Squaring her shoulders and placing a pleasant smile on her face, Monique entered the building. She immediately began shaking hands, introducing herself and, thanks to a Dale Carnegie course on memory, addressed those she’d previously met by name. A quick scan around the room told her there were around eighty people in attendance, including the woman who owned the deli. She made her way over to that side of the room.
“Monique!” The cheery, slightly chubby woman with a cute face, gorgeous, naturally auburn hair and sparkly green eyes turned to greet her. “I see you made it.”
“And in a much more agreeable mood than I would have been in had I not eaten that salad. It was delicious, by the way. I loved the addition of green apples. Completely unexpected.”
“We try,” Kari replied with a satisfied shrug. “I’m glad you liked it. The apples were actually my daughter’s idea.”
“Does she work with you?”
“When she’s not away at school. She’s a freshman at San Francisco State.”
“Excellent. What is her major?”
“She tells me early childhood development, but I say it’s parties and boys.”
Monique chuckled. “While pursuing a degree, I took that course a time or two. Is she your only child?”
“No. I have three more, a daughter who’s sixteen and two boys, twelve and ten.”
“You know, Kari, women like you and families like yours are exactly who I had in mind while creating my business-development platform. Particularly businesses ran by women. I want you to have the money you need to improve and expand, to reward good ideas and hard work. And to be able to take care of your family.”
“That’s all most of us around here want. My husband does well as an over-the-road truck driver, but more attention paid to this level of the working class is always appreciated. I checked out your website after you left. A background as a defense attorney? I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Yes, well, I’ve taken a break from defending accused criminals to defend the future of Paradise Cove for residents like you.”
“Oh, she’s good,” one of the women with whom Kari had been talking said, turning to join the conversation.
“Hello. I’m Mo Slater and I’d like to be your mayor.”
“Hi, I…think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Monique followed the woman’s gaze to see what had so thoroughly gotten her attention. She looked just in time to see four distinguished gentlemen entering the room. Her eyes were immediately drawn to one in particular. Niko nodded, then turned to greet the chamber members who gathered around the foursome as if they were stars.
Of course he’d be here. Why would you think otherwise? The truth was that she’d been so focused throughout the course of her day that she hadn’t given it any thought at all. She tried to continue working the room: shaking hands and smiling, networking and hobnobbing, as if Niko’s mere presence in the same room didn’t sorely affect her. It did.
She meant to ignore him, but occasionally, when in her direct line of sight, she observed his easy camaraderie with everyone present, how he seemed to listen intently and how his smile seemed sincere. It was during one of these moments, while surreptitiously peeking, that Niko turned, smiled at her, and then after whispering something to the gentlemen around him, they all began heading her way.
“Yes, Kari,” she said, turning to face the deli owner.
“This is my daughter’s childhood friend who helps me run the shop.”
Grateful for the temporary diversion, Monique turned fully away from the oncoming tsunami of testosterone walking toward her and greeted the young woman. The whole time, it was as if she could feel Niko staring at her, could imagine him walking over to lay a firm hand on her shoulder, maybe even a tender kiss on her cheek. For someone not known to be fanciful, she was more than chagrined that being around this man made her think of fairy dust, sugarplums and happily-ever-afters. But it did.
“It was nice to meet you.”
Monique smiled and nodded, hoping that the woman hadn’t asked a question or made a comment needing a response. Because for her, the past several seconds had been like a black hole filled with one face—his—and one word: Niko.