The Reluctant Beauty (Once Upon A Romance Series)

By: Laurie Leclair

Chapter 1





“Jiminy Cricket, that can’t be him!” Peg Newbury huddled behind the potted plants along the half wall dividing the foyer from the elegant restaurant.

“Move over. I can’t see,” Rico said, nudging her aside. “Which one? There’s three guys by themselves. What’s the description say?”

She cradled her ever present clipboard closer to her side, essentially hiding it from him. “I know it don’t say world-famous floss aficionado smack dab in the middle of a crowd.”

“Gross. What’s he digging for anyway?” He made a face and shivered. “How about that one—”

“Excuse me, madam, sir.” The prim and proper deep male voice interrupted their search.

Peg winced, crouched down lower, and pasted on a smile before she turned to him. His eyebrows were raised so high they nearly met his artificially engineered hairline.

“Toup,” Rico surmised.

“You sure?” Peg thought it was hair transplants; she could almost count the plugs even from here.

“Well?” The uniformed man, most likely the maître de, waited for them to answer his unspoken question. He reminded her of a penguin in that tad-too-tight-for-his-own-good white shirt and jacket.

“Yeah, now that I look more, you’re right, Rico. Definitely a toup.” There was movement in the restaurant area. Peg whipped around. “What about him? The guy, big glasses, soup just got delivered?”

“I’ll have to ask you to leave now?” His too-polite request was met with a loud snort from Rico.

“Oh no, Brutus, this gal’s got a date here.”

“With you?”

“If it were me, we’d be drinking champagne and having a blast already. No, silly, one of them.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder to the half-filled restaurant.

Peg didn’t have to face him to feel the way his gaze traveled along the length of her. “Go ahead and say it, buster. I dare you.”

“Madame.” He coughed a few times. “Looks…healthy.” He coughed again.

She and Rico turned to look at each other. Rico rolled his eyes. “Don’t pay attention to him.”

“Him and everyone else, right?” At six feet tall, Peg had little reason to wonder what the man meant. She’d gotten stares and snickers since she walked into her first day of middle school and towered over most of the teachers. Her growth spurt had come on sudden and strong. She’d been teased ever since.

She should be used to it by now. But, she wasn’t. Not by any means.

The maître de prompted her again. “Just point your…date out and I’ll escort you both to the table.”

“Moi? Joining them?” Rico quickly corrected the assumption. “I got my own date across town. I’m just here to make sure she finds him and goes through with it.”

There was a commotion at the door. The maître de turned to look. Peg snagged Rico’s hand and together they sneaked around the outside of the wall and to the opposite side of the restaurant.

“Holy, Batman and Robin, that was a close one,” she whispered loudly.

“You’re telling me?” He fluffed his hair. “Look.” He pointed to where they’d just been. “He’s looking for us.” The older man searched, scowling deeply.

“Duck! He’s looking this way.” Peg huddled down and Rico did the same. “You have to help me find this guy.”

“You don’t know his name, what he looks like, how tall, nothing. What do you know about him?” His voice held the same disgust her mind felt about the whole thing.

“He’s free the night I need him, that’s all.”

“Family night. Here in town at your place. In a week. Why in the world did you let it get this far anyway?”

Peg held up her index finger—“Work.”—and then the next one—“Work.”—until she’d held up each one and repeated the same word after each. “I couldn’t get away to see them, so they’re coming to me. Whether I like it or not.”

Her friend blew out a puff of air. “What in the world am I going to do with you?”

“Hopeless, huh?” she asked with a squeak in her voice as she stretched her neck to look at the diners once again.

“Try him.” Rico nudged her in the back.

“But he’s eating his soup already. Geez, don’t you’d think he’d wait for his date?”

Heavy footsteps approached. She turned to see the man bearing down on them; a bigger scowl snagged his eyebrows together, so it looked like a caterpillar sitting there.

“Go, Peg. Just try him out. Never know. But I gotta go.” Rico clamped his hand on her arm and practically dragged her up with him, and then he shoved her around the wall and into the dining area. “Tootles,” he called. “Remember, meet me back at my place in five hours to compare notes.”

The maître de hovered nearby. Peg figured he’d throw her out for sure if she backtracked her steps.

Standing there, all six foot tall now, diners began to turn and gawk. She clutched her clipboard a tad tighter and forced a smile. “Haven’t you ever seen the Jolly Green Giant’s daughter? Sprout couldn’t make it tonight, so I’m it.”

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