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Soft instrumental music floated through the restaurant, mingling with murmured conversations and creating a cozy, intimate atmosphere. In a corner booth, a lone gentleman accepted his glass from a waiter and returned his attention to the business journal before him.
Suddenly, a clamor arose from the foyer as the maitre’d intercepted a frantic young woman. The door swung shut behind her, emitting a gust of air that sent her hair bouncing around her face, which added to her frenzied look. Hurriedly, she explained her situation to the maitre’d, talking mostly with her hands.
The man in the booth gave the woman two quick glances before resuming his reading. In her black evening dress, heels, and jewelry, sho looked ready for a night out. Probably some silly woman panicking about her reservations. Conversations resumed throughout the restaurant.
Someone cleared his throat, and the chatter ceased as the maitre’d ushered the woman forward. She addressed the room at large. “Who owns the Mercedes parked out front?”
Quickly, the man scooted out of the booth and stood, smoothing his suit jacket. “I do. Why?”
“ I think I might have scratched it,” she confessed.
He felt the blood leave his face and quickly return. He had just bought that car!
The woman fluttered her hands in distress. “I’m sure it’s just a tiny scratch. You probably can’t even see it! You just sit down and enjoy your--”
But he was in motion, ignoring the patrons craning their necks to watch. Heels clicked behind him as the woman followed.
He had already marched up to his car before he realized the night was too dark for him to see any supposed scratches. He turned to find the car-wrecker holding a pocket flashlight out to him. Muttering thanks, he made as thorough a perusal as he could; the narrow beam revealed nothing but smooth, midnight-blue paint. He sighed, relieved, as he returned the flashlight to its owner. “No harm done, looks like. Still,” he flicked his fingers at the gray car to the right, which was parked a bit close to his, “ you might try to be more careful.”
She smiled, teeth gleaming in the skinny beam of light. “I have a confession to make. That’s not my car next to yours. I’m parked over that way.” She nodded toward the corner of the building.
“What!” An older couple frowned at him as they passed by, and he tried to lower his voice. “Then why on earth--?”
“I wanted to know who owned the pretty Mercedes.”
He scowled down at her. “I guess you got your answer. Anything else you’d like to know? I’m sure if you set fire to the restaurant, you’ll find out who owns it.”
Back stiffening, she answered. “I’d like to know your name.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. MacLamore. I’m glad I didn’t scratch your car.”
“That makes two of us.” They stared at each other for a moment, neither sure what to say. “Since you’ve gotten what you wanted from me twice now, there’s something I’d like.”
“I’d like to buy you dinner.”
She arched her eyebrows. “Sorry, I’m meeting people here.”
“A drink then? To tide you over.” Was he imagining it, or was she starting to fidget?
“I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I.” He raised three fingers, scout-style. “No alcohol. Promise.”
Her eyes flicked from his face to his fingers, then across the parking lot as if searching for her expected “people”. Finally, she looked back at him. “All right. Why not?”
Keith ushered her to the door, holding it so she could step through. Once again, conversation halted as people watched them weave past tables, then picked up at a faster rate in their wake.
Once his guest was seated, Keith slid into his half of the booth and caught a roving waiter’s eye. The skinny young man hustled over. “What may I get for you tonight?” he inquired, slipping a pad and pencil from the pocket of his black apron.
When his guest didn’t speak, Keith ordered another Coke for himself. He looked at her. “And the lady will have--?”
“Coke’s fine, thank you.”
“Two Cokes. Any appetizers for you?”
They exchanged a glance. “Not right now, thanks,” Keith said.
The waiter snapped his notebook shut and promised to be right back with their drinks.
“So what do you do, Mr. MacLamore?”
“Besides treat strangers to soda?” He grinned, and she seemed to relax somewhat. “I manage a publishing firm. We’re looking into expanding, and this area is home to several potential collaborators.”
“Oh, I love books! I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”
He grimaced as the waiter reappeared and set their drinks down. “Please don’t tell me you’re about to whip a manuscript out of your purse.”
She quirked her lips in frustration. “I knew I should have grabbed my rough draft before I left home.”
“Thank nothing! You’re missing out on the next great work of literature, Mr. MacLamore.”
From there, the conversation rolled on to hobbies, dream jobs, nightmare jobs, and favorite reading material.
“I must have interrupted you earlier. What were you reading?”
From the seat beside him, Keith lifted his magazine into view and laid it on the table between them, open to the article he had abandoned. “My secret passion: Business, Economics, and Other Scary Words.”
“So you’re a closet economist.” She raised an eyebrow.
Keith shrugged. “I work with words; I play with numbers.”
“Where were you when I took Economics 102?”
As they laughed over the joke, Keith revised his opinion of the woman sharing his booth. He’d thought she was just a silly socialite who could not drive, but the keen perception demonstrated in her conversation argued otherwise.
“Ooh. What’s the joke?”
Both Keith and his guest jumped at the sound of another voice. Looking up, they saw a man grinning down at them. Keith noted a strong resemblance between his guest and the stranger, who, apparently, was not a stranger, judging from the way his guest was reaching up to grasp the man’s hand. “What took you so long?” she whispered.
“The baby gave Marcia a slight wardrobe malfunction. But I see you weren’t left hanging.”
“Nope. Keith and I have been enjoying each other’s company. Keith,” she smiled at him, “this is my brother, David Oxford. Dave, this is Keith MacLamore.”
David’s face brightened as if he were laughing at some private joke. He and Keith shook hands. “Nice to meetcha, Mr. MacLamore. Thanks for keeping my kid sister out of trouble.”
“Likewise. And she’s no trouble at all, unless you count how we met.”
“This ought to be interesting. If the family weren't waiting on us, I’d plop down for the whole story.”
“I’ll fill you in later.” David’s sister opened her purse.
Keith reached across the table, palm out in a stop that gesture. “Hey now, I offered to buy you a drink, remember? Coke’s on me.”
“Are you sure?”
She clasped the purse shut and smirked “Thank you very much, but you got me all wrong. I was reaching for my manuscript, not my wallet.”
Keith snorted. “Thought you left it at home.”
“I just remembered that I copied it to a flash drive and chucked it in my purse this afternoon.”
He chuckled, getting to his feet as she exited the booth. “How about I take that and tell you what I think next time we see each other?”
“Shall I scratch your car again?”
David’s brows shot up.
Keith shook his head. “Once is enough. I’d like to take you to dinner in an unscathed vehicle.”
She mirrored her brother’s expression. “Dinner? You don’t even know my name, Mr. MacLamore.”
“And there you’d be wrong.” Plucking his magazine off the table, Keith thumbed through the pages until he found the article he wanted and handed the issue over to her. “That particular page has seen heavy traffic since this issue arrived in my mailbox.”
David’s sister scanned the page. “You read my work!”
“I never miss an article.”
“If you knew who I was, why didn't you say something?”
“I didn't figure it out until you asked me what I had been reading; then I remembered all the times I’d seen your picture next to your name.” He reached over and tapped the small photo for emphasis. “You confirmed it when you introduced your brother. Why didn't you introduce yourself, Miss Oxford?”
She fidgeted, caught. “I didn't want the MacLamore Publishing mogul to match the name on my manuscript to the name of the nut who’d pretended to scratch his car.”
“But you had no idea who I was when you came up with that ploy.”
“No. But earlier today, I mailed a clean copy of my manuscript to your firm, and when you introduced yourself, I just--panicked. I apologize for deceiving you, Mr. MacLamore.”
“Able to make up stories on a dime and admit when she’s wrong? I see a career in fiction ahead of you.” Keith crossed his arms and grinned at her. “I don’t feel lied to, Miss Oxford; and I can’t wait to discuss more of your work over dinner. If you’ll go with me.”
Miss Oxford stared up at him, the magazine hanging limp from her fingers. Then, suddenly, she gave him a blissful smile, chagrin forgotten. “I’d love to.”
“Excellent! Only this time,” Keith leaned forward conspiratorially, “I’ll be sure to drive my pick-up, just in case.”