Read Utterly Charming Online

Authors: Kristine Grayson

Utterly Charming

Copyright

Copyright © 2011 by Kristine Grayson

Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Jodi Welter/Sourcebooks

Cover images © iStock/egorr, iStock/JoopS, iStock/bns124, iStock/mrusty, Alamy/Fancy

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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

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Originally published in 2000 by Zebra Books, a division of Kensington Publishing Corp.

For my husband, the secret romantic, with love
Ten Years Ago
Chapter 1

Her father used to tell her,
Never lose your sense of humor, Nora. Sometimes it’s all you need.

And sometimes, it was all you had left. She hadn’t lost everything, not yet, but she would if she didn’t get another client, if she didn’t find a way to earn some real money fast, if she didn’t find a way to turn everything around.

Served her right for listening to her mother.
A girl needs to follow her dreams, honey
. Nora was following them. All the way to bankruptcy.

Still, she had to laugh as she left her office on the third floor of one of Portland’s most exclusive buildings. The lower floors rented cheap because the offices hadn’t been converted and the remodeling was shoddy. The carpet caught and bunched in places, and the ceiling tiles looked as if they might fall down at any moment. But that wasn’t what made her smile.

It was the fact that the travel agency two doors down had picked that very morning—the morning she had received four
final, final, final!
bills, the morning her landlord had called and threatened her with eviction if she didn’t pay the last two months rent, the morning her most promising client’s retainer check bounced—to decorate the hallway with beautiful twelve-by-twenty travel posters of exotic places that Nora would never see. As she stepped out of her office, she found herself facing a bright blue ocean, a pristine beach, and a clearly exclusive resort in the distance.
Searching for Romance?
the poster read.
Try Hawaii
.

Nora smiled. Romance. She didn’t have time for romance. Even if she could afford to go to Hawaii.

She clutched her battered briefcase to her side and hurried toward the elevator. The upper floors of the building had an express elevator, done tastefully in polished wood and brass. The elevator that served the first five floors was an ancient Otis with a cracked mirror that covered the walls. Every time she stepped inside, she was startled at the girl who looked back at her.

She wasn’t a girl. She was a twenty-five-year-old woman who had graduated with honors from the University of Oregon Law School. She was the twenty-five-year-old crazy woman who had decided to open her own practice despite all the offers she had received from prestigious law firms around the state. She was the twenty-five-year-old crazy and unrealistic woman who believed she could make a living in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, a city so full of
experienced
lawyers that no one with any sense would go to an inexperienced one, let alone one who had only recently received her JD.

And who happened to look like the head of the high school cheerleading squad. It wasn’t her fault that she was only five two, petite, and blond. It wasn’t her fault that her nose turned up (“like a little ski jump” her father used to say) or that her eyes were wide and blue, making her seem at first glance like an innocent adrift in the large, complicated world. The only asset she had was her voice, strong and strident and able to silence a room with a single word.

Her favorite law professor had told her that she had to learn to use her appearance to her advantage.

Obviously, she hadn’t yet, not if the way she looked still surprised herself.

She got into the elevator, let the creaky doors close, and leaned against the mirror’s crack. The only reason she was going to see this client—a doctor who had more malpractice suits filed against him than any other doctor in the state, a doctor who had gone through lawyer after lawyer—was because she needed the money. She knew it, and he knew it, which was why he could command her to come to his office instead of having him come to hers.

So much for her vaunted ethics. So much for not handling cases she didn’t believe in.

Did all lawyers throw out morality in exchange for food? She didn’t know. She suspected they did, though, which was why so many elderly senior partners were fat.

To give herself credit, though, she wasn’t completely sure she was going to see him. She was going to treat herself to a cheap lunch at the nearby all-natural low-fat Mexican food place (which was as tasty as treating herself to a sugarless ice-cream cone) and she was going to decide on a full stomach. She couldn’t make the decision in her office, not with the phone ringing and bills piled up on her desk.

The elevator clanked its way down to the bowels of the building, which hadn’t been remodeled at all. She never told her clients—what few of them there were—to use the parking garage because she was afraid it would scare them. It used to scare her, until she badgered the landlord into putting in an extra bank of fluorescent lights. She had been cantankerous about it too (“Women alone don’t like dark places, Stan,” she had snapped at him one afternoon), which was probably why he was pressing her so hard for the rent. The fluorescent lights did banish the darkness, but they also revealed spiders the size of mice and a crumbling concrete foundation completely at odds with the BMWs and Porsches parked beside the columns.

BMWs, Porsches, and of course, her mighty steed, an ancient Rabbit that belched blue smoke every time she put it into reverse. She parked it toward the back corner of the garage after one of the lawyers from the huge firm upstairs (the one that had tried to hire her out of law school and who had continued to belittle her dream of independence ever since) requested that she “Do Something about her
car
so that people knew this was a Reputable Building.” She couldn’t Do Something about the car, but she could hide it so that the snobbish people who worked in this Reputable Building didn’t have to see the rust, dented fenders, and blue smoke.

Inside the garage, the cars were lined up like little soldiers, the most expensive closest to the express elevator and the rest scattered throughout the remaining spots. Despite the new lights, the place had an air of perpetual grayness, like an overcast day that kept promising, but never delivering, rain. It also echoed like crazy, and she was glad she had taken off her high heels and stuffed them into her briefcase before coming down. Her tennis shoes handled the concrete and the oil slicks much better, and they didn’t make it sound as if she were an army of women on a mission.

But there were already people in the garage, and their voices were echoing.

“…still don’t see why you’ve dragged me here,” said the first voice. It was low and musical and sexy. She had always loved voices like that. The kind that had a faint English accent, the kind that made her think that a man could seduce her without her ever seeing him, just by listening to his warm mellifluous voice speaking softly in a dark room.

“You won’t find out unless you go upstairs.” The second voice was nasal and harsh. It was the complete opposite of the voice she had first heard.

“I really don’t want to. I have a lot of other things to do, things that have nothing to do with Eals—”

“Really?” asked the second voice. “Is that why you were in Beaverton?”

“I’d heard she was there.”

“She is there, but I don’t know the exact address. There’s all those little houses, you know, that go on like rabbit’s warrens—”

The other voice interrupted, still speaking too low for Nora to hear. She rounded a corner, and as she did, her foot hit a loose piece of metal. It clanged, and the sound resounded off the thick concrete walls.

A man appeared on the back of a blue 1974 Lincoln—at least, it seemed as if he had appeared. One minute the car had been there—alone and slightly out of place—and one minute later, he was standing beside it. She would have sworn to that in a court of law.

Well, maybe not. After all, people didn’t just appear. She could almost hear herself cross-examining herself. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed him in her haste to get to her car. Perhaps—

But the hadn’t-noticed thought stopped her. How could she not have noticed this man? He was tall and slim with broad shoulders and narrow hips, and legs that went on forever. He had black hair in need of a cut, gray—or were they silver?—eyes, and smooth skin the color of toffee. His features were an odd mix of harsh angles and soft lines—an angular nose, high cheekbones, and sensitive lips—none of which should have gone together, but which did in a way that made her heart beat faster. She couldn’t tell how old he was; his face was unblemished, but his eyes held a wisdom most young men did not have. He wore a shimmery gray silk suit that accented his broad shoulders, and on his feet, he wore cowboy boots trimmed in real silver.

He was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen. He literally made her stop breathing, although her heart kept beating—so hard he could probably hear it. Color rushed to her cheeks, and she almost put her hands to them, until she realized it would draw attention. He would think her an actual cheerleader, blushing and stammering and completely out of her league.

The man turned, saw her, and his eyes met hers, holding her. She had never felt such intensity in a man’s gaze before. He tilted his head slightly, as if in recognition, and she nodded back.

It took her a moment to notice the snake he held in his left hand. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have noticed if the creature hadn’t turned toward her and hissed.

“Who’s that?” the nasal voice asked. She couldn’t see where it came from.

The man smiled at her, a small apologetic smile, as if to say that he had more manners than his nasal-voiced friend. “Probably someone on the way to her car.”

He was the one with the beautiful voice. It suited him, so rich and warm, deep and smooth. She had been right. It was a musician’s voice.

“Oops,” the nasal voice responded, and suddenly a tiny man stood on the Lincoln’s bumper. Nora would have used the word “appeared” to describe him too, but she didn’t want to. That meant that he had been invisible one moment and visible the next. People didn’t simply pop in. And people who saw people pop in, well, they were considered crazy.

The little guy grinned at her. He was perfectly proportioned, square with a pugnacious face, a chin that curved outward, and a nose that obviously had been broken several times. He wore dark blue jeans and a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves.

He raised his eyebrows, making him look like the inspiration for Puck from
A Midsummer’s Night Dream
. “It’d be nice to have a woman,” he said, ruining the image.

She shook herself. What had she expected? Him to leap on the back of the car and intone,
What fools these mortals be?

His companion rolled his eyes, almost as if he’d heard Nora’s thoughts. Then she realized he was responding to the little man. “Things are different now,” he said. “You can’t just have any woman.”

His gaze remained on Nora’s, his silver eyes sparkling as if he knew that she understood the joke.

She didn’t.

“Excuse me,” she said, and shifted her briefcase again. The thing weighed more than a small child. She walked toward the Lincoln, not really sure if she wanted the attention of these two men. The tall one was spectacular, but his friend was unnerving. Still, she had to go by them to get to her car.

The snake wrapped itself around the tall man’s wrist.

The little man watched. So did the tall one. In fact, he didn’t seem willing to take his gaze off her. She wasn’t really willing to take her gaze off him, but she did, just to prove to herself that she could do it. Besides, that blush had moved from her cheeks into her neck and down her fake silk blouse. She probably looked like a little blond tomato.

She was just past the car when the little man scurried in front of her. She stopped. He moved quickly. If she tried to go around, he would get in front of her again. She didn’t like this game (although she might have if his friend had been playing it).

“Who are you?” the little man asked.

She had had enough. She rose to her full five feet two inches and said, “My name is Nora Barr. I’m a lawyer.”

She added that last so that they wouldn’t mess with her.

The tall man raised his eyebrows and looked at the little man. The little man shrugged. “Told you we needed a woman,” he said. Then he grinned. It looked like a triumphant grin. “And I had a hunch we’d find one here.”

***

It wasn’t that hard for them to talk her out of lunch. They needed an attorney, they claimed, and they had money to burn. Actually, the little guy said that and the gorgeous guy shushed him, but the little guy said that Nora needed to know that, which she did. It allowed her to forget the malpractice doctor and to hang onto her ethics for at least one more day.

Besides, she wasn’t really going to sell out for a single retainer, was she?

She didn’t want to think about that question.

Instead, she found herself daydreaming about the gorgeous man as they rode the elevator to her floor. He was even better looking up close, and he smelled wonderful, a mixture of leather and something intoxicating, something exotic. She took several deep breaths and would have continued until she saw the little guy staring at her with that knowing grin on his face.

“Feeling faint?” he asked.

“Just practicing my calming techniques,” she said. “I have a hunch I’ll need them.”

The tall man laughed, a deep, pleasant sound. “She’s got you pegged,” he said to his companion.

“It wasn’t hard,” she said, as the elevator doors creaked open.

The travel agency had added some potted palm trees to the foyer, such as it was, and so cramped the space that Nora and her would-be clients had to file out of the elevator one at a time. She had to admit that the travel posters gave the corridor a professional appearance which dissipated, of course, the moment she opened her office door.

Ruthie, her secretary, was sitting at the old metal desk, the telephone plastered to her ear. Several law books sat on the edge of the wall-to-wall bookshelves, waiting to be re-filed. Four separate files were open before her, and behind her, the cursor on the old PC screen blinked orange. When she saw Nora, she murmured an excuse into the phone and hung up.

“When does Bryan go back to work?” Nora asked, knowing the others hadn’t quite gotten to the door yet. She wanted Ruthie to be as professional as Ruthie could be when they arrived, and usually Nora had to knock Ruthie off-balance to make that happen.

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