Never Ever Been Better
LENGTH: 50,450 words, 220 pages
RELEASE DATE: September 2019
The last thing Iris needs is a man with his head in the clouds.
Lincoln Walker is a nice man—far too nice to date someone like Iris. The man has rich, beautiful, and successful business women wanting to date him. She calls tending bar a career.
He’s naive enough to find her charming which makes Iris more determined to keep her distance. Iris is not a fool or naive. Nice men don’t date broke women staying at hostels. Her mum may have raised her to be a survivor, but her worst enemy is herself.
Imagine Cinderella never getting to the ball. Imagine Cinderella turning forty and still scrubbing fireplaces for a living. That would be the fairytale version of Iris’s life.
She’s got no time to waste on dating Prince Charming—or rather, Prince Walker. The man owns his own kingdom and yet chooses to fly balloons for a living. Iris chooses to take down rowdy drunks in bars. Cupid better not shoot an arrow her way or she’ll take him down too.
In her life, love and romance are temporary. That’s all Iris can afford.
Read Chapter 1
Iris laughed at the food the waiter set on the table. It was pale, white, and sprinkled with something that looked like cinnamon but smelled like pepper. The chef had also littered the top with an herb that resembled lawn cuttings. She couldn’t help wrinkling her nose a bit and feeling glad she wasn’t the one picking up the tab for dinner.
Iris waved at the plate. “That’s not at all what I imagined it would be when I saw it on the menu.” She lifted an eyebrow when Della laughed at her. “Seriously. My mum used to make me eat bland porridge for breakfast before going to school. It looked a lot like that, only without the green stuff.”
Della grinned. “You didn’t complain the last time I bought you dinner at one of Chef Baker’s restaurants. I thought you’d enjoy trying out a second one. This one is very modern and has a lot of vegan offerings.”
Vegan? She had never even considered a diet so restrictive. To cover her true reaction, Iris raised her glass of wine—a very good wine, she noted—and took a sip. She considered herself brave in many areas of life, but trying strange Yank food wasn’t one of them.
“Perhaps I was a more desperate woman then,” Iris teased.
Della chuckled at the face Iris was unconsciously making. “I’ve gotten this before. It’s a hummus made with both chickpeas and cauliflower. I don’t know what Chef Baker puts in it for seasoning but I swear it’s delicious. Don’t be shy about trying it. Grab a pita triangle and dig in.”
“Neither of you are eating. Something wrong with the food tonight?”
Both women immediately looked up into a handsome male face. Chef Jack Dozen’s current frown of displeasure took nothing away from his attractiveness. Della chuckled nervously which was her typical reaction with men that belonged to her friends. Both Trudy Baker and Jack Dozen were very blunt people. Iris was the epitome of polite but could be blunt when pushed. This could go bad very quickly.
Della searched her mind for a way not to throw Iris under the bus. “Our appetizer just arrived, and we were still talking. You know how women friends are.” She looked at Iris and nodded to Jack with her head. “Iris, this is Chef Jack Dozen. He’s engaged to Chef Trudy Baker who owns the restaurant.”
“Oh,” Iris said and smiled because she wasn’t a dummy and the man was drop-dead gorgeous. She promptly scooped up a bite and chewed without tasting a thing. “Yummy,” she said, after she swallowed.
Snorting in disbelief, Jack reached across the table, grabbed a piece of pita from their basket, and boldly dipped it into their plate of hummus. He tossed the bite into his mouth and made a face. “No wonder you can’t eat it. It needs salt,” he grumbled, pointing to the salt shaker.
Iris giggled like a schoolgirl as she passed the salt shaker to him. Jack Dozen probably had that effect on all females. “You certainly get an A-1 rating for customer service, Chef Dozen. I’ve never had anyone fix my food for me at the table.”
Jack salted the hummus and grabbed another pita. He tried another bite. “Better,” he said, winking at Della to stop her from looking so worried. “After I have a little talk with the kitchen staff, I’ll make sure it comes off your bill.”
“Oh, that’s unnecessary…” Della hurried to say, but hushed when Jack held up a finger.
“I owe you and Mariah for finding my wonderful, soon-to-be daughter-in-law for my slow-to-date son. They adore each other and I refuse to serve you bad food. You need more wine too. Let me find your waitperson.”
Della and Iris watched Jack’s attractive backside move through the crowded tables. Every female in the place was watching as well.
Iris spoke her mind because it just had to be said. “That man is a man all the way to the bone. No woman in her right mind would toss him out of bed for eating crackers.”
Della chuckled at the old cliché which was spot-on where Jack Dozen was concerned. It came across on the TV screen as well. “No woman in her right mind would say no to anything Jack asked of her, but he wasn’t dating at all before he hooked up with Trudy.”
Iris chuckled. “So you and Mariah matched Chef Dozen up with your Chef Baker friend who owns this restaurant?”
“No,” Della said with a laugh. “Jack Dozen was never a client. We didn’t play Cupid in Jack and Trudy’s case. We were merely the bow that held Cupid’s arrow.”
“Explain that to me if you can—the metaphor, I mean,” Iris said with a giggle.
Della lifted one shoulder. “Since there was a full write-up about their entire relationship in a local newspaper, I don’t think I’m sharing any secrets. We set up Chef Baker—Trudy—on a date with Jack’s adult son, Brandon, who had specifically asked to go out with her. Brandon, who was in our database, talked Trudy into giving his father, Jack, a chance.”
“Goodness,” Iris said with a chuckle.
Shrugging, Della chuckled too. “The other dates we found for Trudy turned out to be duds which rarely happens. Jack’s son paid our fee purely to play matchmaker. As you probably gleaned from Jack’s comments, Brandon found a terrific woman via his matches at The Perfect Date. They’re engaged to be married now.
Iris dug into the hummus again. It really was better with salt. It was amazing how often the smallest detail made all the difference. She chewed thoughtfully before responding. “I get it now. The dating agency was the bow and Chef Dozen’s son was the arrow.”
Della grinned. “And you’re smiling instead of rolling your eyes at my story. This is why I’d like you to work with us, Iris.”
Iris took another sip of wine. The hummus paired with it perfectly. “So Chef Dozen and Chef Baker knew each other before she joined The Perfect Date as a client?”
“Yes, although no one knew that but her and him. Trudy’s a decade older than Jack. He was once her cooking student. Georgia said the man had a hard time convincing Trudy that their age difference didn’t matter. According to Brandon, Jack had loved her for years and never got over her.”
“Sounds like the perfect plot for a romantic movie,” Iris said with a laugh.
Della laughed. “A lot of my work seems like that to me. Sometimes people chase true love only to find it’s been right under their nose all along. I can definitely say that about Elliston. He was one of Mariah’s earliest clients.”
“Sounds juicy. Tell me more,” Iris ordered.
“I set Elliston up with most of his dates, including an older woman who he really liked. They’re good friends now. He went through a period of not dating at all until he ended up with me. Mariah set me up with him because he needed an emergency date for a business event. None of our clients were available on such short notice. Long story short, we ended up falling in love on our first date.”
Iris sighed. “I’m fairly sure there’s no Prince Charming in my life that I’ve missed—young or otherwise. Blokes ask me out all the time. Chemistry is either there or not for me. I don’t date much anymore because most men only see a tall blonde with good-sized breasts and acceptable curves. They aren’t interested in knowing that inside this body I’m a real woman trying to figure her life out.”
Laughing, Della scooped up a bite. “Everyone’s journey to finding true love is different. That’s what makes it so fun.”
“That’s what makes it so frustrating,” Iris retorted with a smiled. “I imagine you must find it very satisfying to help people find that one perfect person.”
Della nodded in reply as she picked up another pita triangle. “I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living, even when some clients end up following their own path to true love. A happy ending is always great no matter how it happens. Mariah has never had any problem staying in business. Lots of busy, professional people need dating help these days.”
Iris nodded. “I’m sure your agency is a real godsend to those who are unlucky in love, like your Lincoln Walker fellow.”
Della focused on eating as she thought about Lincoln. The man posed a challenge all right. “I have high hopes for Lincoln. He’s a terrific guy. He deserves his perfect match.”
Iris chuckled at Della’s determination. “Like our blah looking appetizer, I suspect handsome Lincoln just might need a bit more man salt to become appetizing to women. The man’s a real looker if you can get beyond those stiff clothes he favors and that too polite personality.”
Chuckling, Della picked up her wine and sipped. “Man salt? You always make me laugh, Iris. Before she left last Friday, Mariah said I could use my best judgment in allowing you to work for us. When I started with Mariah, I was in a paid internship situation. I’ve decided the best way to hire you without hiring you would be to tell people you’re doing an unpaid internship. You’d have to sign a confidentiality agreement and swear to keep everything you hear or see in the office completely private.”
Iris smiled wide. “Like that advertisement on your telly? What happens at the dating agency stays at the dating agency?”
“Yes. That’s exactly right,” Della confirmed. “Want to start tomorrow?”
Iris shrugged. “I’ve already unpacked my suitcase in your lovely little flat so my answer must be yes. I have two dresses. Maybe I can find a thrift shop and get a couple more to wear to work. You and your boss run a swanky place. You won’t want your Office Greeter looking like a bag lady.”
Della chuckled. “I don’t think it will matter what you wear. Clients will love your accent.”
Iris rolled her eyes a bit but took the comment in stride. She’d heard it a million times in the last few months. “Probably not as much as I like the privacy of your flat. Compared to the hostel, your place is the bee’s knees. It’s like having myself a vacation to be there all alone.”
Della sighed as she smiled. “I really like you, Iris. That’s why I will make my offer to you one more time. Let me buy you a ticket home. I would feel righteous about doing so. Mariah and I will hire someone for the office eventually. You don’t have to do this.”
Iris studied the nearly empty hummus plate before answering. Della’s gracious offer would indeed be the simplest answer to her ongoing dilemma. Why couldn’t she just say yes?
She could go back home, find work, and send Della regular installments until she’d paid the kind woman back. She’d already saved half the money for her ticket, but her gut kept whispering not to leave yet. She didn’t think it was pride holding her back. So what in bloody hell was her problem?
Their entrees arrived in the middle of her reflection. The food looked absolutely fabulous. When their nervous waitperson scurried off, Iris sighed in contentment before she looked at Della. “I’m grateful for the offer and tempted. My problem is that I’m not tempted enough. For some reason…” Iris paused and tried to find the proper words to express her strange reluctance. Mostly she was a decisive person who did what needed done.
Della grinned across the table as she ate. “It doesn’t sound like you’re ready to leave the states yet.”
“Brilliant of you, Dr. Livingston. That’s the very thing I’m chewing on, other than this great food,” Iris said with a nod.
Della picked up her fork and dipped her head to hide her pleased reaction. Lincoln might get lucky in love yet. “Are you looking for closure from the jerk who ditched you? Or wondering if there’s a real adventure for you at The Perfect Date?”
“Maybe it’s a bit of both,” Iris admitted.
Della nodded as she lifted her face and smiled for real. “You seem to be listening to some inner voice telling you that your destiny is here and not back in the UK.”
“That too,” Iris confessed softly. “After what’s happened to me, that’s bonkers, right?”
“No. It’s always good to listen to your gut,” Della said firmly. “And I’m not ready for you to leave because I need to study you.”
“Study me? Definitely not something you want to hear from your favorite Shrink over dinner. Your ticket home offer just started to look better.”
Della giggled, something she rarely did, but plotting was such fun. “My instincts tell me you’re the key to figuring out the perfect match for Lincoln. You’re obviously his type since he wanted me to chase you down. To make Lincoln happy, I will have to find your clone within our database. Maybe you can help me track someone down for him.”
Iris snorted. “Me? Find my clone? Good luck with that one, Della. Mum says the universe broke the mold after it made me.”
Della’s smile when she answered was wide. “In that case, I will accept my life lesson gracefully. I promised Mariah to curb my tendency to get overly involved. Apparently, chasing down a courier and bribing her with dinner to date my client falls into that category.”
Iris waved at her food and laughed. “You feed me like a queen. I have no regrets that you chased me down. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me since I got to the States.”
“Let’s hope that optimism of yours holds for a few more weeks,” Della said with a grin.
She especially hoped Iris stayed optimistic while Della figured out how to help Lincoln woo the reluctant English woman who’d been every bit as unlucky in love as he had been.
Read Chapter 2
“Yes, Mr. Landers. Della has you on her calendar for two in the afternoon next Wednesday.” Iris listened to the man’s comments and fought not to sigh. “No, sir. I’m not a client myself. I’m just an unpaid intern. My time here is temporary. I’ll be leaving in a few weeks.”
This was the cover story Della had helped her concoct. It worked like a charm to justify her presence, but the novelty of the story had dulled for her with the constant retelling of it.
“Wonderful. We’ll see you next week. Cheerio, Mr. Landers,” Iris said, disconnecting with relief.
Nearly every male client ended up asking her out. It baffled her that she could have her pick of rich men solely after one conversation with them on the phone. The reason she wasn’t tempted to date any of them suddenly opened the door and stepped inside. If there was a single temptation she faced at the moment, it was in finding a man who had turned out to be a kindred soul. The timing though was simply awful. She was on the rebound from a jerk and he was Della’s personal project.
“Hello, Mr. Walker. I didn’t expect to see you again this week.”
“Come on, Iris. Call me Lincoln. My father is Mr. Walker and Mr. Walker thinks his son is nutty for having a hot-air balloon business. Every time I hear someone call me mister, I expect a business lecture to follow.”
“I’m in mister mode sitting back here. Are you on the calendar, Lincoln? Let me just take a look-see,” Iris said, checking her computer screen. Della had seen the handsome man twice already this week. Why was he here for a third visit?
Lincoln lifted a shoulder. “Della texted and said she wanted to see me again if I could make it in. I think she has a list of new dating prospects to go over with me.”
Of course there was a new list. Lincoln’s classically handsome face would always draw new prospects and his manners were beyond keen. His clothes often dulled his appearance like they were doing today, but Iris noted his masculinity still made itself known. Every time she’d seen him sharpened her awareness. Why didn’t any of the females he dated stick?
“Yes, I do see you have a meeting at four with Della,” Iris said, wondering how someone who flew a balloon always looked so permanently pressed. Didn’t the wind muss him like it did a normal person?
“Good. Glad I didn’t imagine the appointment,” Lincoln said.
“I never implied that,” Iris protested.
Lincoln chuckled. “I wouldn’t have been offended if you had. You’re fun to tease.”
Backing up his statement, Lincoln’s smile was friendly and his eyes were lovely with those crinkles at the corners. If he ever hoped to keep a female interested long-term though, the man needed rebranding into a far less starched version of himself. Iris wondered if Lincoln even owned a pair of jeans.
Shaking her head to keep her tongue from saying what it shouldn’t, Iris rose from behind the desk. “Let me tell Della you’re here.”
It hadn’t taken her long to figure out who was on a first name basis with her two bosses. Mostly it was long-term clients who were still hopefuls. To the rest, they were Dr. Livingston and Dr. Bates.
A bit uncomfortable as Lincoln’s gaze never left her as she moved to head down the hallway, Iris tapped on Della’s office door and told her Lincoln was here. Reversing her steps, she went back to the lobby where Lincoln still stood. His gaze was direct on hers now, but there was a strange look in his eyes today. It was like he was making some decision about something. His stare made her a little nervous.
Iris cleared her throat before speaking. “Della’s on the phone. She said she wouldn’t be long. I’m sure she’ll come fetch you when she’s done.”
“That’s fine. I’m not in a hurry.”
Iris watched Lincoln stretch out in a seat where he could see her full on. His long legs took up a lot of space as he got comfortable.
She sat back down and folded her hands on top of the desk. “How’s the hot-air balloon business doing these days?” Lincoln smiled at her question. Her heart lifted at his pleasantness.
“We’re doing good. I don’t think I told you, but I call my business Hot Air Adventures. We have three locations. I’m thinking about creating a fourth. We stay busy at all of them.”
Iris smiled. “I’m trying to imagine your customers—all those braves souls willing to go up in a balloon. No fear of heights there.”
Lincoln laughed as he shrugged. “It’s not all that scary. It’s actually fun. We do a lot of weddings, engagements, and anniversaries—all kinds of personal flights for couples. One location does nothing but cater to businesses who buy bulk tickets for their employees. The third one is our advertisement vehicle. We create special balloon parachutes with their business names on them. That’s a good advertising investment for those who can afford it.”
“What would the fourth location focus on?” Iris asked.
Lincoln chuckled. “Are you really interested or just being polite?”
Iris chuckled. “Being polite is a job requirement here, but in your case, I actually am interested. Please continue.”
Lincoln shrugged at her politeness. “I want to have one location that covers some beautiful ground that can focus solely on romantic flights for couples. They say romance is dead, but I don’t believe it. The demand for those kinds of flights is growing. Eventually, I’d like to quit piloting and just run the business. I used to be in marketing. It’s been fifteen years since I left my full-time desk job. It’s time I put some energy into my own work instead of other people’s.”
Marketing? Iris nearly laughed. She considered telling Lincoln that he should definitely focus on marketing. He should start by rebranding himself and wearing an expensive polo with his business name on the lapel. The polo would do a better job of showing off those wide shoulders of his.
Della showed up to retrieve Lincoln before she got brave to say what she was thinking, which was probably just as well. As soon as the two of them headed down the hallway, Iris turned to the computer and searched the database for Lincoln Walker’s bio. She wanted to listen to his video, but was afraid they might overhear it so she had to settle for reading the tidbits of his life. Marketing? That was quite surprising.
Her attention was deep into Lincoln’s story when the office door opened. It was nearly closing time and there was no one else scheduled. One whiff told her the person who’d stepped inside the office had been drinking heavily. Used to dealing with drunk blokes, she stood up and walked around the desk to head him off.
“Hello,” Iris said, staring hard at the man.
“I’m here to see Dr. Bates,” he slurred.
“Dr. Bates is not in today. Her partner is with someone and I don’t think they expect anyone else. Did you have an appointment?”
Iris watched the man make a horrid face.
“No. I want nothing to do with this stupid business. I only came to tell Dr. Bates to take my wife out of her dating database. My wife will date no one and I want your stupid boss to guarantee that or else she’ll suffer the consequences.”
“I’m sure there’s been some sort of mistake,” Iris said as she stared harder at the man. “The Perfect Date doesn’t cater to married clients. All the clients in the database are single. It’s a hard and fast rule as I understand it.”
“Well, you’re not doing a good job of enforcing your freaking rules then,” he said, stepping closer. The guy poked her shoulder with a stiff finger. On the third poke, he mustered up his nerve again. “Now, scoot your lying ass down the hallway and tell your pimping boss lady to get her ass out here and talk to me. Ignoring me is not in her best interests.”
Tired of playing nice, Iris grabbed the guy’s poking finger and twisted it around until she’d flipped him face-down onto the desk. She held him still with a move that didn’t tax her strength much.
Wanting to keep things quiet, she leaned against him and spoke directly into his ear so her words would reach his brain. “I don’t know who you are or what you think you know, but I assure you Dr. Bates does not take on married clients. She’s an honest, straight-forward person. You must have your information wrong.”
“Let me go or I will have you arrested for assault. You’ll be deported. Don’t think I can’t tell you’re a foreigner,” he yelled.
Iris grunted as she held pushed down harder. “You assaulted me first and I’m only defending myself from a drunk looking for a brawl.”
“You have no right to restrain me. Let me up.”
“No,” Iris replied, feeling her hackles rise. “I bet your wife divorced you, right? And let me guess, someone told you she was starting over and dating. That’s when you realized she was never coming back to your sorry self. I can tell you that no amount of drinking will make one bit of difference. You might as well go home and sober up because what you’re doing will not change things.”
“She’s my wife. I don’t care what any court of law says,” he protested.
Iris turned her head as Della popped her head out of her office and widened her eyes at her restraint of the man. The drunk guy’s yelling had obviously disturbed her meeting with Lincoln. Bullocks.
“Iris? What’s going on?” Della asked while surveying the scene.
Iris smiled to let Della know it was okay. “You should probably call the police, Dr. Livingston. This bloke’s been tossing back more Dutch courage than he knows what to do with and he’s made threats toward Dr. Bates. I’ve had no luck reasoning with him.”
Iris sighed when Della ran back into her office. Now she’d scared the nicest person she’d ever met. Trouble seemed to follow her these days like a piece of toilet paper stuck to her heel.
“Turn loose of me or I’ll show you more than just threats. I’ll kick your ass back to wherever the hell you came from,” the guy sprawled over the desk yelled at her.
“No, sir, I don’t think you will,” Iris replied calmly, holding firm against his struggling.
Iris winced when Lincoln burst out of Della’s office and jogged down the hall to her. Bloody hell. What a fine pickle this was.
Iris sighed because her hope for a quiet resolution blew away in the same direction as the drunkard’s liquor-scented breath. “Everything’s fine, Lincoln. He’s not being a problem—not anymore.”
“I can see that,” Lincoln said, lifting one classic blond eyebrow. “Did you have Akido or Ju Jitsu training?”
“Both,” Iris admitted in a quiet voice. “It’s a necessity when you work the pubs where I come from.”
Her distraction with Lincoln’s observations accidentally gave the drunkard just the opening he’d been trying to find. The guy broke her hold and swung his arm hoping to land a hard, angry punch her direction. Instead of hitting her though, the punch caught Lincoln in the gut.
“Bugger me,” she said as she stared at Lincoln.
He grunted slightly before glaring at the man. Then Lincoln’s eyes darkened.
Della’s jaw dropped in shock when she got to the lobby. She quietly announced that the police were on their way.
Not responding to Della, Iris focused on Lincoln. She understood what Lincoln’s angry look meant because she’d seen it on nearly every bar bouncer she’d ever worked with at one time or the other. Instinct shouted that they were all about to learn something Lincoln Walker had not shared in his bio if she let him retaliate for that direct hit.
“Now Lincoln…” Iris began, watching the storm brewing larger in Lincoln’s expression.
Lincoln reached out, grabbed the shorter man’s shirt collar with both hands, and lifted him off his feet.
This time Iris was the one whose jaw dropped. Della was hustling to open the door for the people they heard running up the stairs outside their office.
“Put me down. Put me down,” the guy begged as he dangled. “I’m sorry. It was a mistake. I meant to hit her not you.”
“Do you think that’s better? You never hit a woman.”
Iris grimaced when Lincoln spat the words and shook the man. She heard the material of the guy’s shirt ripping. Then she squeaked when Lincoln shook him again and made the rip worse. She put her hand on Lincoln’s arm when the guy called out in alarm and started babbling about his ex-wife again.
“Come on, Big Fella. The pitiful bloke’s not worth all the paperwork he will cost you,” Iris whispered, running her fingers over one of Lincoln’s tense arms. Good lord, the man had muscles. “I’m fine. Della’s fine.” She ran a hand over Lincoln’s mid-section. His abdomen was a series of rock ledges under her fingers. “Did he hurt you with that punch?” she asked, though she already knew the answer was a bloody hell no.
Lincoln snorted before he turned to Iris. “No. Did he hit you? Because I distinctly heard him say he intended to hit you instead of me. Della heard it too. We need to press assault charges against this idiot. Being drunk is no excuse for trying to hit a woman.”
“Uh…” Iris said, then bit her lip when two officers moved inside.
“We’re here, sir. Set him down now,” one of the policeman ordered.
Lincoln shoved the guy toward them. “He gut-punched me. He intended to do it to…”
“…me,” Iris interjected, rubbing Lincoln’s arm. “He said he meant to punch me, but Lincoln stopped him. Hello. Thanks so much for coming so quickly.” Iris said with as cheery a smile as she could manage. She quickly extended her hand to the closest officer within reach. “My name is Iris. “I’m Lincoln’s fiancée. I was waiting for him to get out of a meeting and this guy came in here drunk.”
“She’s lying,” the guy said. “She works here. She was defending the owner. Arrest her. She’s an illegal alien.”
Iris bit her lip. If the drunk guy talked too much out of turn, Dr. Bates might get raked over for having someone working at her office without a work visa. The intern story Della concocted might not hold up to a legal light being shined on it.
Lincoln leveled him a glare. “I owe you a gut-punch, buddy. Are you trying to collect it?”
“She greeted me when I came in here and told me her pimping boss wasn’t in, hotshot. She’s not your freaking fiancée,” the guy insisted.
Iris waved a hand and chuckled. “He came in here reeking of whisky and ranting wildly.”
“It was not whisky. It was a hundred twenty dollar glass of bourbon…”
“Right—sorry,” Iris said dryly, glaring at the drunk. Her mouth twisted as she looked back to the policeman. “The guy came in here reeking of expensive bourbon. I tend bar where I’m from so I’m well-acquainted with drunkards. He demanded to see Dr. Bates. I told him she wasn’t in as far as I knew. Then he starting ranting that he would not let his ex-wife date. The woman is well shed of him, I’d say. Bugger needs locked up until he sobers up, if you ask me.”
“We need to take everyone’s statements,” the second officer said calmly without commenting on her rant. He put a hand on the first officer’s arm. “Read him his rights downstairs and put him in the car while I take their reports. Charge him with public drunkenness, disturbing the peace, assault, and terroristic threatening. Find out if he drove himself here. We’ll sort the rest out in a few.”
“I did nothing wrong. All I wanted was for them to remove my wife from their list. She’s not supposed to be dating. I made a simple and very reasonable request,” he explained as the cop dragged him away.”
“Ex-wife…” Iris said firmly to his retreating back. “And shame on you, you big bully. What would you have done if Dr. Bates had been here? I shutter to think of you punching her. You’ve given Dr. Livingston enough of a scare. The woman’s gone white. Good thing Lincoln and I were here to stop you.”
When Lincoln’s arm slid around her to support her story, Iris stepped closer. Bloody hell, she was in it deep now.
Passing off a bad guy to the police was far more of an adventure than she’d bargained for.
Read Chapter 3
The police took over Della’s office to talk to each of them alone.
Della went first since she wasn’t directly involved. Being only a witness saved her from a lengthy discussion.
Then Iris told the police her version of the story in which she leveraged facts as best she could without incriminating herself. She was glad she could be adamant about not being a true employee at The Perfect Date. Sure—she might have neglected to mention her cash-paying courier job, but would plead forgetting it, if that rose to the surface. She told them the truth about breaking up with the boyfriend responsible for her being in the US. She also told them about meeting Lincoln in the office, and that to show her gratitude for finding her soul mate, she’d been occasionally helping out while they looked for someone to hire.
Her police report bio wasn’t the whole truth, but it was at least eighty-six percent of it. None of them should be penalized because some client’s ex-husband turned out to be a threatening jerk.
While Lincoln was being interviewed, Elliston rushed into the office and instantly swept Della up from her seat and into a hard hug. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you? I saw him in the police car downstairs.”
Della hugged back and then pushed away to laugh. “The guy never laid a hand on me. She-Ra over there had him across the desk by the time I figured out what all the yelling in the lobby was about.”
“She-Ra?” Elliston asked.
Iris sighed and raised her hand. “I don’t know who She-Ra is, but I think Della’s talking about me. You get drunk blokes like him in bars all the time. I had it all under control until he punched Lincoln. The storm came up quickly, and for a moment there, I thought it would blow through here before the coppers could stop it.”
“I saw Lincoln’s eyes from across the room,” Della said. “Lincoln definitely had a Jekyll and Hyde moment after the guy punched him. I’m surprised you could stop Lincoln from punching the guy back.”
“Who’s Lincoln?” Elliston asked.
“My client—former client now,” Della said with a groan. “He and Iris just got engaged. Guess that means no more dates for Lincoln.”
Elliston stepped back and tilted his head at Della. “Engaged? He came in to see you and got engaged to She-Ra all in this one afternoon?”
“Yes. It was all very sudden and spontaneous,” Iris said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “And entirely my idea. I’m afraid I’ve caused Della to be in a real pickle by forwarding my love life at the office.”
Elliston rubbed his nose and snickered. Even a TV detective could figure this ruse out. “Uncle John and Mariah on the way home?” he asked.
“No. They just left last Friday,” Della said, giving Elliston a hard stare. “I haven’t called them and I don’t intend to. Mariah and John deserve a real vacation. I thought I’d handle this situation myself and maybe gloss it over when they get back as no big deal. The guy was drunk and mad at his ex-wife. If he hadn’t assaulted Lincoln and made threats about Mariah, we’d all be home by now.”
“Honey,” Elliston began, but his sense of humor won out over his concern. He chuckled and shook his head. “Uncle John is the best cop in Cincinnati. He busts other cops for a living. There will be no glossing this over. He will ferret out every tiny nuance and detail until he’s satisfied that no one like that guy every darkens The Perfect Date’s door again. Now, me? I’m way different. Come Monday morning, I will install a security camera in the lobby and another outside the door in the hallway. You and Mariah will have to get every client’s permission to be recorded coming and going from now on.”
Della sighed and fell into the seat she’d been in when Elliston came through the door. “You’re right. I hate it, but you’re right,” she said and put her face into her palms.
Elliston sighed at Della’s distress. “I’m sorry this happened, but it will be okay. How’s your client doing?”
“Lincoln’s in my office talking to the police now. We’re waiting for him to finish,” Della said.
“I’ll tell you how Lincoln really is. Della’s client is very, very angry,” Iris said matter-of-factly. “And buff, evidently. The man is toned, muscled, and hiding a body to die for under his starchy clothes. The guy’s gut punch didn’t even phase Lincoln. It would have doubled me over before I could have recovered enough to round on him and clock his jaw.”
Della ran a hand over her face and laughed at the irony. She had worked out a plan to make sure Lincoln came by several times so it would expose Iris to him. But this? This was definitely not what she’d had in mind for getting them together. Now Iris was faked engaged to Lincoln. Della knew Iris had lied trying to keep The Perfect Date from falling under the microscope of potentially hiring illegals. What a mess.
“If Mariah was here, she’d be laughing really hard at me right now. And after she stopped laughing, she’d tear the skin from my backside. Then—well, then she would probably fire me.”
“If it makes you feel better, I will only laugh,” Elliston said, having heard enough to know his devious Della was playing sneaky matchmaker. “Laughing beats back my urge to do ugly things to the idiot locked in the back of the police car double-parked at the curb downstairs.”
Iris giggled. “Whoa. You’ve nabbed yourself a real hero there, Della. Lucky you.”
“Yes, and Elliston’s buff too. Plus, he has tribal tats on both arms. When we go visit my parents, I make him roll up his shirt sleeves. My manipulating mother hates tattoos. Elliston intimates her into being on her best behavior.”
Elliston rolled his eyes as both women giggled over their discussion. He was long beyond getting embarrassed over Della’s revelations. “Glad I compare favorably to your buff client,” he said.
“You don’t compare to anyone,” Della said sincerely, looking up into her future husband’s eyes. “I don’t even see other men that way anymore. All I see is you.”
“Honey,” Elliston said as he walked to the chair next to Della and sat down. His stressed to the max future wife leaned against his shoulder. “I love you. This situation was just a wake-up call about stepping up security. Even a drunk will notice a big old security camera and have second thoughts when he sees a sign posted outside your door. I swear it.”
“He’s right,” Iris said firmly. “What if I hadn’t been here? What if you’d been alone? You need the added security, Della. Martial arts take a lot of time to advance to what I can do to a bloke. It took me years.”
“Mariah and I typically lock the door when we’re alone. Clients know to text us to be let in. I figured with you in the lobby and someone nice like Lincoln coming by…” Della lifted a shoulder and sighed. “A camera is a good idea. The giant sign outside the door is good too.”
The three of them stood when Lincoln and the policeman finally exited Della’s office. Lincoln walked straight over to Iris.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
Lincoln nodded and stepped into her. His mouth on hers surprised a tiny groan into escaping her throat. She should have expected someone his age to know how to kiss that well. He pulled away from her mouth and pulled her into his arms. That was unexpected too. It felt so—normal.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Lincoln said. “I was so mad when he said he meant to hit you instead of me. I’m sorry if I scared you with my temper. I held him in the air to keep from hitting him back.”
“You didn’t scare me,” Iris promised. “I was just worried a little. Drunk guys are stupid. If he has any conscience at all, tomorrow when he sobers that guy will feel terrible about what he did today. The important thing is that none of us got hurt. I’m sorry he hit you.”
Lincoln nodded. He turned to the policeman. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
The policeman nodded and looked at Della. “Dr. Bates—is she the one dating John?”
“Yes,” Elliston answered for Della. “Mariah Bates dates my Uncle John. They’re out of town.”
“Tell John to call if he has questions.”
Elliston nodded. “I’ll definitely do that.”
And then it was suddenly over. Well, almost over. Iris sighed and blew out a breath. “Bloody hell,” she groaned softly.
“We need dinner,” Lincoln said, turning to Iris. “And you and I need to talk.”
Iris winced. “How bad did I muck things up saying we were engaged? It just… popped out. He was throwing around threats and all I could see was him causing all the trouble he could.”
Ignoring Iris, Lincoln turned to Della. “Iris isn’t getting money from The Perfect Date, is she?”
Della shook her head. “No. She works another job. She’s minding the desk here in exchange for a place to live—strictly a personal arrangement I have with her. I couldn’t handle her living in a hostel. Iris will have to tell you the whole story. It’s not my place.”
“If Mariah and you aren’t paying her, then my story stands good,” Lincoln said, glancing at Iris again. “This is not a problem, Iris. I’ve always been a big believer in short engagements. We’ll have one of those. It won’t be my first time.”
Iris felt her mouth drop open, and then the sputtering started. “Engagement? I am not marrying you, Lincoln Walker.”
Lincoln snorted. “Marriage? No, we don’t have to go that far. We just have to stay engaged for a while. Your visa apparently runs out in about four weeks, right? That’s what the police said.”
Iris nodded as she rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Yes, and I swear I didn’t mean to do this. That stupid guy put me into flight or fight mode. I fought, but then afterwards I wanted to fly. That’s why I said what I did to escape more scrutiny. I got scared about Della getting into trouble for trying to help me. That just wouldn’t have been fair.”
“Dinner first, then we talk about this. Let’s all go home,” Lincoln said firmly, tugging on Iris’s arm.
Iris sighed and grabbed her purse. Once again she’d handed her destiny over to a Yank. When was she going to learn better?
“Della offered to pay my way home. I could go back tomorrow, Lincoln. This situation would likely blow over in a day or two if I left,” Iris said.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Lincoln said. “You can’t go home until enough time has passed to clear suspicion from all of us, especially from Mariah’s business. Turns out the obnoxious drunk guy was the comptroller of Cincinnati. His story is one of being physically attacked here by a foreigner working illegally at The Perfect Date. It’s crap, but it’s our word against his.”
“Good God…” Iris said.
“His story will not hold water because we—you and I, Iris—will be engaged, act engaged, and be seen together publically. If this incident hits the papers, and it will because The Perfect Date services many of the city’s elite, our engagement story has to be squeaky clean. The comptroller needs to be shown for the drunk idiot he was today and I will make sure that happens. So everyone clear about our goals?” Lincoln asked.
Iris and Della both nodded. “Good,” Lincoln said.
Elliston gave Della’s client a thumb’s up, but he was the only one laughing about Lincoln’s orders as they trailed out of the door.
About THE PERFECT DATE Series
The essence of all romantic comedy is that falling in love and navigating an unexpected romance is never easy or simple. Instead, it’s messy and emotional, and if you’re lucky, it’s also sexy and fun.
Some relationship professionals, like my character of Dr. Mariah Bates in this series, sincerely want to help people find their perfect love match. For the various heroines I’ve created, many of whom are older, Mariah’s going to need all the help she can get. Or maybe she just needs to step out of the way. You can be the judge.
NOTE ABOUT THE HEAT LEVEL: I’ve taken a nearly-closed-door approach to the eight books in this series. The focus is on sensuality and I’ve packed a lot into these stories. I categorize them as “Sweet Romance” by today’s industry standards for romance, but these books are definitely on the Spicy end of the spectrum.