Happy ever after, p.13
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       Happy Ever After, p.13

         Part #4 of Bride Quartet series by Nora Roberts
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  “No, I mean outside that.”

  “Not really. I could.”

  “This kid’s been working for me a few months. Good mechanic. He’s got potential. I figured out a while back he can’t read. I mean, he can, but barely. Enough to get by, enough to fake it.”

  “Illiteracy’s a bigger problem than a lot of people realize.You want to help him learn to read.”

  “I’m no teacher, and hell, I wouldn’t know where to start anyway. I thought about you.”

  “I could help with that, if he’s willing.”

  “He’ll be willing if he wants to keep his job, or I can make him think that if he balks.”

  “How old is he?”

  “Seventeen. Nearly eighteen. He’s got his high school diploma—mostly, from what I get—by paying other kids to get him through, or charming the girls to. I’ll pay the freight for it.”

  “No freight, Mal. I’d like to do this.”

  “Thanks, but if you change your mind on the kid or the freight, no hard feelings. I’ll tell him to call you, and set it up.”

  Malcolm took a swallow of beer, nodded to where Parker crossed from one end of the Ballroom to the other. “So, tell me something I don’t know.”

  “Sorry?”

  “Parker.Tell me something about her I don’t know.”

  “Ah . . . Um.”

  “Jesus, Cart, not like dirty little secrets. But if she’s got some, I’ll get you drunk and work them out of you. I mean stuff like what does she do when she’s not doing this?”

  “She mostly always does this.”

  “For fun. Do I have to go get you a beer just for this?”

  “No.” Carter drew his eyebrows together in thought. “They hang together, the four of them. I try not to speculate on what goes on when they do, because some of it probably involves me. Shopping. She likes to shop.They all do.”

  “That doesn’t come as a surprise.”

  “Well . . . She’s a big reader, one with very eclectic tastes.”

  “Okay, that’s a good one.”

  “And . . .” Obviously warming to the task, Carter accepted the beer Malcolm snagged off a passing tray.“She and Laurel both like old movies.The classic black-and-whites. She goes to fund-raisers and charity events, some of the club functions. She and Del split those up. It’s a Brown thing.”

  “Noblesse oblige.”

  “Exactly. Oh, and she’s interested in doing a book.”

  “No shit?”

  “None. A wedding book, with each of them doing a section on their particular areas, and her tying them together. Which is pretty much how Vows runs. And I have to assume you’re not compiling this data on her out of idle curiosity.”

  “You’d be right about that.”

  “Then you should know, nobody compiles data outside of the NSA like Parker Brown. If she’s interested in you, she’s got a file on you.” Carter tapped his temple. “Up here.”

  Malcolm shrugged. “I’m an open book.”

  “Nobody is, even if they think they are. Gotta go, that’s Mac’s signal. Ah . . .” He held the barely touched beer out to Malcolm.

  At loose ends, Malcolm wandered downstairs, and found Mrs. Grady paging through a magazine with a cup of tea at the kitchen counter.

  “Coffee’s fresh if you’re after it.”

  “Wouldn’t mind, unless you want to go up to the party and give me that dance.”

  She laughed. “I’m not dressed for a party.”

  “Me, either.” He took a mug, poured himself some coffee. “Hell of a party though.”

  “My girls know how it’s done. Did you get your dinner?”

  “Not yet.”

  “How do you feel about chicken pot pie?”

  “Fondly.”

  She smiled.“It so happens I have some I’d be willing to share.”

  “That’s lucky for me, as it so happens I was hoping to have dinner with the woman of my dreams.”

  “Parker’s busy, so you’ll have to settle for me.”

  “There’s nothing about you that involves settling.”

  “You are a clever one, Malcolm.” She gave him a wink and a poke. “Set the table.”

  She got up to put the casserole in the oven to heat and noted he hadn’t corrected her about Parker being the woman of his dreams.

  She enjoyed his company. It was true enough, she admitted, that there were qualities in him that reminded her of her own Charlie. The combination of easy charm and rough edges, the casual strength and the occasional glint in his eye that said he could be dangerous when he chose.

  After they sat and he’d taken the first bite, he grinned over at her. “Okay, it tastes as good as it looks. I cook a little.”

  “Do you now?”

  “Takeout and nuking get old, and I can’t always hit on my mother for a meal. So I put something together a couple times a week anyway. Maybe you’ll give me the recipe?”

  “Maybe I will. How’s your mother?”

  “She’s great. I bought her a Wii. Now she’s addicted to Mario Kart and Bowling. She kicks my ass in Bowling, I kick hers on Mario Kart.”

  “You’ve always been a good son.”

  He shrugged it off. “Some times better than others. She likes her job.That’s important, liking your work.You like yours.”

  “Always have.”

  “You’ve been with the Browns ever since I heard about the Browns, and I guess before that.”

  “It’ll be forty years next spring.”

  “Forty?” It didn’t hurt her vanity to see his genuine shock at the number. “So you were, what, eight? Aren’t there laws about child labor?”

  She laughed, pointed a finger at him. “I was twenty-one.”

  “How’d you start?”

  “As a maid. Back then, Mrs. Brown, who’d be Parker’s grandmother, had a full staff, and was no easy woman to work for.Three housemaids, the butler, the housekeeper, cook and kitchen staff, gardeners, drivers. There were twenty-four of us as a rule. I was young and green, but needed the work, not just for my keep but to get through the loss of my husband in the war. The Vietnam War.”

  “How long were you married?”

  “Almost three years, but my Charlie was gone for a soldier nearly half of that. Oh, I was so angry with him for signing up. But he said if he was going to be an American—he’d come over from Kerry, you see—then he had to fight for America. So he fought, and he died, like too many others. They gave him a medal for it. Well, you know what that is.”

  “Yeah.”

  “We’d been living in the city, and I didn’t want the city when I knew Charlie wouldn’t be in it with me again. I’d been doing for a friend of the Browns, and she remarried and was moving to Europe. She recommended me to Mrs. Brown, the one who was, and I started on as a maid. The young master, Parker’s father, was near my age, a bit younger when I started on. I can tell you he didn’t take after his mother.”

  “I’ve heard a few things that tell me we’re all better off for that.”

  “He had a way of navigating the gap between his parents. He had a kindness to him, a shrewdness, yes, but a kindness. He fell for the young miss, and that was lovely to see. Like a romantic movie. She was so full of fun and light. I can tell you when the house came to them, it was full of fun and light—and that hadn’t been the case before, not in my time. They kept the staff on who wanted to stay, retired those who wanted to retire. As the housekeeper at the time was ready to go, the young miss asked if I wanted the position. It was good work for good people in a happy home for a lot of years.”

  She let out a sigh. “It was my family who died on that day, too.”

  “I was in LA, and I heard about it, even before my mother told me.The Browns made a mark.”

  “They did.This house, this home is part of the mark.”

  “Now you run it pretty much solo.”

  “Oh, I have help with the cleaning. Parker leaves that for me to decide when I need it, what I need.We still have
gardeners for the grounds, and Parker and Emma deal with them for the most part. And Parker?” She stopped, laughed. “It’s the same now as ever. No one has to tidy up after that girl.You’re lucky if she isn’t organizing you to within an inch. I get my winters off in the island breezes, and any time I need between. And I have the great pleasure of watching two children I saw take their first steps leave their own marks.”

  She scooped another helping in his bowl. “You remind me of my Charlie.”

  “Really? Want to get married?”

  She wagged the spoon at him. “That right there would’ve rolled just as quick off his tongue. He had a way with the ladies, regardless of their age. It gives me a soft spot for you, Malcolm. Don’t disappoint me.”

  “I’ll try not to.”

  “Are you after my girl, Malcolm?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Good. Don’t screw it up.”

  “I take that as a green light from your corner, so how about some tips on navigation?”

  She shook her head. “I don’t think you need them. I will say she’s all too used to the men who go after her being predictable. You wouldn’t be. The girl wants love, and with it the rest she grew up with. That kind of partnership, respect, friendship. She’ll never settle for less, and shouldn’t. She won’t tolerate dishonesty.”

  “Lying’s just lazy.”

  “Which you’ve never been.You’ve got a way of nudging people to tell you things about themselves without telling much of anything about you and yours. She’ll need to know you.”

  He started to say there wasn’t much to know, then remembered his open-book comment to Carter and the response. “Maybe.”

  She waited a beat, watching him. “Do you see much of your uncle and aunt?”

  His face closed up. “We stay out of each other’s way.”

  “Tell her why.”

  He shifted, obviously uncomfortable. “It’s old business.”

  “So was all you wanted to hear from me over chicken pot pie. The old goes into making us what we are, or what we’re hell-bent on not being. Now go on back to the party, see if she can make use of you. She appreciates useful.”

  “I’ll help you clean up.”

  “Not tonight. Go on, get out of my kitchen. Get in her way for a while.”

  CHAPTER TEN

  HE GOT IN HER WAY. IT WAS HARD TO COMPLAIN WHEN HE MANAGED to get in her way and be useful at the same time, but still . . . he got in her way.

  By the end of the evening, she wasn’t sure what to do with him or about him. Enjoy it, and him—that was her friends’ advice. Yet how could she enjoy something, or someone, who made her so uneasy?

  She told herself to concentrate on the job, on her work, on the details of the wedding, and managed to do so.Through most of it. When she helped escort guests out at the end of the evening, Parker congratulated herself on having avoided, patched over, or negotiated around the many pitfalls inherent in tonight’s particular event.

  And Drunk Uncle Henry slipped past her radar.

  “Beautiful! Beautiful wedding, beautiful girl.”

  “Thank you, Mister—”

  “Beautiful!” He wrapped Parker in a boozy hug that included his busy hands on her ass.

  Before she could break away, she spotted Malcolm striding up. Her first thought was oh, no. She didn’t need a white knight who’d very likely punch first and ask questions later.

  “Mister—”

  “Hey, Pops.” Malcolm’s remarkably cheerful tone matched the quick grin on his face.“You’re going to want to move those hands. How’re you getting home?” Since the man was already unsteady, Malcolm easily peeled him off Parker. “Have you got a ride?”

  “I can drive.” Henry swayed, grinned, lifted a thumbs-up sign. “One hundred percent.”

  “I think that’s a hundred proof.” Malcolm maneuvered Henry so that the man’s arm slung around his shoulders. “Hey, have you got your keys? I’ll hold on to them for you.”

  “Ah . . .”

  “Hey, Dad!”A man hurried down the steps, sent a quick, apologetic look toward Parker. “Sorry, he got away from me. Let’s go on out, Dad. Mom and Anna are coming right down. My wife and I are taking him home,” he explained to Malcolm.

  “Okay. I’ve got him. I’ll help you out with him.”

  “Beautiful wedding!” Henry exclaimed on the way out. “Got to kiss the bride.”

  “And any other female under a hundred and twenty he could get his hands on,” Mac commented. “Sorry, I was just heading down, and didn’t move as fast as Mal when you got the DUH treatment.”

  “I lived.” Parker blew out a breath, tugged her jacket into proper lines.

  “Em and Laurel are helping the stragglers find misplaced whatever. Jack and Del and Carter are doing the security sweep in cleared areas.We did good.”

  “We did great. I’ll start sweeping this level if you want to take over here.”

  “Good enough.”

  Parker moved into the parlor, through to the Great Hall and the Solarium where the subs had already removed and transferred flowers, tulle, lights, candles.

  Here, for the moment, it was quiet, shadowy, with the wistful scent of flowers still lingering in the air.They’d dress it all again in the morning for Sunday’s more intimate event, but for now—

  “Henry’s poured into the backseat of his son’s Lexus,” Malcolm said from behind her.

  She spun around, watched him move in through that shadowed light. Though he moved with hardly a sound, the room no longer seemed quiet. “That’s good.Thanks for the assist.”

  “Easy enough.You thought I was going to clock some drunk old guy for wanting a squeeze of a very nicely toned ass.”

  “It was a momentary concern.”

  “For the future? Clocking happy drunks is a cheap shot. If I’m going to punch somebody, I like it to be worthwhile.”

  His voice remained easy, casual, so why, she wondered, did that wistful, flower-scented air suddenly seem electric, suddenly feel dangerous along her skin? “So noted.”

  “Plus, as it’s a really great ass, it was hard to blame him.”

  “I thought you liked the legs.”

  “Baby, there isn’t an inch of you that isn’t prime, and you know it.”

  She tilted her head, doing her level best to match his easy tone. “That didn’t sound like a compliment.”

  “It wasn’t. It’s just a fact.” He started toward her in the shadowy light, and she had to fight the urge to step back.“What do you do after one of these to wind down?”

  “It depends. Sometimes a group after-event debrief. Sometimes we all just limp off to our own corners to—Wait,” she said when his arms locked around her.

  “I thought we’d try another kind of winding down.”

  He took her mouth in a flash of heat that was more threat than promise. His hands slid down, slid skillfully over her until thrills—yes, dangerous thrills—shot over her skin. Under her skin.

  She told herself to break it off, then as that heat sizzled into her bones, wondered why.

  “I want my hands on you, Parker.” Not casual now, not easy. Here was the recklessness she’d sensed under the calm. He took his mouth from hers, skimmed his teeth along her jaw.“You know that, too.”

  “That doesn’t mean—”

  “Let me.” He slipped a hand between them to flip open the buttons of her jacket.

  “I have to—”

  “Let me,” he repeated, and swept his thumbs over her breasts.

  Her breath snagged as the sizzle shifted to ache, and the ache to raw, stark need.“I can’t do this now. I’m not going to bed with you when—”

  “I didn’t ask you to bed. I just want to touch you.” While he did, he watched her face, watched her face until his mouth came to hers again, all fire and demand.

  “Come out with me tomorrow.”

  “I . . . Yes. No.”Why couldn’t she think? “I have an event.”

  “Next night y
ou’re free.” He glided a hand down the outside of her thigh, up again until the muscles went to water.“When is it?”

  How was she supposed to form a rational response when he was turning her body inside out? “I think . . . Tuesday.”

  “I’ll pick you up at seven. Say yes.”

  “Yes. All right, yes.”

  “I’d better go.”

  “Yes.”

  He smiled, and when he jerked her back against him, she thought oh God before she went under again.

  “Good night.”

  She nodded, said nothing else as he let himself out the Solarium door.

  Then she did something she never did after an event. She sat alone in the dark composing herself while her partners handled the bulk of the work.

  AS PART OF HER ROUTINE, PARKER SPENT HER POSTEVENT SUNDAY evening on paperwork, for Vows, for the house, for her personal business. She cleaned up her e-mails, her texts, voice mails, reviewed her calendars—personal and business—for the next two weeks, reviewed the schedules of her partners, made any necessary additions or changes.

  She rechecked her list of errands to run the next morning.

  She didn’t consider it busywork. She made it a habit, a strict one, to start every Monday with a clean desk.

  Satisfied, she opened the file on the book proposal she’d been toying with, did some tweaking. Almost ready, she thought, to show to her partners, get their input, have a serious discussion on moving forward.

  By eleven, she was in bed with a book.

  By eleven ten, she was staring at the ceiling thinking about an entry on her calendar.

  Tues, 7:00: Malcolm.

  Why had she said yes that way? Well, she knew exactly why she’d said yes, so it was ridiculous to ask herself the question. She’d been sexually flustered and
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