“Hey, hey married lady.” Miranda Campbell grinned as her best friend slid into the opposite side of the booth.
“Someday that will probably get old, but it is not this day,” Norah declared. “Sorry I’m late. Meeting ran over.”
Miranda noted her faintly mussed hair and rosy cheeks and smirked. “And did your meeting come to a satisfactory conclusion? Judging from your glow, I’m gonna guess it did.”
Norah cast a frantic look around, her just-had-a-quickie-with-my-new-hubby glow being replaced by a ferocious blush. “Keep your voice down!” she hissed.
“Hey, at least one of us is being kept satisfied. I just try not to think too hard about the fact that it’s my cousin putting that look on your face. Did you and Cam at least remember to lock the door this time?”
“That was one time.”
Miranda just arched a brow.
“Okay, maybe two.” Norah dropped her voice. “He has a thing about desks.”
Lifting a hand Miranda shook her head. “Stop right there. I don’t need to know this.” At Norah’s chagrinned expression, she added, “But it’s awesome to still see you blissfully happy. You’re practically radioactive with contentment.”
Norah unwound her scarf and shed the red wool coat, running her hands through her dark brown hair to neaten it. “I’m going to credit the happy for making me susceptible to crazy proposals.”
“Is that a euphemism for something?”
Norah laughed. “No. But somehow I find myself chairing the committee organizing the Valentine’s Dance this year. Because I have so much spare time, right?”
And then it all came suddenly clear. Bracing both hands on the table, Miranda stared her down. “You invited me to lunch to talk me onto that committee didn’t you?”
“It’ll be fun!”
Unamused, Miranda just continued to stare.
“What’s that face, Dr. Campbell?” Mama Pearl, the much-beloved heart and soul of Dinner Belles Diner, slid their customary sweet teas onto the table.
Miranda gestured across the table. “Norah here has been whacked upside the head with the love stick and thinks she’s gonna talk me onto the Valentine’s Dance committee.”
“If I had to judge by the smile she was wearin’ when she walked in here, I’d say there was definitely a love stick involved.”
Norah’s mouth fell open. “Mama Pearl, hush your mouth!”
Miranda snickered and a grin creased the older woman’s dark face.
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.
As soon as she shuffled off, Norah resumed her campaign. “Anyway, it’ll be the social event of the season.”
That wasn’t saying much. With a population just edging toward six thousand people, Wishful wasn’t exactly a hopping, happening place. Social gatherings down here tended more toward church potlucks, football parties, and chilling out at The Mudcat Tavern. Miranda was totally okay with that. Transforming the community center into something out of a John Hughes movie prom set for a town-wide dance was not her idea of a good time. Or maybe that was just a little sour grapes because she wouldn’t have anyone to go with.
“I already made my contribution to the Wishful social calendar for the year with my annual New Year’s Eve bash. Literally last week.”
“And that bash was awesome,” Norah conceded. “But come on. It’ll be like the old days back in college, when we were planning sorority mixers.”
“I do not have the enticement of half a dozen cute Sigma Chis doing set up for this.”
“So if I can load the setup crew with hot single men for you to ogle, you’ll do it?”
Miranda knew she’d make it happen. She also knew Norah would just keep pushing until she got what she wanted. “It is my busiest season at the clinic. Flu is horrific this year, and I’m trying to control an outbreak of strep. I cannot commit to committee meetings. But I’m available for brainstorming, and I promise to clear the decks as much as I can for actual setup. Final offer.”
Miranda looked up to find her administrative assistant hovering at the edge of the table. She braced herself. “Please tell me Shelby didn’t send you to fetch me for an emergency at the clinic.” She desperately needed this hour to check out with her best gal pal and breathe something that wasn’t disinfectant fumes and illness.
Delaney laughed. “Nope. Here to pick up takeout for me and Keisha. Did I hear y’all talking about the Valentine’s Dance?”
“Oh girl, you have made a grave error,” Miranda told her. “Run, run now, before you get sucked in.”
Norah beamed a bright smile Delaney’s way. “You sure did. Are you interested in joining the committee?
“Um, I don’t know. What would it entail?”
Miranda just shook her head as Norah cheerfully and skillfully herded Delaney right where she wanted her. Which was what Norah Burke Crawford did. Nobody ever saw it coming. At her high-powered marketing firm in Chicago, that talent had earned her the moniker The Closer. It was a skill Miranda both abhorred and admired. Since Norah used it to the benefit of the town these days, Miranda was hardly in a position to complain. At least until Norah turned those skills on her. Thankfully, long familiarity gave her some measure of immunity.
Amused, she watched Norah go in for the kill.
“It’s a great way to give back to the community.”
Delaney grinned. “Sounds great. Sign me up.”
“Wonderful! We’ll see you on Tuesday for our first meeting.”
“Okay then. Bye, Miranda.”
“See you back at the clinic.”
She and Norah both watched as the younger woman headed for the counter to pick up her order.
“Never even saw what hit her.”
“How’s she working out for you?” Norah asked. “You’ve had her—what?—three months now?”
“Really well. We had a few hiccups that first week, but she’s a quick learner and a hard worker. Shelby’s ecstatic to have help running the office. Especially somebody to take over the onerous management of the computer system. You know how Shelby hates that thing.”
“—just can’t believe she has the nerve to walk around with her head held high after what she did.”
Miranda didn’t even have to scan the busy diner for the speaker. Clarice Hopper Morris was a b***h on wheels and had been since elementary school. If there was something cruel to be said about someone, she or her sister had no compunction in saying it. At the counter, Delaney’s shoulders tensed and rounded, as if she could make herself a smaller target. Miranda’s temper bubbled and snapped on the girl’s behalf as Clarice and her companion just kept right on talking.
“I’m surprised they didn’t run her out of town on a rail after it happened.”
“Didn’t she get arrested or somethin’?”
“Well, you know she did. It was all over the paper. Don’t know what she’s doing back in Wishful.”
Miranda’s fists clenched as Delaney paid for her lunch, took the takeout bag, and all but ran out of the diner.
Mama Pearl shook her head as she slid two plates onto the table and looked after Delaney. She shot a fulminating look at the gossipers and announced in a voice they couldn’t fail to hear, “Anybody can change.”
Clarice didn’t pay any attention to Mama Pearl. “I can’t imagine what she’s doing for work. I mean, who on earth would hire her after everything she did?”
Temper bubbling, Miranda shoved out of the booth and marched across the diner. “That would be me, and I’ll thank you to stop spreading malicious gossip about my employee.”
Clarice and her companion, Karen Alberson, looked up in shock.
“Why Miranda Campbell. I didn’t realize your charity work ran to your employees, too. How…magnanimous of you.”
Steam was most certainly coming out of her ears. Miranda itched to plow her bunched fist into Clarice’s face. “I suppose you would think it magnanimous to recognize that sometimes people make mistakes and deserve a second chance. The fact of the matter is, she’s a smart girl and a hard worker, and she deserves better than to be maligned by the likes of you.”
“It’s a free country. There’s no law against talking.”
“Sadly, no, there’s no law against being hateful. If there were, you and your sister would both have rap sheets taller than either of you.” Disgusted, Miranda shook her head. “Are your lives so bad, you feel the need to talk down about everybody around? Tearing down good people and perpetuating rumors and half-truths about the mistakes they may have made to make yourselves feel better?”
“I hardly think our topics of conversation are any of your business.”
“I think you know you’re making it everyone’s business by talking loud enough for the whole diner to hear you, just to get attention. Grow up, Clarice. And maybe you could find a scrap of humanity while you’re at it.” Miranda swung around to go back to the booth for the lunch she no longer wanted and plowed straight into a brick wall.
The wall gripped her elbows and drawled, “Steady there.”
Startled, she looked up…and up, into the clearest gray eyes she’d ever seen.