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“Can someone get this hairy mutt off the set?” The director sneezed again and cast an irritated glance toward the large Golden Retriever. He didn’t bother to make eye contact with Emma.
Emma stiffened at the unflattering reference to Big Al, who currently hugged her side in an effort to gain refuge from the angry vibes cast his way. Big Al’s fur was cut close, so he hardly shed at all. Besides nabbing a poorly placed donut from the edge of the snack table, he’d been a perfect gentleman thus far today.
As soon as the filming segment ended, Emma couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure you’re allergic to the dog? Lots of folks react strongly to the flora around here when they come down from up North.” The word north might’ve slid off her tongue just a little distastefully, as Emma smiled sweetly at Mr. Matthew Pope from Manhattan. Not that she had anything against the North. Just some products of it—like rude, impatient men and very cold weather.
“I can’t do my job if there’s hair and dander flying around and I’m sneezing my head off. Animals have no business on the set of a cooking show, anyway. Get rid of it.” He made an offhanded, sweeping motion from his elevated position in the director’s chair, as if he manned the bridge of a star ship on Star Trek. Make it so…
He’d referred to her baby as “it.” Emma would keep her mouth shut, as this wasn’t her gig, but why the network had sent someone down from New York with such an obviously pissy attitude to produce her sister, Cammie’s, new smash cooking show baffled Emma.
She couldn’t argue that he was slickly handsome and extremely male, despite his rafter-rattling sneezes, if one liked that sort of thing. Emma could appreciate those pleasing attributes from a detached and cerebral place. No emotional stuff for her, and no physical stuff either. She was different like that—had been for almost a decade.
Matthew Pope was simply a gorgeous pain in the ass, to her thinking. He sneezed again. Somebody oughta get him a pack of Claritin and call it a day.
As Emma led Big Al into the next room, her sister, Cammie, caught up with her after Mr. Producer/Director yelled cut again. “Hey, everything okay?”
“Yeah. Mr. Hotshot doesn’t want Big Al on set,” Emma said.
Cammie nodded and rolled her eyes. “I heard him complaining.”
“Why would they send such a stinkpot? I don’t think he’s cracked a smile since he got here.” Emma gathered the honey-blonde hair that had fallen forward and smoothed it back so it hung between her shoulder blades. She should have put it up, but hadn’t taken the time before she left home this morning.
“I haven’t seen one if he has, but I guess we’re stuck with him until he goes into anaphylactic shock or gets fed up and quits.”
Emma shrugged. For now, she was helping her sister out on the set. This wasn’t her real job, so he wasn’t going to be her problem going forward anyway.
Just then, the call rang out for Cammie to get back on set. “Gotta go. Thanks for all your help today.”
“Sure. No problem. I’m teaching all afternoon, but I can come back in the morning, if you need me.”
Cammie gave her a quick hug. “That would be a lifesaver, if you don’t mind. I still can’t seem to find anyone to do makeup and hair that doesn’t make me look like Jessica Green’s love child.” Cammie grimaced as she said the words.
“Girl, we can’t have that.” Jessica Green was Cammie’s former boss, and how she’d gotten her start in the television cooking world. But things had gone badly between them due to Jessica’s jealousy of Cammie’s rapid rise in viewer popularity. Jessica was Southern as sweet tea and wore all the makeup that Bobbi Brown put out—pretty much at the same time.
“Okay. See you tomorrow,” Cammie said, just as Matthew Pope bellowed, but was cut short by a sneeze.
That made Emma smile. Kind of hard to be effective as a star ship commander with seasonal allergies kicking your ass.
“Bless you!” She singsonged toward the overbearing jerk, and then whispered under her breath, “And bless your heart.” She thought she might have heard mumbled thanks through his tissue.
Just as she and Big Al were about to exit the barn where Grey had recreated the large farmhouse kitchen inside, Emma pulled a doggie treat from her pocket. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” She crooned.
In answer, he launched himself toward the treat, taking her right off her stilettos and dumping her in a pile with her appreciative pup. She managed to sit up just as Big Al licked her right on the mouth.
She couldn’t help it; she laughed, “I was rewarding you for being such a fine gentleman this morning and you go and do this.” Recognizing her unladylike position, Emma hoped nobody had just witnessed her takedown.
“Do you know what dogs eat besides their food whenever possible?”
The deep voice lacked humor. She hadn’t heard him approach, or never in a million years would she have allowed this man to catch her roughhousing with Big Al in the middle of the floor. Commissioning as much dignity as possible, Emma Jean rose from her position, temporarily ignoring her best retriever buddy.
She wished she could sic Big Al to knock Matthew Pope on his ass and give him a big ole sloppy kiss. But a Southern lady hid her crazy with fine manners—always.
Instead of using her manicure as a deadly weapon, Emma said, “Well, I’d rather eat my dog’s shit thirdhand than spend another minute being insulted.”
She nailed him with her best beauty pageant, dazzler smile and made a slow, deliberate runway pivot, whistled to Big Al, and exited the room; head high, her five-inch heels clicking across the tiles.
Emma would love to have gotten a photo of his comical expression at her response to his rudeness, but a leave-taking like that prevented looking back to enjoy the moment. It was an epic exit.
Holy mother of God. The realization smacked him upside the head. The corn-fed, six-foot-tall blonde who’d just sashayed out the door with a Southern queen’s bearing—her infectious mutt in tow—was none other than former Miss Alabama, Emma Laroux. He shook his head to clear it. Then, he smiled. Emma Laroux. Well, shit.
Their time together hadn’t been romantic. It had been brief, chaotic, and quite frankly, more intensely confusing than either of them had been prepared to cope with on a college football Iron Bowl weekend.
For Emma, he realized that weekend must have had serious implications not of his doing. He’d tried once to contact her—after. But he hadn’t heard a word. So, against his better judgment, he’d let it go. It hadn’t been the last time he’d thought of her though. He hadn’t even been certain what all had happened, only that Emma, who’d been Miss Alabama up until that time, had stepped down and became former Miss Alabama after that weekend.
Today, he’d not recognized her at first. Maybe because he was in the throes of a wretched allergy attack, or because now she was less a fresh young beauty queen and more an incredibly sexy woman, fully grown. Not mature in any sort of matronly way either. No, more a vibrant, fit, and completely overwhelming sexy female kind of way. Back then, she was young, model-thin, platinum blonde—gorgeous, yes, but without the depth of experience life and years tended to layer on. To Matthew, all the things that made women the most interesting and appealing.
If you’d asked him ten years ago, he’d have sworn Emma Laroux was perfect, with no room for improvement, especially after he’d seen the woman behind the perfection. She’d been vulnerable at that time, made so by circumstances that likely had shaped her into the woman who’d just marched cleanly away and left him dazed.
Ten years ago, he’d been a heavy-set football player, not the lean, fit man he was today. No wonder she hadn’t a clue who he was. He’d even changed his name—not that she’d even known his name back then. But she’d also been out of it the evening they’d met. Her memory was more than likely fuzzy from whatever had gone down—whether it had been of her making, or not.
When Matthew had later reflected on that night, he realized someone had surely drugged her earlier in the evening, and that must have been why she was wandering, in her underwear, around the fraternity house where he’d been a visitor. The thought had brought up such intensely angry emotions within him later, but it was after the fact, and it was truly none of his business. Plus, she’d not returned his call when he’d tried to contact her.
The local news reported she’d given up her crown and stepped down from the Miss Alabama title for “personal reasons.” He hadn’t seen any sensational news reports aside from that. He never really knew exactly what had caused the shit storm, but he knew she’d been in trouble that weekend, because he’d done his best to help her out of it.
Maybe she was married with kids. No one had mentioned anything about her current personal situation within his hearing, but he hesitated to approach her again after today’s rather disastrous encounter. She obviously hadn’t recognized him. He’d like to think those changes were for the better. It was sort of a relief she didn’t know who he was now. That would have been truly awkward because of how they’d met again.
Since he’d gotten back here—here being Alabama—things hadn’t gone well. The idea of a downward move, career-wise, made him want to roar in frustration. The squirrelly network executive responsible had been threatened by Matthew’s presence at the New York office. Or maybe by the fact that Dave had found out about Matthew’s past dating relationship with his current girlfriend, Brandi.
Dave was pretty short, or maybe it was because of his receding hairline. Perhaps both contributed to his insecurity. The exec made far more money than Matthew, and Brandi had seemed far more impressed by the size of a paycheck than the man. So, surely sending Matthew down here was overkill. And it was an asshole thing to do.
Not that this was a bad assignment; Cammie Laroux at Home was a hot, new show for the network in a sweet primetime slot. It just happened to shoot in Ministry, Alabama. Might as well call it Mayberry, RFD.
But things just got a bit more interesting in Mayberry. He was well aware that he’d been an insufferable grouch—angry and frustrated with his situation thus far. Time to address these allergies, and maybe a tall blonde.
Emma kicked off her high heels and poured herself a glass of chardonnay. She’d put in a full afternoon and evening at her studio. Students began filing in at 2:30 every weekday for various classes and tutoring sessions. She taught group classes, but others were private lessons. Her specialty was pageant preparation; she was a pageant coach. She taught runway, deportment, grace, grooming, and other preparatory skills that went along with it. She didn’t offer dance or voice lessons, personally, but rented space to those who taught them. Some pageants hosted talent competitions as a part of the programs, and some didn’t.
After growing up in the pageant community, and being crowned Miss Alabama during college, she offered the community the wealth of her experience and advisement. And they paid for it. There was a demand and she supplied. But she drew the line at toddlers. Those were some crazy mommas with a capital C.
False eyelashes on a two-year-old bordered on abuse in Emma’s book. Her competitor on the other side of town supplied the toddler training and more power to her. Emma took on girls once they were well into elementary school, but preferably later, when they truly understood what she was trying to teach them. Good manners, grace, and carriage of self were valuable traits for any young lady, whether they entered pageants, or not.
When the deafening strains of Gone With the Wind sounded, Emma nearly spilled her wine. She’d turned up her cell ringtone to the loudest setting so she could hear it above the students. “Hello?”
“Hey there, honey. Heard you left the set in a huff this afternoon. Everything okay?” It was her mother.
“Hey, Mom. I’m fine. The producer they sent to work with Cammie was acting like a butthole and didn’t like Big Al. The guy was sneezing and griping about his allergies.”
“Uh-oh. Cammie said he was a bit of a grump. Did you offer him some Claritin or Benadryl or something? Maybe you could leave Big Al at my house tomorrow while you go to Cammie’s, if that’ll help.”
Emma smiled. “Good idea. Thanks for offering. I’ll drop him off in the morning. Wouldn’t want to cause my sister problems because of my sweet Al.”
“He is a big sweetie, but some people don’t feel the same about animals as we do, dear.”
“I know, Mom,” she agreed, then asked, “Hey, how’s Howard?” she asked about her soon-to-be stepfather, and the newly-discovered biological father of her oldest sibling, Maeve. It was all very complicated and confusing, especially for Maeve. But Howard had been her mother’s first love what must have been a hundred years ago, and he really seemed to adore her. Dad had died tragically twelve years ago, and now that Mom wasn’t alone, she seemed to have a whole new lease on life.
“He’s wonderful, thanks for asking.” Her mother sighed.
She sounded like a teenager in love. They were planning an intimate wedding to be held in a few weeks.
“Please tell him I said hi. I’ll see you in the morning with your grand dog.”
Mom was quiet for a moment, and then said, “I wish you’d seriously consider dating again, Emma. I could stand to have another grand baby running around here, you know.”
Crap. She’d set herself up for that one, hadn’t she? “I’m fine, Mom. You’ve got plenty of grandchildren. I’m sure Cammie and Grey will get right on that for you. Don’t worry about me.”
“You know I worry. It’s been ten years since you and Tad broke up, honey. Don’t you think it’s time to give someone else a chance?” Her mother’s voice was sweet and soothing, and Emma felt an indescribable urge to run to her childhood home two miles away and curl up in Mom’s lap like a little girl again.
“I’ll think about it. And you know I’ve tried dating from time to time, but haven’t really connected with anyone. But I’m really happy. I’ve got wonderful clients, a successful business, and a nice home. I feel very lucky.” This was her mantra, and it usually worked to soothe her own occasional restlessness.
“Okay, honey. I’ll stop for now. See you in the morning.”
“Night, Mom.” Emma hung up and turned down the ringer.
A tiny familiar emptiness crept up before she could shove it back down. Being alone had its advantages, but right now it was hard to name them. What would her life have been like had her ex, Tad, not turned out to be such a big turd and she’d met someone nice to spend her life with? She really couldn’t go there, because that place was an angry, dangerous one filled with ugly emotion and foggy frustration. Emma was all about control.
Sipping her wine, she flipped through the mail, the television muted in the background. Big Al nosed his stuffed squeaky squirrel at her feet. She really did have lots to be thankful for. She hardly thought about dating, or any of the other stuff these days.
End of Excerpt