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Authors: Mardi Ballou

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BOOK: Emergency Ex
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“Those are good. Brenda, I’ll have my people contact yours.”

“Sounds great.” She ended the call before they could get into anything personal. Thank goodness for new ideas. Working on her plans might just keep her from going crazy as the afternoon dragged into evening. Or not.

 

Brenda sounded a little weird on the phone. She’d taken the change in plans harder than he’d expected, but she’d get over it. How would she take the latest news from the Tarrant family? Would it scare her as much as it scared him?

After putting in a solid day on the trail of the three cheating guys he was currently following for clients—and avoiding thoughts of his brother as yet another cheating guy—Keith stopped home for a quick shower and shave. Brute greeted him with great doggie energy. Of course Keith gave him love, attention, food and a good, long walk, but his mind was elsewhere. He hoped Taylor’s business deal would bring in a lot of income. As to what would come of the obvious chemistry between them… He couldn’t deny wanting to see how things developed. Also couldn’t deny that this attraction terrified him.

One step at a time. He drove to the restaurant, where Taylor would meet him. At least that part didn’t feel like a date. By the time he’d parked and checked in with the maitre d’, their table was ready. He got there first and ordered wine.

The server had just placed the bottle and two goblets before him when Taylor, dressed to impress and turn on, arrived. He rose to greet her. “I’m really looking forward to tonight.”

After giving him a quick survey, she quirked her lips into a half smile, which he interpreted as approval. The ball was in his court.

“For such a
popular
restaurant,” Taylor drawled, “Bistro Bacchanalia is surprisingly good.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged and batted her eyelashes. “You know, a lot of times the restaurants the popular press picks up turn out to be ordinary. Refreshing that this one isn’t, yet. That’s why I wanted to meet here.”

He sensed that for Taylor, a lot of what regular folks considered special turned out to be ordinary. High maintenance much? He was about to come back with a brilliant reply when a flash of something snagged his eye. Brenda? Could she possibly be here tonight? Not at all the kind of place she’d normally hang out on her own… Maybe she’d come with another friend? Not a date, surely. An unwelcome burst of heat seized his gut and surged upward at the prospect of Brenda here or anywhere with another guy.
Oh, yeah, and I’m here with another woman—

Why had Brenda come? Could she somehow have misunderstood? He’d spoken to her, told her his excuses. So why would she be here? Last thing on earth he wanted was for her to catch sight of him with sexy Taylor. Even though she was a client.

Too late. Brenda was headed toward their table along with the maitre d’. What if she came over? Would he have to introduce her to Taylor? His heartbeat sped up as Brenda, who looked glamorous in a red suit that hugged her curves the way his hands had less than twenty-four hours earlier, approached. At a crucial moment her eyes locked with his. A glitter of some emotion he didn’t care to identify—pain?—twisted her face before she turned her head away.

Cripes. Brenda couldn’t miss spotting Taylor at his table. Taylor was a client and they did plan to discuss work, but he couldn’t deny the attraction. A stab of guilt struck him in the gut before he tamped it down. Harm was already done, no sense making it worse. He’d have to do some damage control with Brenda after tonight. Now he had to be sharp, which wasn’t easy with Taylor radiating heat across the table as Brenda walked away.

 

“I don’t see my date here after all,” Brenda told the maitre d’ after they’d made a complete circuit of the room. “I’m sorry. I must have been mistaken about the night.” She delivered her best apologetic smile to the gracious man who’d shown so much patience.

“Then I look forward to seeing you here on the correct night, madam,” he said before escorting her to the front door.

Once out in the cool San Francisco evening, Brenda allowed a few angry tears to well up. Passing between the tables where so many happy couples dined would have been bad enough, but then she’d seen Keith with a slutty but elegant redhead. Just his type. Nightmare. Even worse was that he saw her seeing them. He had to know she’d come to Bistro Bacchanalia to check up on him. That made her practically a stalker. Maybe more than
practically
. Could her life sink any lower?

Why hadn’t he told her—what? That his client was hot? If she even was a client… business meeting? What did all this mean for Keith and herself as a couple? Once they’d made the commitment to be exclusive, she’d expected that to be one hundred percent. She wouldn’t tolerate anything else. They’d have to talk. Meanwhile, she was walking aimlessly in stilettos and her feet hurt.

At least she’d worn her red two-piece Armani, the one that made her feel like a runway model straight from Milan. Her personal shopper had convinced Brenda the two-piece would be perfect to set off her blonde hair, dark coffee eyes and fair complexion. She’d meant to keep it for her big thirtieth, but now she was glad she’d worn it tonight. Might be the only time Keith would ever see her in it.

All dressed up and nowhere to go. She didn’t want dinner, but she’d treat herself to a cup of really good coffee before she went home and put her Armani back in the closet. She popped into the first coffee shop she came to.

Sitting with the largest cup of mocha latte with whipped cream, Brenda didn’t want to be alone. She dialed K.C. “You won’t believe it,” Brenda said by way of greeting. “Broke a date with me and he’s at the restaurant where we were supposed to meet with another woman. A hot woman who’s giving him the intense, we’ve got chemistry gaze. He said it’s business.”

K.C. was silent for an uncharacteristic moment. “Uh, do I want to know how you know all this? Tell me you didn’t get all dressed up and go there to check up on him.”

Brenda swallowed a too-hot mouthful of her drink. “You don’t want to know.”

“Since I care and I can feel your pain through the wire, I won’t pursue that topic.”

Her voice had grown tender, which made Brenda feel even worse. If things had deteriorated to the point where K.C. was going to treat her with extra kindness and gentleness, Brenda knew she was in trouble. “I appreciate that.”

“But which part of whatever nastiness the scum-sucking creepoid pulled tonight surprises you?” At least that sounded more like the K.C. Brenda was used to.

She winced from the heat of the drink and her humiliation. “That we’re a couple and we’re not supposed to treat each other that way? That he took that other woman to the place he said he’d take me?”

“We shouldn’t have this conversation by phone. Where are you now?”

“Would you believe I’m the most overdressed person in the coffee shop around the corner from the restaurant?”

“How about I meet you there in ten minutes?”

“You don’t have to drop everything and race to my rescue. Honestly, I’m okay. I just wanted to bounce some ideas off you.”

Her voice must not have sounded as assured or convincing as Brenda tried to make it because K.C. insisted she’d been hankering for an after-dinner coffee herself. She instructed Brenda to stay put. Nine minutes later, K.C. raced in, said hi, placed an order and sat down at Brenda’s table with a giant drink and a large, decadent pastry. She cut the pastry in half and offered the larger piece to Brenda, who declined. “You look better than you sounded,” she remarked.

“Since I put a lot more effort into how I look tonight than how I sound, I suppose I should be grateful.”

K.C. rolled her eyes. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. Are you sure you didn’t misinterpret what you saw? Last time we spoke, you seemed pretty confident about your relationship.”

“The two of them looked pretty cozy.”

“Hmm. You said he’d really made a huge change. But it sounds like you have doubts. They seem serious enough to warrant attention.”

Brenda sniffled back a tear. “You might be on to something. But when I think of ending it… I don’t know. Keith and I have history together.”

“I’m not Keith’s biggest fan, but you are going from zero to sixty without making any stops along the way. Maybe you should give him a chance to explain before you push him out the door.”

“It just seems we’re at a major fork in the road.”

K.C. nodded. “People go along for years without much reflection, and then they hit such a fork. It’s a good time to take stock. What’s keeping you with him?”

“Aside from the obvious—that he’s hot and sexy and all, we’ve got so much history together. I’ve known and loved Keith since he was a grade ahead of me in middle school. We met when he faced down the bully who kept stealing my lunch money and making my life a misery. We were friends all through school and then we took it to the next level in college.”

K.C. raked her fingers through her long blond hair. “Hmm. Don’t get hung up on all that. There’s got to be a statute of limitations on how long you have to be grateful for what a guy did for you in middle school. You’ve more than paid him back. You need to be clear about what’s happening now. Your past is part of you, but now you need to focus on the present.” After finishing that speech, K.C. took a large bite of pastry and a big swallow of her drink.

“Not so easy. I can focus on now when things are good, but it’s harder when something goes wrong. Mostly, since we decided to commit to each other, I’ve believed the new him is the real him. Tonight I’m a bit shaky.”

K.C. shook her head. “Talk to the man, sort out what’s going on. Then you can decide how to go forward.”

Brenda finished her drink and suddenly just wanted to go home and forget this night. “Thanks for coming and listening to me. I’m ready to head home.”

K.C. put down her cup. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Okay might be a stretch, but I’ll get through the night. Tomorrow will be better.” She turned to leave.

“Straight home? No return trips to the Bistro?” K.C. asked.

Brenda shivered. She didn’t actually intend to stop by the restaurant, though she’d briefly considered the possibility… She squared her shoulders and stood up straight. “No return trips.” She’d had quite enough humiliation for one night.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

May 19th—Brenda’s thirtieth birthday minus one week

Brenda’s resolve to open communications with Keith after what she called “Bistro Night” fell flat. He didn’t answer phone calls or emails. For the first time in years, he stayed away from her for a whole week. Brenda’s genius for worry and all her anxieties went into overdrive. If she hadn’t stopped biting her nails years before, she’d have chewed them all off. Finally, he answered a call.
He sounded nervous when he agreed to meet her for a drink.

Her heart did its usual flip-flop when she caught sight of him after some time apart. He was waiting at their favorite wine bar with a glass of red. He looked gorgeous, not at all the worse for wear. Unlike her. He had the ability not to show the effects of wine, women or song, and he looked even higher-energy than usual.
I hope to God this means he’s not sleeping with his
client
, that there’s some other reason why I haven’t heard from him.
Like maybe he’s been busy planning for my birthday? Unlikely. Maybe he’s been tied up with work? Or maybe he’s been tied up with
her. She cringed as the ugly thought grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go.

He kissed her cheek, a non-committal peck. “Can I get you a drink?”

She was going to ask for her usual, in part to see if he’d remember. Chardonnay. Then, resolved to keep her head clear, she asked for sparkling water instead. At least he remembered she liked it with lime.

BOOK: Emergency Ex
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