you. You don’t seriously expect—”

He held up both hands. “Production costs have gone through the roof, what with the price of oil, weather conditions.”

Same old, same old. Did he really think he’d get far dredging up familiar complaints? “Fifty percent increase for a loyal long-time customer?”

His face remained impassive. “You should see what I’m charging my newer clients.”

“Come on. We’ve both benefited healthily from our association,” Brenda pointed out. “I’m sure you want that to continue. I do too. As I said, I’m loyal, and that’s got to get me some benefits or I’ll have to start looking elsewhere. You’re not the only supplier around.”

Just then Mona came in with a cart bearing a coffeemaker, a platter with enough bagels to feed ten and all the trimmings. Brenda willed her stomach not to rumble at the sight. Maybe she should have stopped for breakfast.

Lars thanked Mona, who poured coffee for two before retreating. He helped himself to a bagel, spread cream cheese and, for a space of time, managed to avoid eye contact. Though she kept her guard up, Brenda indulged. She even drank a half cup more of coffee.

Lars swallowed before speaking. “We have profited together. Don’t lose sight of the fact that our cocoa beans are an essential part of your brand.”

So he was going to play that card, was he? Brenda replaced her cup with a tad more force than strictly necessary and bared her teeth. “Much as I appreciate the fine quality of your beans and your customer service, you have that wrong.”

He frowned and, accomplished bluffer that he was, looked momentarily confused before collecting himself. “Wrong?”

“The word
essential
. We’ve formulated our recipes so that no one supplier’s ingredient is
essential
. Saves wear and tear when any supplier gets the wrong impression about his importance for our product.” She swallowed the last of her bagel.

Lars gazed at her for several beats and blinked. “You have to be aware that expenses have risen.”

“I’d have to be hiding under a stack of mattresses not to.” The memory of her most recent time on top of a mattress with Keith flashed through her mind. Wrong image, but thank goodness Lars wasn’t a mind reader. She wrenched her mind back to the negotiations. “But raising your prices fifty percent? That’s not an increase I could pass along to my customers.”

He made a derisive sound. “Come on, Brenda. People queue up to pay through the nose for your product. Do you seriously think anyone would balk at an increase? Fifty percent or more. Get it while the market’s hot.”

She shot to her feet. “That’s not how I treat my customers. They know what they can expect from me. They get what they pay for—a quality product that doesn’t come cheap. Still, their willingness to pay more for my chocolate than other lesser brands is not a license to steal. I expect the same treatment from my sources. In light of your higher costs, I’ll pay a ten percent increase. Take it or lose me.”

She almost felt sorry for Lars when she heard his piteous groan. Almost. “You drive a hard bargain.” He extended his hand for their traditional shake, which they’d follow up with the appropriate paperwork.

She drove a hard bargain all right. With Lars Hinkleschmidt and all her other business contacts. The little internal voice she often tried to ignore was urging her to be equally strong in expressing her needs to Keith.

After a difficult but successful meeting, Brenda deserved a break before she went back to her office. It had been too long since she’d spent an hour breathing and stretching in her favorite yoga studio. A few downward facing dogs seemed the perfect way to de-stress and prepare for whatever came next.

She’d just gotten into position when a business idea struck her. Along with raising her prices for her customers, she’d give them a little gift. “‘Love is the emotional chocolate of the universe.’” K.C.’s words came back to her. Books and bonbons—a perfect pairing. She’d create an out of this world confection, feature K.C.’s saying on the package and, if she could negotiate the deal, include a coupon for K.C.’s book! That might just take the sting out of the price increase. Brenda’s creative juices began to flow. She couldn’t wait to run the idea past K.C. and her own promotional people.

Nothing better than a great new idea. Almost as good as sex. Almost. Her thoughts turned to Keith and how she could feel as good about the two of them as a couple as she did about “‘Love is the emotional chocolate of the universe.’” And quality chocolate.

* * *

Considering the previous long, hot night, Keith managed a smile on his face and a spring in his step even before his first life-restoring coffee. Brenda seemed to be back to her usual self. After her recent mood swings, he’d started to worry that maybe she’d want to move things ahead at the speed of light. He already felt as if too much was changing too fast. But, last night was one of their best—just the way they’d always been. That meant more than he could say.

Also, their good night together reassured him after his strange run-in with his an old girlfriend who’d been especially hard to get rid of. In retrospect, he wished he hadn’t mentioned anything to Brenda. He definitely hadn’t liked rehashing the past. Brenda’s reaction surprised him. Instead of being her usual calm, steady self, she’d seemed spooked. Maybe turning thirty bothered her more than he’d realized. He got that she wanted something special to mark the day. Maybe even to tie it in with plans to step up their relationship.

He’d never been that hung up on particular dates, so he couldn’t totally relate. His thirtieth birthday had been a bit of a jolt, but he got over it. Still, women and men reacted differently to stuff. He’d had a genius idea to soothe her frazzled nerves. Tonight he’d take her out for dinner at Bistro Bacchanalia, a place she loved. They’d focus totally on making plans for the big day. That should cheer her up. Lucky he’d thought of it.

Having his Siberian husky, the large and ever friendly Brute, greet him with the enthusiasm due the faithful food provider added to Keith’s good mood. After a quick walk he filled the dog’s dish and gave him an affectionate belly rub. Keith thanked the benevolent karmic forces of the universe for everything good about his life, including Brenda. Especially Brenda. His body twitched in grateful remembrance just as Brute growled. Brute and Chelsey together? One detail he and Brenda needed to work out before they moved in together. They’d probably go to her place… Nothing decided yet. No rush.

Humming to himself on the short walk to the coffee spot in the lobby of his workplace, he opened the door for a granny type shuffling behind him, then winked when the barista put in his order without his having to say a word. Service with a smile—made his world go ‘round. He switched to whistling as he rode the elevator up to his office, unlocked the door and sat down at his computer for the start of another workday. He’d just about finished typing notes on his last case when a new client arrived.

To his shock, his sister-in-law Mara Lynn stormed into his office and fell into his client chair. What the hell—

“Mara Lynn? What’s wrong? Why are you here?” He jumped up and looked around frantically for his brother. “Where’s Ryan?”

She narrowed her eyes and glared. “That snake in the grass stayed out all night with his bimbo. Says she’s a co-worker, but I know better.”

He gasped and put his hands on his head in an effort to take in what was going on. “Are you saying what I think you are? That Ryan’s cheating on you? How can that be?”

No amount of tears could put out the burning resentment that shot from her eyes. “In all the usual ways. You’ve got to help me, Keith.”

What could he possibly do— He reached into his mini-fridge and pulled out a bottle of water, which he offered her.

She slapped it away. “I don’t need that. I do need you to get the goods on Ryan. My divorce lawyer is screaming for the evidence.”

His heart sank. “Divorce lawyer? Mara Lynn, slow down. Make sure you’re not making a huge mistake. Maybe something else is going on.”

“Nothing else is going on,” she barked. “Ah, hell, give me the water.” She grabbed the bottle from him and just about inhaled the contents. “Your brother is as big a bastard as your father.”

Keith held out his hands in an effort to keep his world from crumbling to pieces. “What— How—“

“How do I know. Simple. The bimbo phoned and told me.”

“Maybe this woman’s lying.”

“Maybe. On the other hand, why would he need a motel room in the middle of a ‘work day’?”

“I don’t know. Business meetings?”

She snorted and looked at him as if he’d turned into an ignorant oaf. “Three times in one week? If it’s a business expense, why is he charging the rooms on his personal credit card and not the business card?”

Keith wished he had a good answer, but even more he wished he knew what was going on with his brother. “I don’t have any answers. Ryan and I don’t touch base that often. Do you want me to get in touch with him?”

“Why bother.” She pointed an accusing finger. “Get me photos for my lawyer.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You know I can’t do that.”

She stuck her chin out and looked at him with even more hatred. “You never liked me. Your whole family was out to get me from the first.”

He grasped the edge of his desk to keep the world from spinning even further out of control. In the face of Mara Lynn’s hostility, he willed himself to sound rational. “I know you’re upset now and things may not seem clear. But there’s no way I can take you on as a client and track my brother. That’s just wrong.”

She careened out of her chair. “I’m through wasting my time. I’ll find someone else.” With that, she ran from the office.

Keith took a deep breath and slumped back in his chair. He’d never seen any of that coming. Impossible. A sense of doom bore down on him. If Ryan was cheating on Mara Lynn, following exactly in their father’s disgusting footsteps, what chance was there that Keith would be any better? His mind skittered back to Ryan on his wedding day, how ecstatic he’d been to be starting his future with Mara Lynn. Just five years and two babies ago. Why and how had all that hopefulness and potential for a good life gone south?

BOOK: Emergency Ex
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