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Lori Beth Crawford



An excerpt from ROYAL OPPOSITES:

“May I?”

He gestured toward the bench seat opposite her and waited for permission to sit. Feeling like a classless idiot, she managed a nod. He slid into the booth and smiled at her. Just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse. The man should be forced to carry a permit for that smile. She imagined it could be absolutely deadly for any female he used it on. And right now, he was using it on her.

“I do believe I owe you my life,” the man stated, never taking his eyes off her face.

The over-the-top line snapped her out of her awe. She wrinkled her nose. “A bit too dramatic, don’t you think?”

The smile left his lips, but stayed in his eyes. And she’d thought that weapon of his was lethal before. He wasn’t an amateur at using it, either.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, but she got the feeling he was just telling her what she wanted to hear. Unless he was a complete drama queen, he seemed to believe something else was behind his treatment from earlier. She didn’t know where it came from, but she had the undeniable urge to reassure him.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t think you’re the first customer who’s been cheated out of money by that bank.”

He frowned at her. “What do you mean?”

Joan dropped her gaze to study the dark polished wood of the table between them. Did she dare tell him about her stupidity? That would make a great impression on the sexiest man she’d ever seen in her life. Who was she kidding? Great looking guys didn’t go out with frumpy chicks like her. Stupid or not. “I haven’t figured everything out, you know, with all the running away and stuff, but I’ve had the same conversation with them almost word for word.”

He leaned back in the booth with a frown marring his prominent brow. “What did you do? Did they resolve it?”

Joan snorted a humorless laugh before she could stop herself. “It was resolved alright. I was there to make the final eight hundred dollar payment on the loan I had to take out to resolve the situation.”

“I see.” He sat forward again and laced his long fingers together on the table. “How often were these payments?”

Becoming more and more uncomfortable with the line of questioning, Joan thought about refusing to answer while rolling her glass between her palms. Considering what he was about to go through, she figured it was only fair to warn him. “Every month for the last two years.”

He gave a low whistle. “How much were you overdrawn?”

Joan bristled at the question. That part was none of his business. She was already embarrassed at the hole she’d dug herself. She didn’t need to lay out the gory details for a complete stranger. The man must be a mind reader. He reached out and covered both her hands with his. The heat from his hands contrasted with the iciness of the glass and claimed her full attention.

“I don’t mean to pry. I’m just trying to get a handle on their game.”

Joan relaxed. Well as much as she could with his gentle touch warming her to levels she didn’t quite understand. “One hundred eighty-six dollars and twenty-four cents.”

Because their hands were linked, she felt him tense before she noted the tight lines that framed his mouth. “Eight hundred for twenty-four months?” His brows shot up. “So you paid them over nineteen thousand dollars when you owed under two hundred at the beginning.”

Joan shook her head. “Nineteen…? No. I doubled up on payments to get rid of the debt faster.” She wanted to grin from ear to ear at his nod and look of approval. Somehow, she managed to keep her expression neutral. “It was a little under seventeen thousand to pay them off.”

The tight lines around his mouth returned. “Almost a fifty percent interest rate. How do they manage to get away with that? Maybe ten or fifteen percent of what you owe, but not fifty.”

“Now that I think about it, I’m not positive I owed the two thousand to begin with. It’s a ludicrous amount of money and it would take me ages to spend so much. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I think they held my deposit on purpose.”

She watched his lips quirk like something had just amused him, but she couldn’t for the life of her imagine what. Before he could share what he was thinking, the waitress interrupted. The woman was all smiles and with a trim figure that Joan could only imagine for herself. And that was if she were having a good day. She wasn’t sure today qualified.

The woman placed a glass of what appeared to be cranberry juice in front of the man and refilled Joan’s glass. She smiled at their linked hands on the table and winked at him. “It’s about time you brought in a dining companion. I was beginning to worry about you.”

Joan felt her face flush and tried to pull out of his grip. To her astonishment, he held on tight. “Well, Molly, I most humbly apologize for any sleepless nights I may have caused you.”

The woman snorted. “I didn’t say all that, Tom.”

Joan didn’t know why, but it surprised her to hear him laugh at the waitress’ reaction. He didn’t appear to be annoyed at all.

“Are ya’ll ready to order?” She swept a lock of black hair from her forehead with her left hand. That was when Joan got a glimpse of the diamond ring on her finger. Hmm. Maybe Tom’s lethal smile didn’t work on all women. The moment she recalled the name Molly had called him, Joan realized they’d never even introduced themselves. Yet, here they were holding hands like a couple of lovebirds.

Joan noticed with a start they were both looking at her. Molly had her pen poised over a pad ready for her order. Tom watched her with an expectant look in his eyes. They must think she planned to stay for dinner. While she’d been waiting for him, she checked out the prices to factor into her budget next month. This month, however, she didn’t have a spare dime because she’d allocated every penny to the final payment and now she was also on the verge of some serious late fees from the stupid loan she’d taken. No, she was going to get Tom’s e-mail and get herself home.

“I think we need another moment or two, Molly. Thanks.” The waitress nodded and headed off to check on other customers while Tom turned his attention back to Joan.

She needed to conclude their business and be on her way. So she said, “I’m Joan.”

Tom frowned at the non sequitur so she continued, “Molly used your name and I realized we never introduced ourselves so I’m…”

“…Joan,” he finished for her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Joan. I do hope you’re not thinking of running out and leaving me here to dine alone. Molly will never let me live it down.”

“In all honesty, I was just hoping to run into you to give you the video I shot and then be on my way. If you give me your e-mail address I’ll send it to you tonight.” She pulled out of his grasp and gestured with the camera case. “I think you have a pretty good claim to file against the bank. This footage will help.”

“How did you know to find me here?” he asked. His eyes took on an intensity she had yet to see from him in their brief acquaintance.

“It’s like this. I’ve kinda seen you around. Here, in fact. So I took a chance…” She trailed off with a shrug.

“That’s it? What if I didn’t show?”

“I’d have seen you sooner or later. I would’ve asked for your e-mail then.”

Tom stared at her for a long moment. At last, his serious expression gave way to that lethal smile of his. She must have passed whatever test he’d given her. She made no excuses, she knew she’d gone through one with a certainty she rarely felt.

“You’ve gone through so much trouble for me. The least I can do is treat you to dinner.”

She shook her head. “You need to conserve your funds. I have a feeling this little incident is going to get worse long before it gets better. You’ll need something to get you through.”

He tilted his head while he studied her. Without taking his eyes off her, he signaled Molly. “I have other accounts.” Molly arrived with a pen at the ready. “We’ll start with the Bruschetta and Caesar salad. For the main course, we’d like a sampling of the jerk chicken, wild salmon enchiladas and turkey meatloaf to share. We’ll top it off with the apple crisp and vanilla ice cream.”

Molly gave them a big grin. “You got it.”

Joan stared at him with one raised eyebrow. “You’re not at all worried about your bank problem are you?”

“Not at all. It’ll get worked out. To my benefit, in fact.”

Joan chewed on the straw in her tea. "I so hope those aren't famous last words."

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