Excerpt - Finding Mr. Just Right
Book 7: Once Upon A Romance Series
“Shut the front door!” The man with wide, round brown eyes stared back at her from the other side of the high, black lacquer reception desk in the elegant waiting area.
Her lips twitched, tugging upward on one side. “That’s me. Madison Avenue at your service.” She clenched the rolled-up resume in one sweaty hand and her black clutch in the other, hoping she’d get one of the coveted interview spots for King’s Department Store.
The sign on the big glass doors had said lunch, but she’d taken her chances and barged in. Thankfully, he hadn’t sent her packing yet.
“Peg, come ’ere. You gotta hear this one.” He called over a very tall woman who carried a clipboard.
Clipboard? In this day and age? And people thought she lived in a time warp.
“Peg, honey, meet Madison Avenue.” He nudged the lady’s arm. “Isn’t that a hoot?”
The woman stared at her. “Holy crab cakes and cinnamon sticks. You sure you don’t want to use Wall Street instead?” A glimmer of a smile broke through.
Madison grinned. “Why not Rodeo Drive or even Broad Way?”
The duo chuckled in unison.
The tension in her shoulders began to ease. “Maybe even Goldilocks or Grace Kelly?” Those were the names people called her over the years. She acted like one—trying out everything until she thought it was just right—and looked like the other one.
“Good ones, sweetie.” Peg smiled widely now, nodding to her blonde hair.
The guy, Rico by his name badge, licked the tip of his finger and drew an invisible vertical line in the air. “Score one, honey. You’d fit right in here. Too bad we’re booked solid.”
Her heart took a nosedive. “For today?” Her voice squeaked. She only had two weeks in Dallas to find her birth mother. Two short weeks wasn’t nearly long enough before she had to be back in Austin to begin another life and turn her back on this one last chance. Seeing the ad in the paper this morning for the job fair at King’s Department Store seemed like angels had answered her prayers.
“No squeezee no moree,” Peg chimed. She turned the clipboard around for a split second and Madison saw all the slots were filled. “Look, Ms. Avenue—that is your real name, isn’t it?”
Smiling tightly, Madison nodded. As far as she knew, that was it.
“Bosses are up to here,” she lifted her hand to her chin, “in applicants. Who’d have thunk that building and opening an entire new wing of King’s for the Charmings Wedding Boutique would bring in every Thomasina, Dixie, and Harriet in town?”
“The hottest jobs in the biz,” Rico agreed.
“Seems like it always was, too,” she murmured. The one and only lead she had was this store. The beautiful satiny lavender baby blanket she’d been wrapped in and placed on the church doorstep in bore the King’s Department Store label. One, thin connection to her real mother.
Now that worn and battered blankie, with the King’s label holding on by a thread, tucked neatly in plastic in the bottom of her suitcase back at the hotel, would soon be no more than a stitch in time and she’d lose the last of her hope right along with it.
What better way to find her birth mother than to get knee-deep in the store itself before it was too late? There were several problems with that logic, but Madison brushed them aside. Time was ticking and fast.
They stared at her, one frowning and one scowling.
Peg snapped her fingers. “Resume?”
The thin paper was damp and she giggled as she unrolled it. “Nerves,” she said. As she handed over the one sheet, she caught the glitter on her finger. As deftly as she could, she slipped her big, sparkly engagement ring off, snapped open her clutch and slipped it in the zippered compartment there.
No one needed to know she was getting married in six short weeks to a state senator’s son, right?
And her fiancé didn’t need to find out she wasn’t really in Dallas to snag the wedding dress of her dreams at the famed King’s Department Store, either.
“Is it hot in here?” Madison fanned herself with her hand. The lies were piling high and she was burning up with shame and guilt. But what other way could she uncover the woman’s name?
“AC broke. We’re in temp quarters with fans whirling away,” Rico explained. He tapped the counter. “For the love of a good—”
Peg jammed his side. “Not now, Rico.”
“What? Drink, Pegster, that’s what I was going to say.” He rolled his eyes, making Madison cover up a smile.
Uncurling the edges of the page, Peg spread out the damp resume on her clipboard. “Hmm…uh oh…nope…”
“But?” Madison had lied. Well, about a few things. Could this woman read it somehow?
Rico stuck his head close to Peg’s and clucked. He glanced up at her, shook his head, and went back to reading. He flicked a finger at one part. They shared a giggle.
Heat climbed up her neck and into her cheeks. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“Worse” Peg mumbled. “Look.” She jerked her head up. “When’s the last time you applied for a job?”
Like never! But she couldn’t tell them that. She dealt in vintage clothing out of her apartment in Austin and basically had started at the ground level, also known as foraging through garage sales and thrift stores and then the Internet since she was a teenager, and spiffing items up and reselling to friends in school and consignment shops.
From rags to riches, some people would say. Well, not quite riches, but a moderate success in a decade. And with her Vintage Vibe website, she did well enough, too.
“Rico, you got the red pen?”
He dug through a stack of papers. “It was right here…got it!” He passed it to her.
Peg, or Pegster, grabbed it like a scalpel and scratched through several places. “Buzzwords, sweetie. Needs pizazz. Punch!”
“I like,” he murmured. “Yes, yes!”
She bit her lip, knowing she should stop since she’d have to reapply the ruby-red color again. “Ah, do you mind me asking what you’re doing?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist, blondie,” Rico said, fluffing his hair. “We’re helping.”
“Why?” For the life of her, Madison longed to kick herself for blurting out the unfiltered question.
“You got style,” he said, nodding his head to her. “From the tips of that gorg hair and the way it curls, to the cute little black and pink number you’re wearing, to the pumps.”
“The package, doll,” Peg said. “You got it. Not everyone does. Believe you me.”
“Thanks. I think.” She whispered the last, feeling like such a fraud. If they only knew it was surface deep and she was here for something else entirely, they wouldn’t be trying to help.
“You got the Rico seal of approval and that’s like winning the lottery.”
“And don’t you know it, too,” he added for good measure, preening.
She swallowed hard. “Does that mean I get the job?”
“Interview, first. Boss 1 and Boss 3 get to choose who’s in or out,” Peg informed her. “We’re a couple of softies compared to them.”
That answer and their pointed looks they shot her made Madison want to turn around and run. How far could she really go with this without getting caught?
Why did she need to know who her mother was anyway? It had only been a burning question in her for a couple of decades. A few more or never wouldn’t hurt. Wrong. It hurts more and more now.
A wave of despair swept over her. Her adoptive mother declined every day, her memory fading and hiding in the recesses of her mind. Safely moved from the assisted living home and now tucked in at the nursing care facility miles away, Madison ached to see her. However, she was to wait a few days for her mother to settle in to her new home. Routine and a sense of normalcy came first and foremost.
Soon Madison would lose her. She already felt the cracks widening from the only mother she’d known and loved. Her heart was cracking right along with it.
There was someone else out there. She yearned to find her, a connection to someone.
Madison gulped. Deep down, she hated not knowing who she’d come from, who she was, or where she belonged.
Did she pass her on the street coming here today? Did Madison look like her? Did the woman ever think of her?
For years now, she’d mask the stab of pain when people would discover she was left on a church doorstep and treat her differently. Eventually, she stopped offering the information. Clamming up worked just fine most of the time.
An image of Mr. Wrong, as she called him, popped to mind. Her first fiancé, a mere young man, didn’t see the reason to be so uptight about it. He let too many things slide off his back and wondered how she could be so sensitive about the whole abandonment thing. Really?
Thank heavens she’d woken up and walked away from him.
She’d learned her lesson. No more TMI! Need-to-know basis only.
Since she’d met the man of her dreams a few months ago, Mr. Right, little fibs to cover the truth oozed out of her and now had turned to big whoppers to his parents and sisters. The perfect family. The one she longed to be a part of. The one who would turn their backs on her if they only knew.
The truth hummed in her veins. That’s why they could never know. If they find out, you’re toast!
But could she really let Jacob marry her without fessing up? Or could she find some ray of hope in the woman who truly was the woman who’d given birth to her? The real deal.
Maybe, finding her would make it all right in the end: she’d welcome Madison with open arms, say what a mistake she’d made, how she’d turned her life around, and would love to have Madison be a part of her world. And all would be well in her life.
As if! Even she knew what a fantasy she’d created.
“Got any pointers for that interview?” Madison asked hopefully, blood pounding in her ears.
Find her before I’m found out as a fraud!
Coming off the elevator, Dexter Snodgrass slipped the test tube in the top pocket of his white lab coat and patted it. “The next hit at King’s Department Store,” he murmured hopefully as he raced to the doorman. This was his shot at getting one step closer to his dream job. “Hey, Benny.”
“Dex, my friend. You look like you’re going to a fire.”
“If it’s anything like the last one, it’ll be a smash. They don’t call you the mad scientist for nothing.”
A grin tugged up the corner of his mouth. “Thanks. Hope so.” He needed this to be the one, so he could move on and go after the new position with both barrels blasting.
“My niece loved that other one. Hey, you’re single. She’s single. She’s a little shy, but a sweetheart. A little mole, but it’s hardly noticeable.” He leaned close. “Some makeup, that’s all. Poof, it’s gone. Why don’t you ask her out?”
Dex backed away.
“My second cousin then. Lives with her family still. Oh, what a great cook.”
“Not ready.” That was the pat answer he gave most people who thought it was their mission to fix him up. He shuttered at the offers he’d gotten over the last few months.
“When you are, you come to Uncle Benny, understand?”
He grit his teeth and nodded. No way would he delve back into the scary waters of the dating pool. Someone was out there. Someday he’d find her. How? When? If you’re working around the clock. Shaking his head at the doubts crowding his mind, he asked, “Seen Charlie? She’s not in her office.”
The older man held up his hand. “Not here.” He pointed down the sidewalk. “New wing. Busy, busy, our boss. Prettier than ever, too.”
Silently, he agreed. There was something about marriage and motherhood that put a sparkle in his friend’s eye. One time, not too long ago, he thought he was in love with her. Now, he might confess to a deep admiration, maybe even a former crush on the owner of King’s.
Foolishly, he’d left King’s when he realized she didn’t return his feelings. Big mistake!
He’d confused respect and a mutual desire to bring King’s back from the brink with caring. Not anymore.
Dex had found work at a few labs in the area. The infighting and jealousy among the scientists spilled over and tainted the honor and integrity of the work. Run, do not walk to the nearest exit!
Soon after, he’d fallen into another trap. With his parents recently deceased and his only cousin hundreds of miles away, he’d ached for a family to call his own.
Dex had been close to the fire—the marriage altar—attempting to disguise his friendship with Candace Hightower as the beginnings of love. Thankfully, Dex had realized his colossal error in the nick of time and backed out.
If he ever did marry, it would be for the real deal. No pretense. No hiding. No lying. And for love. On both sides.
Meanwhile, success in his job took precedence.
He waved to the doorman as he sped out the door to catch Charlie. In business, they were kindred spirits, both excited about the new direction the store was headed in.
They both loved creating something out of nothing.
Now, if only she’d give him the newly created position of director of product development—that would be the true sign he earned what he worked so hard to get back. He wanted King’s to believe in him, believe he was capable of what it took. Worthy of the lofty job.
“I can’t wait to show her this. She’s gonna love it.” This one would convince her to give him the opportunity.
Not only had King’s been remodeled and revamped, but it had expanded, too. He passed the King’s Café, glancing in at the sleek, black interior with vibrant jeweled-colored upholstery. “Lunch. That’s what I forgot to have.”
Shaking his head, he decided after he presented the new scent to his boss, he’d hop over to get a bite. He approached the new wing, parts of it still under construction. His cousin Shane and his company were in on the build; maybe he’d find him there today and they could grab some grub together.
Finally, Dex reached the entrance and dug in his pocket for the test tube. Flinging open the door, he barged in and was immediately hit in the face with a purse.
“Watch out,” Peg and Rico called out in unison.
“Too late,” he said. The pain throbbed to life. Just as he went to touch his forehead, someone on the other end of the purse twirled around and banged into his hand, upending the test tube. Glass cracked. Liquid seeped. “My perfume!”
“My dress!” a sweet feminine voice cried.
A very soft, very warm woman pressed herself to his chest with his hand stuck between their mashed bodies. His fingers, barely holding the bottom of the tube—which was now practically in her cleavage—were squished up against her rather lovely breasts. Heat crawled up his neck.
“Ah…I was just telling them…and I was demonstrating with my purse…my shoe caught. I’m so sorry.”
Once she’d gained her feet and he set her away from him, Dex surveyed the damage. He had a few nicks and cuts. Nothing major. The remnants of his test tube, in shards in his hand and some splayed at their feet, mocked him. “Are you hurt? There’s glass.” The front of her dress was splashed. The perfume! All dumped down her chest! Panic set in. “Don’t move!”
“I’m all right,” she said, brushing her shiny blonde hair off her face. Looking down, she groaned. “But my clothes aren’t.” She tried to pull the wet fabric away from her skin.
He couldn’t lose this. Not now! Not after all the hard work he’d put into this. Not with the deadline so close! “Take it off. Quick!”
“Dex, you sly devil you,” Rico said, coming over with a few paper towels, gingerly taking the shattered glass pieces from Dex and handing them off to Peg. “Trying to get Madison out of her skivvies already.” Rico went to mop up the mess on the young woman.
“No, don’t touch her!”
“Uhhh…territorial. Dex, I never knew you had it in you.” He nudged Dex’s shoulder. “I like this side of you.”
“That’s the only sample I have—”
“Ew!” Peg and the girl named Madison said together.
At that moment, Dex looked up and caught her glance. His heart stopped and then pounded. It had to be from the crash. He stilled. Then he gulped hard. “You’re even more beautiful than Grace Kelly was.” God, why did he say that?
“Really? She’s my idol.”
He liked the way her cheeks turned pink. Warmth crept up his neck. “I loved her in that movie with Cary Grant.”
“That’s my favorite, too.”
Suddenly, Dex became aware of Peg and Rico standing to his left and looking from him to Madison and back again.
“Smooth.” Rico smiled.
“Holy penguins and potato chips,” Peg said. “The mad scientist?”
Coming back to the moment, Dex pointed at her. “Don’t move a muscle. You’ve got what’s left of my perfume on you and you’ve got to come see Charlie with me.”
“Charlotte King? The owner of King’s?” Her hand shook as she went to touch her neck.
“Stop! It could be the last drop.”
Rico clapped. “A love child. King’s very own. Born and raised here. How sweet.”
“I’m serious, Rico. I’ve been working on this for weeks, down to the last second to get it just right. Do you know how many batches I threw out before I got this one? It’s due to go into full production in a few days. The launch is next month.”
“Intense,” Rico murmured, touching his arm.
He calmed down. A little. “Madison, is it? You have to do this for me.”
She frowned. Her green eyes seemed to be filled with mixed emotions.
Something in him tugged. Hard. And sharp. He dismissed it as another whim, another beautiful woman, who happened to look stunningly like the picture his dear old late dad had in the garage, still rolled up in the cardboard tube. Growing up, he’d sneak in there for a peek from time to time. “Please. I know you don’t know me. But this means everything to me.” Stop begging, Dex!
“Intense with a capital I,” Peg said to Rico.
“How?” Madison glanced down at the now ruined dress and back up at him again.
“Better make it snappy, Dex. Charlie’s got appointments lined up for the rest of the day and tomorrow and the day after that,” Peg chimed in.
“Come with me,” Dex said, taking the paper towels Rico handed him blindly from behind the desk and wiped the trickle of blood from his fingers.
“Go. Shoo!” Rico sighed. “I’ll clean up the rest of this. Can’t have our beautiful hot pink carpet ruined! We’ve got people coming in zero point zero seconds. Can’t have King’s looking like a mess, now can we?”
“Hurry,” Peg said. To Rico, she slammed the resume into his chest and nodded to the computer behind her. “Fix this. And pronto.”
“I don’t type.” At her warning look, he held up his hands. “Alright already! I’ll try. Moi? Type?” He shivered.
Peg rolled her eyes at Rico. “I’ll squeeze you in. But you owe me, Dex.”
“Got it, Peg. Whatever you want.” He took Madison’s elbow and steered her toward the makeshift conference room. She was petite and dainty and he shouldn’t be thinking about how good it felt to be this close to her.
“Create something superduper for Austin for his birthday in a couple of months,” Peg said. “That man of mine smells like heaven already, but you come up with some magic and you’re my bestie for life.”
“Hey, that’s my job,” Rico called after them.
“Oops! Second bestie. Don’t forget I got you front row seats at my sweetie’s next Dallas concert.”
“Are we done here?” Dex raised his eyebrows, looking at her.
“Aye-aye!” She saluted him and charged down the hall, leading the way.
“Ah…Dex, right?” Madison asked, trying to keep up with his long strides. “I don’t really have to take off my dress, do I?”
Slowing a little, Dex smiled at the thought. He would love to know what she was wearing under that outfit. “That would be ideal, but, we’ll just have her smell you. Your neck. Where you touched.” Nodding to her breasts, he said, “And the rest of you. Where the perfume is, of course.” Wish I could be the one to try it, he thought.
Concentrate, he warned himself.
Promotion. Heading the product development department: that was the goal. “No distractions,” he muttered. “No veering off course. Never again.”
It was heady, literally and figuratively, standing in front of the owner of King’s Department Store, Charlotte King, and the head of King’s, her brother-in-law, Griffin James.
They were legends. Giants in the industry.
If it hadn’t been for their meteoric rise in the last few years and bringing King’s back from the brink of closure and creating it into a world-renowned enterprise, Madison would never have this fixation with coming here. Splashed in the news, papers, and online, it had caught and held her rapt attention.
Surely, it couldn’t be the same store? But she researched and found there had been and still was only one King’s Department Store in Dallas. The one and same where her baby blanket had originated from.
Now, finally meeting the daughter of the original owner, Charles King, Madison felt like she faced true royalty.
Her head swooned. Her breaths hitched. Would she pass out? Thank goodness, Dex, strong and solid, still held her upright.
The two were going through the stacks of applicants and discussing the merits of one or the downside of another.
“Boss 1 and 3.” Peg held up her fingers and snapped them. “Got a second?”
“Not really,” Griffin said, meaning it. He barely spared Peg a glance.
“You need to lighten up. Smile more. You know, joke. J-o-k-e. You’ve heard that word before, right?”
There, she drew a slight grin for a split second. “After all this time working with you, Peg, why am I still surprised at your wit?”
“At least you don’t scowl at me anymore. Well, not much.” She reached back and clutched Madison’s arm, half dragging, half pulling her forward. Madison wobbled on her heels. Dex drew closer, apparently protecting his precious scent. “Before you say a word, I know, you’re booked solid. Front to back and back to front. But Rico and I think Madison here needs to have a shot.”
Charlie glanced up quickly and then did a double take. “Dex? You all right?” Her frown didn’t take away any of her beauty.
“I got the formula down, Charlie! Unfortunately, Madison is wearing the last of it.” As he caught both her and Griffin’s full attention, Dex rushed out, “Peg can fill you in later.” He tugged on Madison’s other arm. “Just smell her…ah…” he waved a hand at her. “Neck and breasts…I mean chest area.”
“Dex, are you sure the fumes aren’t getting to you?” Griff asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Come on, Griff. This is a breakthrough. It’s the scent for Priscilla’s perfume.”
Peg jabbed Madison with an elbow. “Each sis, starting with Charlie, and then Francie, got their own perfume—both smash hits, may I add—now it’s Prissy’s turn. Oh yeah, also known as Griff’s wife.”
Dex turned to her, his blue eyes holding her stare. Somehow she sensed he needed her to say something. Madison gulped hard. “It’s divine.” It was. Light. Floral. Intoxicating. Holding up her right hand, she said, “I swear.”
His wide smile snatched her breath away. Or was it just the perfume vapors? She yanked her gaze to the head honchos. Gluing a smile on her lips, she faced the bosses.
“Five minutes for the perfume,” Griff said, shoving back his chair and standing up.
“Stretch and smell break,” Charlie agreed, grinning and following his lead.
With Charlie’s dark hair held back and impeccable outfit of a classic pencil thin charcoal gray skirt and lavender silk blouse and matching high heel shoes, Madison felt almost starstruck at her presence. Her warm smile was trained on her and her hand held out.
“Charlotte King, but please call me Charlie.”
“Madison Avenue.” She wished she’d wiped her clammy palm before shaking first Charlie’s hand and then Griffin’s.
“Madison Avenue?” Dex, Charlie, and Griffin asked in unison.
Peg giggled. “Yep, that’s her name. Don’t wear it out.”
“Your mom had a sense of humor.” Dex grinned.
All she could do was nod. No, her wonderful adoptive mother did. She’d longed to work on the famed street, but working as a church secretary she could never quite get the funds together to move to New York. The closest she got was naming the child she’d found after the place she’d read so much about.
“So, Madison,” Charlie began, “let’s get a closer whiff of you.” She moved near, taking it in. “Hmm…Nice blend, Dex. The notes…”
“Thanks. I merged Prissy’s favorite scents to her personality.”
Griffin, big and imposing, stepped up. Leaning down near her temple, he inhaled. “Subtle.” He backed away. For a tall man he moved with ease and grace. “In my vast experience, that is not a word I would use for my wife.”
“You’re right, Griff.” Charlie turned to Dex. “Has she had the opportunity to sample this? Not just a sniff test, but a wearing?”
Madison felt him stiffen at her side. “Not yet.”
She cringed for him, realizing she wore the sample. He seemed like a nice guy: studious, dedicated, and eager to please. In her book, she liked his passion about his work along with his good looks and blond hair. Pulling her stare away from his profile, she glanced at Charlie and Griffin shaking their heads.
“Sorry, Dex, can’t sign off on something so important to the King brand and Priscilla’s name, with so little.” Griffin delivered the bad news.
“At the very least, run this by Prissy,” Charlie agreed. “If she likes it, we let the perfume rest to merge all the scents. And then we can pick this up next week after we’re through with interviewing job candidates and settled back in our own offices.”
“But, Charlie. I know this is the one.”
“If you feel that passionate about it, then follow the process and prove it’s the one, Dex.”
Madison sat in a straight back chair on the opposite side of the table from the duo. Her palms were damp, her throat parched, and her heart hammering.
This was her chance. Don’t mess it up!
Rico stormed in, waving a piece of paper. “Here it is! How silly we misplaced Madison’s resume.” He displayed it on the table as if it were a secret treasure map, gently smoothing out the wrinkles and pointing to certain sections.
“We get it, Rico,” Griffin said. His unspoken words of now get out of here hung in the air.
“I’m going! You don’t have to be pushy about it.” Walking out, he halted in front of Madison with his back to them, giving her a wink and a thumbs-up sign.
She forced a smile and nodded. Why would the woman named Peg and Rico go to all the trouble of recreating and retyping her resume for her? Hopefully, it would be the key to opening the door to get into the great King’s Department Store.
Charlie scanned the one page first and then slid it to Griffin. “Madison Avenue?” Charlie asked. “Is that really your name?”
She giggled. “I get that a lot. It’s real.” Why couldn’t she stop giggling?
Griffin frowned. “Are you all right?”
“Nerv…nerves. I just want to work for King’s so badly that I’m anxious.” Groan. I’m blowing this.
“I didn’t know there were vintage clothing awards.” Charlie pointed to an item.
“There is?” No, there wasn’t! What had they done? “Oh, that. Nothing.” She chewed her bottom lip to stop the constant giggling, thinking not only would she have to reapply the lipstick now, she’d have to get a new lip, too. I wonder if King’s sells those!
“Start-up company…” He scowled now. “You’re an entrepreneur, Ms. Avenue. Why would you want to be a clerk at King’s? It’s an entry-level job at best, while you have a business.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense. Unless, you’re here for ulterior motives.”
Madison felt the blood drain from her face. Stall! “What?” Her giggles returned in full force. “Of course…not.” Liar! “King’s is top of the line in retail. I’m a huge fan.” Double groan.
“Look, Madison,” Charlie said, taking over. “Your skills and capabilities on paper, at least, are impeccable for a business owner. Not a department store clerk. You are seriously overqualified for the position. I’m sorry. The answer is no.”
“No? But this means everything to me.” How can I find my birth mother if I don’t start here first? And not as a customer, either.
“No from me, also,” Griffin added.
What was this? American Idol or something? “Isn’t there someone else I could talk to?”
“Francie is on a buying trip. So there’s no one. Thank you for coming in. Now, if you could please walk yourself to the door, our next appointment is waiting.” Griffin’s words were all businesslike, but there was a steel thread in his voice.
Getting up on trembling legs, Madison went to shake their hands, and then realized how clammy her palms were. Instead, she waved and nodded. A wave? Seriously. Save me from myself! Slowly, she forced her unsteady legs to carry her to the door.
How could this have happened? How could she just take this and walk away from her only chance at delving into King’s records to discover who her birth mother was?
At the door, she turned, asking, “No second chances? Pretty please.” Heat rushed to her cheeks, burning twin spots there. Begging now?
Charlie smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Thank you for your time.”
With her head down, Madison slunk out of the room and down the hallway. A hollow ache thrummed to life in her chest. Tears stung her eyes. She blinked fast, trying to stop them from falling.
Was she ever going to find her birth mother?
Dex paced the small area, dodging people as they came in the door, checked in with Rico or Peg, and took one of the seats lining the perimeter of the area. “Full house,” he muttered, skimming over the many gazes trained on him. The young men and women soon lost interest and dug out their cell phones, staring blindly at the screen.
“Come on, Dex—hop, skip, and skaddle,” Peg chirped. “You’re a distraction. What, did all that perfume go to your head or something?”
Rico snorted at that as he accepted the paper from the latest arrival. Young. Somewhat nice-looking. Business suit. She smiled, the fake plastic one Dex had glimpsed from the others behind him. They looked the same to him. Stale. Boring. Duplicates. Or was it copycats? Either way, there was nothing unique about any one of them.
He shivered. Where was originality when you needed it the most? King’s didn’t hire fresh-faced college grads who didn’t know the first thing about making change or how to treat a valued customer.
Down-to-earth, hardworking people who truly cared about why they were here at the great King’s store: that’s who they needed to hire, just like they always had.
“What’s Charlie thinking?” he hissed to the duo, checking off the names on the forms with the names on Peg’s roster.
“Beats me,” Peg said. “Not our usual types.” She frowned, suddenly looking concerned. “Rico, take over for me. I got to give Boss 1 and Boss 3 the heads-up.”
“Better you than me. Griff’s not going to be happy. Nope, not one bit.” Rico tsked. “There’s more to someone than what they present, he says. Yeah, right? This bunch?”
Dex went to resume his pacing, took three steps, and then halted at the dejected Madison dragging her feet down the hall.
A poker of hurt stabbed him; she looked so tiny and wounded. “They didn’t.”
She lifted her head. Her eyes, wide and green, were filled with unshed tears. He felt something hard and primitive crash through him, like a sucker punch. That beautiful smile, well, it was gone. Vanished. And her chin wobbled. “They hated me,” she whispered hoarsely.
“They said that?” Shock vibrated through him. Oh, Griff could be direct, a little too direct and straightforward at times, but never mean or cruel. And Charlie didn’t have an ounce of hate in her entire body.
“Close enough,” she said, swiping at the fast falling tears.
“”But you have I-T!” Peg threw her head in the direction of the makeshift lobby. “Heads over shoulders or is it shoulders above…”
“Never mind,” Madison said, sniffing. “If only there were another way.”
“Today, you can help me.” Dex touched her upper arm. Warm. Soft. He shook his head. “Come with me to see Priscilla. She can take a whiff of the perfume you’re wearing. If she gives the okay, then Charlie and Griff will agree. You’re my only chance.”
“And she is?”
“Youngest King sister. Griff’s wife.”
“Great idea, Dex,” Rico said. “She’s at the barracuda’s house today. Still trying to please that woman’s idea of design.” He shivered in revulsion. “No taste.”
“Who’s the barracuda?” Madison took a small step back.
“Don’t blame you. She’s as bad as it sounds. Well, she used to be,” Dex amended. “Mrs. King. Now, Mrs. King-Baxter. But she ran this place for years.”
“Geez Louise, almost into the ground,” Peg muttered, and then plastered a fake grin on her pretty face.
“The former owner?” Madison’s eyes grew wide, her tears gone now. She sucked in a shaky breath. “Dex, I’d be happy to go with you.”
Something warm and wonderful spread in his chest. “Thanks. My angel.” Why did he say that? This is business. “I mean, my hero.” Too late.
A delicate pink bathed her high cheekbones. If possible, it made her look even more beautiful than she already did.
Peg and Rico exchanged looks and raised eyebrows. He scowled at the pair.
Continue reading Finding Mr. Just Right…