Authors: Lisa Watson
he weekend flew by for Tiffany. On Monday, at three o’clock on the dot, Ivan walked through the door.
“Welcome back,” she said.
“Thanks. I spotted a coffee shop down the street. I thought we could go there and talk.”
“That’s fine. I’ll get my purse.”
Tiffany went into the back room and retrieved her purse from a cabinet. She used a small mirror to freshen her makeup.
It’s not a date,
she scolded herself while applying lipstick. Tiffany returned to where Ivan was waiting. He held the door for her as they stepped outside into the afternoon sun.
“So how long have you been in the area?” he asked conversationally.
“A few years. I’m originally from Baltimore. I’m an only child, and thought that it was time to change scenery. I came here for a job and never left.”
“Are you close with your parents?”
“For the most part. I miss having them nearby, but they visit when they can. Separately, of course. Together would be a definite nightmare, since they’re divorced.
“And since my business started, I haven’t really had the chance to get there as often as I’d like.”
“What do your parents do?”
“My father is a principal at a high school, and my mother works in human resources at a global investment firm downtown.” She turned to him. “What about you?”
“I was born here. My father was a colonel in the army, and my mother was a professor in the classics department at a local university. We traveled a lot, either for my mother’s book research or when my father got new orders. In retrospect, my father played a large part in my decision to join the army and go to Officer Candidate School after college.”
“That must’ve been fun.”
“Loads.” He laughed. “I’ve been out for a while and started my company two years ago. I’ve been pretty busy ever since.”
“Well, on behalf of civilians everywhere, I want to thank you for protecting our freedom and liberties,” she said.
A wide smile etched his face. “Thanks. It was my honor to serve my country.”
He held the door to the coffee shop open. They placed their order, and Ivan insisted on paying.
Tiffany found a table, and he came over with their drinks.
She inhaled the aromatic smell of her chai latte. “You don’t strike me as the tea type.”
He glanced down at his green tea. A lopsided grin etched his face. “I only drink coffee when I’m on assignments.”
“So you install security systems for a living?”
“No. I installed one a year ago for my grandmother’s assisted-living facility and picked up a few more locations by word of mouth. I’ve done a few businesses in Chicago. One being the community center where Ms. Jeannie teaches classes. I’ve taught a few senior security classes there.”
“You’re big on security.”
He laughed. “You could say that. My company, Mangum and Associates, specializes in personal protection for dignitaries, business executives and notables. We take long and short-term assignments.”
“Wow, so you’re like high-end bodyguards. Have you ever protected anyone famous?”
“A few,” he admitted.
“Seeing all those new places must be exciting for you.”
“Not all glitz and glamour, I assure you. It’s plenty of long hours, even longer reports and not much of a social life. In fact, I live a pretty monklike existence.”
“I’m familiar with that,” she said drily. “Not the danger and intrigue, but the long hours, minuscule social life and loads of paperwork. So why the business of protection?”
Ivan shrugged. “It seemed a natural extension of my skill set, plus I enjoy it.”
“I’m sure the world is a much safer place because of it,” she said sincerely.
Ivan glanced up. Their gazes connected across the table.
Clearing his throat, he opened his laptop. “I suppose we should get started.”
* * *
For the next thirty-five minutes, Ivan laid out his plan for Tiffany’s store. He took into account everything she asked for, plus a few
–type features that she didn’t. When Tiffany started to protest, he cut her off.
“It wasn’t as expensive as you think.” He slid his laptop around to face her. “See?”
Tiffany scanned over the screen. She blinked a few times. “Wow, this is actually...affordable.”
“I get discounts on the merchandise, and my fee is reasonable.”
“Ivan, this seems like almost a pass-through on costs.”
“I’m not doing this to become wealthy, Tiffany. This is more of a hobby for me. The work I do at Mangum is high stress, keeps me busy and affords a great living. The services I provide to the community allow me to give back.”
She looked skeptical.
“It’s true.” He chuckled. “Now stop worrying, and tell me when you’d like to get started. It won’t take more than an evening or two to get it done. We work at night so there’s no interruption to you or your customers.”
“I’ll be getting my brother, Cole, to help out,” he explained. “It will go much faster that way.”
“You have a brother? I don’t know why, but I assumed you were an only child.”
“Cole is my younger brother. It’s just the two of us. I think we exhausted our parents, so they quit while they were ahead,” he joked.
“My parents weren’t able to have more children, so I was it. Normally, I don’t miss having a sibling, but there are times when it would be nice to have more family—or at least a buffer every now and then.”
Ivan glanced over with a quizzical expression.
“They argued a lot toward the end. It was intense at times,” she explained.
That caused Ivan to frown. “I bet that was hard on you.”
She shrugged. “Kids are resilient. I learned to cope.” Tiffany played with her cup. “You know, I cried with relief when they told me they were getting divorced.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I wasn’t. Besides, I got another bedroom to call my own, so it all worked out. But enough about me. What about you?”
“My parents are still married and in love. Which only makes them more interested in what my brother and I are up to,” he said, trying to interject some levity.
“Sounds like they’d get along quite well with Ms. Jeannie,” Tiffany joked.
* * *
Ivan observed various emotions cross Tiffany’s face. She wasn’t as unaffected by her family’s problems as she tried to portray. There was real pain in her expression and body language. Before he knew it, he reached across the table and covered her hand with his. He squeezed it reassuringly, giving her some of his strength. A shocked expression crossed her face momentarily, but then she relaxed.
“I’ll bet your rooms were every teenage girl’s dream.” He watched a few tears glisten in her eyes before she blinked them away.
She laughed. “Maybe not, but I thought they were pretty cool.”
He released her hand. To give her a chance to compose herself, Ivan relayed some tales of his childhood. The sparkle in her eyes slowly returned, and she even chimed in with some funny stories of her own. Reluctantly, their discussion returned to work, and they were able to finalize the plans and payment arrangements. When they were done, Ivan escorted Tiffany back to her store. He held the door open for her, but stopped just inside.
“Thanks for this afternoon. And thank you for the wonderful security system, Ivan.”
He chuckled. “That’s the first time someone’s thanked me in advance.”
“That’s because I know I’ll love it.”
“Then you’re welcome...in advance.” He smiled broadly. “Cole and I will see you on Wednesday.”
“Great, and thanks again.”
Ivan took her hand in his again and squeezed. “Anytime.”
Moments later, Ivan was getting into his SUV. Their afternoon together had been illuminating. He learned that Tiffany held a lot inside, and that her emotions ran deep. He was surprised that sharing a few of her childhood memories had caused her composure to slip. Seeing her distressed like that had stirred something inside him. He barely knew her, and yet wanted nothing more than to protect her from the sadness lurking behind her eyes.
Then he recalled his vow on remaining strictly professional. Cole would have a field day when he found out Ivan’s latest predicament. With a wry smile, he started his truck and pulled off.
* * *
Inside the store, Tiffany’s sales associate, Celeste, came over to her. “Aside from having lunch with a bona fide hunk, what’s got you in such a good mood?”
“It wasn’t lunch,” Tiffany corrected. “It was a business meeting. I’m getting a new security system for the store. It’s long overdue.”
The younger woman tilted her head to the side. “Are you sure it’s not the man installing it that’s got you so happy?”
“Don’t be silly.” Tiffany tried to sound stern, but failed miserably. She couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. “He’s simply doing a favor for a mutual friend. Nothing more.”
“Sure he is.”
In truth, Tiffany hardly believed her own words, either. The second his hand touched hers at the café, a spark had flickered inside. The prospect of seeing him again was exciting, but grinning from ear to ear would blow her cover. She started to tell herself that he was a regular guy, but stopped. Not for one second was Ivan Mangum a regular anything.
Tiffany decided to call Milán to get a second opinion. The moment she answered, Tiffany whispered into the receiver, “I’ve got a dilemma.”
“What’s his name?”
Tiffany hesitated. She was about to step off a precipice, and when she did, there was no going back. With a deep breath, she said, “It’s...Ivan Mangum.”
“You mean the—”
“Yes,” she interjected again. “But you can’t tell Jeannie, Milán.”
“Are you kidding? If she hears that I find Ivan as delectable as a Krispy Kreme doughnut, she’ll be all over me like cling wrap to stake my claim on him.”
“And what’s wrong with that? You should snap him up before someone else notices that he’s single, attractive and a good guy.”
“Yeah about that—don’t you find it odd that he’s even available?” Tiffany countered. “Maybe he’s got seven kids in four different cities, or he’s commitment-shy?”
“Tiff, has it ever occurred to you that he could be single for the same reasons you are? Need I remind you of Adrian and me?”
“No,” she said quickly. “I get it. Maybe nothing’s wrong with him, and he’s single for no good reason...”
“It’s possible he hasn’t found the right person—just like you.”
Tiffany sighed. “Okay, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“I’m glad. And you will be, too.”
“So how long do you think it’ll take Norma Jean to figure out you like Ivan?”
“There’s no way I’m telling her anytime soon.”
“Trust me, if she gets a whiff of attraction, she’ll ply you with questions until you crack and spill the beans—I’ve been there. And if she sees you and Ivan together...”
With a gasp, Tiffany said, “That can’t happen, Milán, I mean it. Under no circumstances is Norma Jean to find out that I think of Ivan as anything but the guy who’s installing my security system.”
“It’s not me you have to worry about,
” Milán said.
She was right. Adrian’s mother had X-ray vision when it came to seeing what people didn’t want revealed, and her inconvenient habit of not being able to say Ivan’s name without smiling would be as noticeable as a flare shot into the sky. “Let’s face it, I’m screwed.”
“Don’t say that,” Milán admonished. “You’ll be fine. Besides, Norma Jean won’t be there Wednesday.”
“True,” Tiffany said with relief. “I don’t know what the heck’s wrong with me. Normally, I’m unflappable.”
“Totally unflappable.” Her friend snickered.
“I can do this. The next time he walks through that door, I’ll be cool and strictly professional. Mark my words, Operation Dry Ice is in effect,” Tiffany said, with feeling.
Now if she could only get her heart on board with the plan.
he shrill ring of Ivan’s cell phone woke him up. Instantly alert, he retrieved it from his nightstand. “Mangum.”
“I’m sorry to bother you at home, sir,” his assistant, Curtis, said in a worried voice. “I’m afraid we have a situation. One that demands your immediate attention.”
“Sure, Curtis, what’s up?”
“There was an incident in Vancouver. Our client is fine,” his assistant assured him, “but Daniels was busted up pretty bad. I’ve sent another member of the team to take over, but...the client is insisting that you come personally.”
Ivan swore under his breath. “Understood. Make the arrangements. We’ll leave as soon as the plane’s ready. I want a briefing on the situation by the time wheels are up.”
He hung up and strode to his closet to start packing.
He’d tell Cole his plans on the way out. Right now, Ivan needed to gather all the facts about the mishap to do damage control. At Mangum, an unhappy client was completely unacceptable.
* * *
On Wednesday, Tiffany closed up the shop early to accommodate Ivan and his brother. She set out snacks and drinks on the table in the storage room. She was working on inventory orders when a man walked through the door.
She knew immediately that he was Ivan’s brother. The resemblance was strong, but Ivan was broader in build, taller, and his eyes were more golden. She went to greet him. “You must be Cole.” She smiled.
He shook her hand. “I am. How are you, Miss Gentry?”
“I’m well, and call me Tiffany. Thanks for coming.” She looked behind him to see another man following. They made introductions. “Good to meet you, John.” Tiffany couldn’t help but ask, “Is Ivan on his way?”
Cole shook his head. “He’s been unavoidably detained. He asked me to apologize, and to let you know he’ll arrive as soon as he can.”
“Oh. No problem. I’ll show you around.”
Tiffany was disappointed, but tried to hide it. A short time later, Milán and Norma Jean came through the door.
When she saw them, she had to stifle a groan. “What a nice surprise,” Tiffany said pointedly.
“Isn’t it? Jeannie thought you’d like to join us for dinner,” Milán replied brightly.
“Yeah, and I wanted to see how Ivan was working out,” Norma Jean added.
Tiffany schooled her features. She didn’t need Norma Jean’s radar going off. “Oh, well, Colonel Mangum isn’t here, but should be soon. Dinner sounds great. I’ll go get my purse.” She sped off.
“Hello, Cole,” Norma Jean said when she spotted him. She walked over and hugged him. “Deciding to give the ladies a break this evening?”
“Now why would I do that, Ms. Jeannie?” Cole grinned. “Besides, it’s early yet.”
“Scoundrel,” she replied in mock disapproval. “Where’s that brother of yours? He’d better not be loafing around. I talked him up to Tiffany, so my reputation is on the line.”
“Don’t worry, it’s still intact,” Ivan called from the doorway.
Tiffany’s pulse quickened. He wore army fatigues, and looked more delectable than usual.
He went straight to Tiffany. “I’m sorry I’m late. I had an emergency crop up at work.”
It was tough concentrating on the words with his face inches away. His close proximity wreaked havoc on her senses.
“No problem,” she assured him. “The guys are moving right along.”
“Glad to hear it.” He turned to the other women. “How are you ladies?”
“Fine,” Norma Jean replied. “We’re going to dinner. Care to join us?”
“No, ma’am. We’ve got work to do.” He and Cole exchanged glances. His brother nodded. “We’ll be finished by the time you return.”
“Can I bring you something back?” Tiffany offered.
“We’re good, thanks,” Cole chimed in.
Norma Jean swung into action. “You heard the man. Let’s get a move on. I’m hungry, and the lines aren’t getting any shorter.”
* * *
The moment they left, Ivan turned to his brother.
“How are we really doing?”
Cole rolled his eyes. “Ivan, it’s not rocket science. I’ve got this.”
He flooded Cole with a barrage of questions. With a loud sigh, Cole brought him up to speed. Walking around, Ivan began spot-checking his brother’s work.
“Top-notch,” he confirmed after a full inspection.
“Thank you, Colonel Mangum,” Cole replied with a salute before giving his brother an “I told you so” look. Ivan was about to walk away when Cole said, “She’s fine, by the way.”
“Cole,” Ivan ground out.
“I’m just saying, she’s a cute little thing. Kind of short for you, isn’t she? But then again, you can make up the difference when you’re horizontal—”
A small box sailed past Cole’s head. He reached out and caught it. He flashed a huge grin at his brother. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
“The next time it’ll be my fist,” Ivan promised.
* * *
Outside, Tiffany realized she’d forgotten her cell phone in the store. She promised Norma Jean and Milán she’d be right back, then hurried into the boutique and over to the counter. As she grabbed her phone, she overheard Cole and Ivan talking in the storage room.
“She was the reason you were late?”
Tiffany stopped in her tracks. She definitely did not want to be caught eavesdropping, and yet she could not bring herself to move.
“No,” Ivan answered. “I was dealing with that mess Daniels created in Canada.”
“So all is well,” Cole said.
“Not for Daniels. He had two drinks while on duty. Company policy is no drinking while on the clock—no exceptions. He’s on probation.”
“Don’t you think you’re being a bit hard on him?”
“Hell, no. He’s lucky I didn’t fire him. In our line of work, there can be no distractions, Cole. Situations can turn into life-or-death scenarios in an instant, and my employees have to be prepared—for anything. I can’t risk them being impaired. Daniels was dead wrong, and there are consequences.”
“So where does Debra fit into the scenario?”
Unable to help herself, Tiffany inched closer.
“She contacted the office, and they patched her through.”
“Can’t you see what she’s up to? You’re her ace in the hole—you’ve always been.”
“I made a promise, and if Debra needs me, I’ll be there. End of story.”
That was her cue. Tiffany backed up the way she’d come, almost knocking over a display. Steadying it, Tiffany made a stealthy retreat. Her hand was on the doorknob when Ivan’s voice stopped her.
“Hey. I didn’t know you’d come back.”
Tiffany stopped and cursed her bad timing. She plastered a smile on her face and turned around. “Yeah, I forgot my cell phone.” She held it up. “I gotta run, though. Norma Jean’s going to have a cow if I take any longer.”
“Sure. I’ll be by in the morning to go over everything. How’s nine?”
“Great. See you then.” She made a beeline outside, closing the door behind her.
You’ve got half a block to make it look like nothing’s wrong.
“What could be wrong?” she said aloud. “I have no claims on him. We’re not dating. I thought he was cute, right? Nothing more. If he wants to pledge his undying love to Debra, he can go right ahead.”
With a superhuman effort, she got into the car and cheerfully said, “I got it.”
“Wonderful,” Norma Jean replied. “So where are we going to eat?”
“How about Rajun Cajun?” Tiffany said. “I could use a little something spicy.”
Norma Jean didn’t miss a beat. “Well, if you’d let me fix you up like I’ve been wanting to, you’d have all the spice you need.”
Milán laughed. “You knew she wasn’t gonna leave that one alone.”
Tiffany muttered something in agreement, and then turned her head to gaze out the window.
He’s taken. Crap.
* * *
An eclectic blend of New Orleans and New Delhi cuisines, the Rajun Cajun restaurant in Hyde Park was a favorite for soul food and traditional Indian dishes. After studying the menu, they placed their orders. While waiting, Tiffany recalled Ivan’s conversation with Cole. Hearing them discuss Ivan’s girlfriend had made her stomach clench. Granted, she didn’t know him that well, and had no claim on his affections, but it was still disheartening.
“So, Tiffany, I was thinking that this Saturday would be perfect for a date, don’t you agree?”
“Sure,” she said absentmindedly. “I’ll be there.”
When their orders were ready, Norma Jean invited them over to her house, but Tiffany wasn’t up for company.
“I’ll pass if you don’t mind. It’s been a long day, and I’m beat.”
Milán dropped her back at the store to pick up her car.
“Thanks, and sorry I’m bailing on you.”
“Honey, it happens,” Norma Jean responded. “We’ll touch base later about Saturday. I’m so excited.”
Tiffany waved goodbye, and was about to get into her car when she looked at her boutique. Ivan and his crew were gone. It was dark inside, except for the muted shades of pink emanating from a miniature poodle night-light at the back of the store. It was there less for security, and more because she thought it was cute and wanted something whimsical to remind her to smile. She could use that right about now.
Tiffany got into her car and headed home. While she was watching TV, Milán called.
“Hey, Lani, what’s up?”
“That’s what I’d like to know. Why’d you agree to go out on a blind date after telling me four times that you weren’t taking Jeannie up on her offer to fix you up?”
“Huh? I never said I’d go out with anyone.”
“Oh, you sure did,” her friend countered. “Tonight at Rajun Cajun. You said you’d go out with Gardiniér this Saturday.”
“What?” Tiffany exclaimed. “Who’s Gardiniér? I didn’t know that’s what I was agreeing to. I thought she’d asked me about...well, I don’t know what, but certainly not a date. Why didn’t you stop me?”
“Me? How was I to know you hadn’t changed your mind?”
Tiffany leaned back on the couch. “Is that his first or last name?”
“Uh, I think it’s his first.”
“That’s his real name? This is a disaster.”
“Don’t I know it,” Milán agreed. “Tell her you had no idea what she asked you. What had you so spaced out, anyway?”
“Ivan and his girlfriend, Debra,” Tiffany blurted out before she could stop herself.
“He has a girlfriend? How did the Love Broker miss that?”
“It’s not important,” Tiffany hedged.
“Apparently it is if you’re so out of sorts. Are you sure?”
“Yes. I overheard him this evening when I went back to get my phone. Her name is Debra, and apparently she needs him desperately,” Tiffany stressed, and then realized she sounded catty.
“Well, that sucks. I’m sorry, Tiff.”
“Me, too. Enough about Ivan Mangum. Let’s forget it, and I’m not taking Norma Jean up on her offer.”
Milán choked on whatever she was drinking. “You aren’t? How are you getting out of it?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll think of something.”
“Good, then you can come over Saturday for movie night with me and Adrian.”
“Thanks for the invite, but I think I’ll pass. You guys have fun. I’ve got to call Jeannie now and get it over with.”
“Thanks.” She hung up, then dialed Norma Jean. She hoped to get voice mail, but no such luck.
“Hi, Ms. Jeannie. How are you?”
“Just fine, honey. Trying to keep my husband from cheating in Scrabble. I’ve got to challenge every word he puts down. Get the dictionary, Cliff,” Norma Jean said distractedly. “No, moarting is not a word.”
“Um, the reason I called is that I...I can’t make the date this Saturday,” Tiffany said quickly. “I wasn’t paying attention when you mentioned it, and I’ve got plans.”
“Oh. Poor Gardiniér. He’ll be disappointed.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Jeannie. Thanks again for understanding,” Tiffany said.
“Oh, sure dear. I’ll call him just as soon as Cliff and I finish our game, which won’t be long. Why I let him talk me into this bootleg game is anybody’s guess. Good night, honey, I’ll talk to you later.”
She hung up. “Well, that’s one Gardiniér who won’t be landscaping my rosebush.”