Chapter Twenty One
A slow thudding woke me the next morning. Much to my surprise, Oliver was hopping up and down on one foot next to my bed.
"What are you doing?" I asked, squinting at him. He was pulling the strangest face I'd ever seen.
Grunting, he bent down and held his foot. "I think I broke my toe."
"By jumping on one foot?" Maybe I was still dreaming.
He huffed and sank down next to me, his fingers clenched around his little toe. "No, by trying to get that dog to come and eat its breakfast before I leave to get your car." He was interrupted by the sound of a horn outside. "That's Junie," he told me. "She's driving me to the catering company."
I rolled over and tried to find my clock, but it had vanished. "What time is it?"
"Almost ten. You've been asleep for a long time."
Sometimes Oliver's talent for stating the obvious was unreal. "Why did you let me sleep so long?" I yawned, feeling altogether too comfortable to dig myself out from my warm covers.
Oliver cleared his throat. "I thought, given the activities of last night, that you could use a little extra rest."
I rolled back over and flung my arms around him. "You're the best brother I've ever had," I said.
"I'm the only brother you've ever had. Now, let go so I can leave. Junie's waiting outside with the baby." He winced when he stood up but managed to limp around without too much trouble.
"How exactly did you hurt yourself again?" I asked, noticing for the first time that Mr. P was lying quietly in the corner.
An embarrassed look crossed his face and he turned to leave. "I ran into your bed, if you must know," he said huffily. "But before you go and tease me about it, please remember that it happened while I was trying to save you some trouble."
He had a point there. "Thanks, Oliver," I said meekly.
Oliver wrinkled his nose at me. "While I'm gone, take a shower. You smell like dog drool."
Mr. P had been rather clingy the night before, but I wasn't going to complain. "All right," I sighed. "Come on, Mr. P. Let's get you fed and watered and then I'll obey the great Ollinator."
Smirking at me from the doorway, Oliver bowed. "And don't forget it."
Mr. P and I helped ourselves to breakfast, which we munched in noisy contemplation. Mr. P was engrossed in his Sunday morning cartoons, and I was trying to imagine what Sam was doing. Most likely he was still sleeping off the effects of yesterday's party. Part of me hoped he was thinking of me.
I took another long, hot shower – if Oliver complained about the water bill I'd feel justified in telling him it was all his fault – and emerged from the bathroom just as the phone started ringing.
"Hello?" I said absently. Trying to put socks on with a phone stuck in the crook of your neck was proving more difficult than I'd anticipated.
"Is this Katie Embury?"
"Sure is," I replied, still not paying much attention.
"This is Ellen. I work for Senator Embury in his Indianapolis office."
I promptly dropped the phone on the floor, followed closely by the socks. Had Mr. Selman turned me in? Was I going to be arrested for impersonating the senator's daughter? I leaned over to grab the phone and fell off the bed.
Ellen was patiently waiting for me. "I'm sorry," I gasped, wishing I didn't sound quite so winded, "but I could have sworn you said you were from Senator Embury's office."
Her pause was so short I was sure I'd imagined that, too. "I am," she said in a voice that sounded suspiciously amused. "Senator Embury would like to meet with you early this afternoon. He's aware that it's Sunday, but he has to get back to Washington tonight and was hoping you could squeeze him in."
It didn't sound like I was going to be locked up in a tiny jail cell with a bunch of axe murderers, and I felt my shoulders relax a little. "My brother's picking up my car, but I can leave as soon as he gets back," I told Ellen. I'd never been contacted by a politician (or his assistants) before, and I was pretty sure you didn't just ignore it.
"When do you expect you could come in?" Ellen asked. It sounded like she was chewing on a pencil.
As I was opening my mouth to tell her I honestly had no idea I heard the back door bang closed. "I can be there in thirty minutes." Honestly, if I hadn't given up Jane Austen I'd swear I was living in one of her novels. Everything was just happening so conveniently.
Ellen gave me directions, and a few minutes later I was heading out the door. "Where are you going?" Oliver called after my retreating back.
"To see the senator," I yelled back. "I don't know when I'll be back. Thanks for getting my car!"
"What senator?" Oliver demanded, sounding incredulous.
"Embury, of course."
He stood in the door and watched me leave, his head shaking in disbelief. I would have agreed with him, but I was in a bit of a hurry.
Oliver had left the radio on, and the news was just beginning when I drove down the street. "In local news," the radio announced said in a gleeful way, "Peter Selman, founder of Peter's Perfect Catering, was arrested last night on bribery charges. Selman, who recently won a contract that gave him exclusive catering rights to all IMS track events, reportedly purchased a car for a track employee, who in turn arranged the terms of the contract. David Selman, Peter's oldest son, was not available for comment."
I reached over and turned off the radio. So Sam probably hadn't been thinking about me, I mused. At least, he hadn't been thinking about me in a good way. I wondered what would happen to the company now. Maybe they'd fire Agnes.
Senator Embury was tremendously polite, and apologized for the misunderstanding of the day before. "I believe your boss fired you because of a mix-up concerning your name," he said, shaking his head.
I started to shrug and then changed my mind. "It's hardly your fault that Katie's such a common name."
The senator cleared his throat. "Actually, it is. My wife and I couldn't decide on a name when she was expecting Katie, and we still didn't have one after she was born. We happened to live near Vincennes then, and when the nurse heard our last name she told us that another Embury couple had named their baby Katie. For the lack of anything better we called her Katie until it was time to go home, and by that time we'd gotten so used to it that we couldn't change it if we wanted to."
I didn't know exactly what to do with this information. "So I'm the original Katie," I said slowly. "And all the confusion has been because you couldn't think of something on your own."
He nodded and sighed. "At that point I had no idea I'd ever be in politics and that adopting your name would be such a problem for you. And now you've been fired. I must confess that I feel slightly responsible."
"How did you know about that?" I asked. "About me being fired because I was the wrong Katie Embury? It's hardly common knowledge."
He leaned back in his chair and regarded me steadily. "After Katie – my Katie – and I met you in the foyer I could tell that something wasn't right. I must admit that I followed you and Mr. Selman through the house, and . . . " He trailed off, looking at me meaningfully.
Did everyone I met have aspirations to be a private eye? "You listened at the door," I finished for him. When he tipped his head in agreement, I sighed. "I guess it was all for the best," I said, half to myself. "I don't know what's going to happen to the company now that Mr. Selman's in legal trouble."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." Senator Embury was so serious even his hair didn't dare wave in the breeze from the heating vents. "Tell me what happened."
So I did. I told him about the first time I met Josh, and our subsequent encounters; of the tour at the track, and later of Josh's visit to the catering company. I even told him every nasty thing Josh had said to me over the past two months. "So when I got Junie's text, saying that Mr. Selman had bought the car, I had to figure it out."
"Would you have been as interested in foiling the plot if you hadn't been fired?"
"Yes." I tried to look as serious as he did, but it was hard when you didn't know what the big deal was. "I can safely say that I would have."
The senator smiled slightly. "That's what I was hoping. I've been very impressed with you, Miss Embury, especially after Sam defended you so valiantly."
My throat suddenly became very tight. "He did?"
"He did. It took him a while to figure out that you were missing and then ran around the house searching for you. He was in the middle of pulling a canoe toward the pond when I came across him quite by accident. He said something to the effect that you may have fallen in -- and I explained what had happened."
I felt momentarily bothered. After all, it'd hardly been my fault that the canoe had tipped over in the first place. But it was nice to know that he cared enough to look for me.
"Thank you," I told the senator faintly.
Looking pleased with himself, Senator Embury steepled his fingers together and regarded me for a long time. "I have a proposition for you," he said. "I'd like to offer you a position with my staff in Washington."
I stared at him in shock. "I'm sorry, sir?"
He looked me straight in the eye. "It's not always easy, or comfortable, to do the right thing, and in Washington it's even harder. I've tried to surround myself with people who know their conscience and are willing to follow it, even when those around you tell you you're a fool or that you're wasting your time. I believe you are one of those people that will stick to her morals, no matter the consequences."
I swallowed hard. This would certainly solve my current jobless situation. But I wasn't sure that I wanted to leave Indiana for good.
"Think about it," he said, a note of finality in his voice. "I have to be on a plane in two hours, so I'm afraid I'll have to leave you. Call Ellen with your answer when you're ready."
He stood up and shook my hand. "Again, I apologize for giving my daughter your name. I hope she can live up to it."
I stumbled out of the senator's office, not really registering what had just happened. I drove around on the back roads of Indianapolis and its surrounding communities for a long time without really realizing where I was, finally ending up outside Holliday Park where Mr. P and I had met Junie all those weeks ago. I turned onto my street and walked into the house, hoping to find Oliver.
Instead I found a note. Went to study on campus. Call me when you get home and I'll meet you somewhere for dinner. I sighed. It was good to see Oliver hitting the books again, but I needed someone to talk to. Not surprisingly, I got his voice mail.
"Hey, Oliver. I think I'll take Mr. P for a walk. I'll see you when you get home. Thanks for the invite."
At the word 'walk' Mr. Poppikins magically appeared by the back door, his leash clenched hopefully in his jaws. "All right," I said, ruffling his fur. "They don't talk about canine hearing for nothing. Let's go."
The Monon Trail was almost deserted when we got out of the car, probably because the weather had changed overnight from pleasant fall briskness to a cold that hinted of a long winter. I grabbed a jacket from the backseat, tried to brush off most of Mr. P's hairs, and put it on.
I hadn't taken Mr. P to the Monon Trail since that fateful first day when he'd wrapped the leash around me, sticking mostly to the neighborhood sidewalks and Holliday Park for our walks. He trotted next to me, looking for all the world like I'd finally come around to his way of thinking. He sniffed all around like he was looking for something very important. Or tasty. It's hard to tell with dogs.
It didn't take me long to figure out that neither Mr. P nor I were going to get much exercise today, because we ambled along the trail for a long time without getting very far. I'd tried for years to avoid thinking about my future – deep down, I knew that I'd only accepted the position at Uncle Bob's real estate agency and then the one as Mr. Selman's personal assistant because I didn't know what else to do and had been afraid that if I knew what I wanted, I wouldn't get it. Maybe it was time to grow up a little and see what I could do.
The problem was, I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just knew what I didn't want to be.
But did I want to live and work in Washington? I just couldn't see myself doing that long term. Maybe for a little while, but I was a Midwestern girl at heart.
Mr. P suddenly raised his head and looked down the path. I would have thought that he'd finally found what he was looking for, but we hadn't been here in more than two months. Besides, I didn't think dogs lost things. Couldn't they find their belongings by smell?
When we reached the top of the bridge going over the White River Mr. P, evidently bored now that his treasure hunt was over, sat down and wouldn't budge. No matter how hard I yanked on his leash, he just laid there, tilting his head up to the weak sunshine. Then he looked sharply to his right and barked once.
A second later Sam came around the corner.
He was talking on his phone and raking his hand through his hair, but when Mr. P barked again Sam's head shot up and he stared at me in shock. He flipped the phone closed and stuffed it in his pocket, his movements jerky. The next thing I knew he was in a dead run. He skidded to a halt in front of me, gasping for breath, and gaped at me like he was seeing a ghost.
Before the words were completely out of my mouth he had his arms around me so tight I was the one gasping for breath.
We stood there for a long time. I listened as his heart rate gradually slowed down and his breathing returned to normal. He was still wearing the same clothes he'd had on for the party, and I could feel his stubbly chin where he'd pressed his face to the top of my head.
"I can't believe I found you."
I could hardly believe it myself. What were the odds that we'd both be wandering down the Monon Trail at the same random time again? If it wasn't fate we were both really, insanely lucky. I wasn't sure which one I preferred.
"I hear you've been busy since I last saw you." For a man who acted like he was never going to let me go his tone was overly casual.
I pulled back so I could look at him properly. "Your dad fired me – "
"I had to hear that from the senator."
Ignoring his pointed look, I continued, "Then Junie and I figured out about Josh and Mr. Selman." I waited for another interruption, but he turned his face away and stared out over the river. "And then I went to your father's office to see what I could find."
Sam stepped around me and leaned against the guardrail, staring at the water gurgling past. "I heard about the rest of your activities in the police station. What I can't figure out is why you left without telling me where you were going? You walked into that building by yourself. Anyone could have followed you in and done unspeakable things to you. And they did!" he exploded, his hands fisting on the bridge. "Weren't you in line when they handed out street smarts in heaven? Do you know what I've been through for the past twelve hours?"
He wasn't exactly shouting, but I'd bet a sizable chunk of cash that the fish swimming below us could hear him pretty clearly. "I'm guessing you weren't dreaming about butterflies and flowers."
He rounded on me, his eyes slightly wild. "Let me tell you what I was thinking. Back at the party, when I couldn't find you, I convinced myself that you were drowned in the pond. Once the senator calmed me down some I thought you didn't trust me enough to ask me to help you. Why didn't you come get me after Dad – after Dad – "
"Fired me?" I suggested angrily, feeling a resurgent bit of Selman-inspired resentment. "Let me go? Decided I was unnecessary?"
Shaking his head impatiently, Sam strode across the bridge and stood there with his back against the rail. "Sure. All those things. Why didn't you come and find me?"
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Was he ignoring the fact that Mr. Selman – his own father – had fired me? Without any reason? I could feel my brows furrowing together. "He told me to get out of the house," I reminded him, my tone icy. "I was surprised he gave me enough time to pack my things before he threw me out himself. He certainly didn't bother to see how I was going to get home," I added. "Hannah had to help me with that."
He made an impatient noise. "I can't believe he'd be so dumb as to think the other Katie would want to work with him and put up with his crap. Didn't you ever tell him who you really were?"
This was going a little too far. "I'm Katie Embury," I said stiffly. "Do you need to see my driver's license as proof? I never lied to him."
I yanked my foot from underneath Mr. P. Strength must come to angry people, I thought bitterly. It was too bad you couldn't get stronger when you were scared out of your wits, too – that would have come in handy last night when I was trying to escape from Josh.
"You had to have suspected something."
Honestly, the man was too infuriating for words. "And just how was I supposed to do that? He never asked about my family, never suggested that I knew people in politics. I didn't even know he thought I was the wrong one! What am I supposed to do?" I snapped, grabbing Mr. P's leash and pulling hard. He looked up at me and yawned. "Go up to everyone that I meet and say, 'Oh, by the way, my name's really Katie but I'm just a plain old boring girl whose name happened to be stolen from her by someone who turned out to be famous later'?"
I knew that didn't make a whole lot of sense but I didn't care. I glared at Sam. "Why are we arguing about this, anyway? Do you resent the fact that I found out what he and Josh had been doing?"
Sam, who'd been listening to all this with his mouth hanging open in shock, suddenly found his voice. "What? He deserves everything he gets. No, I'm not mad about that. I'm mad that you walked into that building last night all alone and that Haskins even thought about laying a finger on you!"
We stared at each other for a loaded minute. Sam was breathing rapidly again, and I couldn't help remembering what Josh had wanted to do to me. "How do you know about that?" I asked quietly. Mr. P sidled over and leaned his head against my knee.
Sam exhaled heavily. "I tried to get your police officer friend to let me listen to the tape, but he wouldn't. Said it was against the law. He did tell me a little about what you'd unearthed in that office, though," he said, just as quietly. "First the part where Dad made that insane deal with Haskins, and then when Haskins – when Haskins – " He looked like he might be sick over the side of the bridge.
My mind refused to revisit Josh's words, but my hand crept up to touch my mouth and I shivered. "They assured me that you hadn't been hurt, that you were just fine," Sam continued, "but as soon as I got out of there I had to find you and see for myself. I've been searching ever since."
I had to hand it to Sam – he was very good at banishing Josh from my brain. I looped Mr. P's leash around my wrist several times and yanked harder. He just sighed and nudged my leg with his nose, and I brushed at him with my free hand. "Why, so you could yell at me?"
"I'm not yelling at you!" he yelled. When I glared at him, he ran his hand over his face and took several deep breaths. "I'm sorry," he said in a more normal tone. "I was worried out of my mind. The police wouldn't tell me where you were, and your car was still in the parking lot. When I went to your house this morning no one answered and I started getting desperate. I didn't know where to go next, so I thought I'd come back to where we'd met the first time and try to figure something out."
"But why?" I cried. "Why go through all this trouble? I would have sent you back the keys to your car – "
Sam made a grunt of frustration. "Forget the car," he said, his words getting louder with every one that came out of his mouth. "I could care less about that stupid car. It can fall in the river for all I care! I was out of my mind with worry because I love you!"
Sam, who looked like he wasn't sure how that statement had come out of his mouth, and didn't know what to do about it now that it had, slid his eyes away from mine and shifted uncomfortably. I sucked in a shallow breath and rubbed my forehead, hard. I so wanted to believe him, but the things Mr. Selman had said just wouldn't leave me alone. It would have helped if Sam didn't seem to be regretting his words. "No, you don't." I swallowed and tried to turn away from him, but Mr. P spread out on the sidewalk, resting his head on his paws. He looked like he was ready to take a nap. As soon as I got home I was going to lock him in the laundry room for insubordination. "You just don't."
He took a step toward me. "I do."
When I looked up again the distance between us had closed by half. "You don't," I insisted. Don't cry, don't' cry, I told myself. Whatever you do, don't fall apart now.
"How can you say that?" His voice was incredulous. "Haven't I been fairly obvious? I thought everyone could tell just by looking at me."
"I'm not everyone," I said stiffly. "Your dad told me you didn't want to ask me out that time we went to Mama Carolla's. I know he forced you to do it."
His eyes flashing in annoyance, Sam took another step toward me. I would have backed away, but between the guardrail and Mr. P I had nowhere to go. "He didn't force me to do anything," he said angrily. "I'm a grown man, in case you hadn't noticed."
Oh, I'd noticed, all right, but this was hardly the time to say that.
"He suggested that I should ask you out several times, but I was . . . too cautious, I guess. For all I knew, he'd told you to say yes if I asked, and I didn't want you to go out with me because you thought you had to. And then you'd just been out with Haskins – " He said the name like it'd been covered in slime – "and I wasn't sure if anything was going on or not. But when I saw you sitting there, cleaning that stupid golf club, the words just came flying out. And I'm glad they did."
Huh. "What about the Governor's Ball?" I shot back. "You hardly seemed thrilled when he told me to go with you."
Sam made a strange noise, the kind where if he'd had his mouth open, it would have come out as a shout. "I didn't want you to go with me because you felt you had to!" he cried, advancing another foot. "Weren't you listening before? I wanted you to go out with me because you wanted to, not because you thought that if you didn't you'd lose your job!"
As much as I hated to admit it, he did have a point. When I glanced back up at him his face was mere inches from mine. He placed his hands on the rail on either side of me, his arms tight around me so I couldn't move away. "Does this feel like I don't know my own heart?" he demanded, and the next thing I knew he was kissing me.
If our first kiss had been sweet, this one was anything but. I felt like Sam was trying to pour all his frustrations and worry and relief into that one kiss. It went on for a long time, and when he finally pulled his head away to look at me with glittering eyes I was surprised to find that my arms had somehow found their way around his neck.
"Well?" he asked intently. "Have I convinced you that I know what I'm talking about, or do you need another demonstration?"
I opened my mouth to tell him that I wouldn't really mind another demonstration, regardless of whether I believed him or not, but Mr. P squeezed himself between my legs and the railing, pushing me even closer to Sam. He kissed me again, less desperately this time, and when he lifted his head away I was seeing those flashes of light again.
Maybe it wasn't the flash photography after all.
"Katie, I love you. I have for a long time now. I don't know how to convince you, but I do."
For the first time in almost twenty four hours, I felt a smile tug at my lips. "You do?"
Mr. P brushed against the back of my legs again, and I flapped my hand at him absently.
"I do." I'd never seen Sam so earnest and solemn.
Taking a deep breath, and pushing Mr. P's head away again, I grinned up at him. "That's very good news."
"Oh? Why's that?" Sam was grinning goofily back at me.
"Because I love you, too."
This time Sam's kiss was full of promise.
When we finally came to our senses I tried to step back from Sam – and we promptly fell backward into the side of the bridge. It was a good thing Sam caught us with his hands; my back hurt enough without his added weight. "What's wrong with my legs?" I laughed, struggling to plant my feet on the ground. For some reason they weren't behaving properly. "What's going on?"
Sam twisted his head down and started to laugh. He laughed so hard that he couldn't stop for a good long time. "I think that's one of the things I love most about you, Katie," he said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "It's never dull when you're around."
I was starting to feel a little annoyed. I hadn't done anything to him, and I told him so. "All I did was kiss you back, and you didn't seem to think it was funny a few seconds ago."
He took my chin between his hands and pointed my head toward our knees. "It's your blasted dog again," he told me, throwing that wry smile of his at me. "Mr. P tied us together with his leash when we weren't paying attention."
Sure enough, the leash was wrapped around us several times. "I wondered what he was doing, brushing the back of my legs," I said, and started to smile. "I guess we have his seal of approval."
Sam kissed me briefly. While we tried to stand up correctly again, a young woman pushing a stroller trotted past us. She took one look in our direction, snapped closed the visor over her baby, and wheeled around. She gave us a very disgusted look, which made us laugh even harder. By the time we'd unwound ourselves my sides ached so much I had a hard time standing up straight – even without the leash.
Sam followed me all the way home because, as he told me half-seriously, he couldn't trust me to stay out of trouble that long.
"I only live five miles away," I protested laughingly. "What could I possibly do in five miles?"
"You never know," was his only response. "Anyway, I need to get your phone back to you. I go a little crazy if I can't get a hold of you."
I thought about this as I drove through the streets. While I appreciated the sentiment, it hardly seemed right to use a company phone when I no longer worked for said company. I wondered if Sam remembered that his dad had bought the phone for me in the first place.
Oliver was waiting for me when Sam and I walked through the back door.
"Where have you been?" he demanded. "You didn't say anything in your message about your meeting with the senator! Oh, hi, Sam. Hannah's already here. She's in the sunroom if you want her."
"Hannah's at our house?" I asked in surprise. "Why?"
Oliver got a little pink in the face. "She called me to see where you were," he told me defensively. "It seemed rude not to invite her over when she sounded so worried."
I raised my eyebrows at Sam. "So much for the random meeting on the trail," I said drily.
Sam had come to a halt in the middle of the kitchen. "I was talking to her when I spotted you," he said. "Why were you talking to a senator?"
I tried to laugh disarmingly at his question – didn't people in books do that when they wanted to change the subject without actually changing it? – but it came out more like a gurgle. Sam just raised his eyebrows even higher.
"One of Senator Embury's staff members called this morning and asked if I wouldn't mind meeting with him," I said, twitching my shoulder nervously. I'd managed to forget about that whole meeting while I'd been with Sam.
"Katie!" The next thing I knew Hannah had barreled into the kitchen and thrown her arms around me. "I'm so glad you're okay. Sam told me what he heard at the police station last night. You're okay?"
I felt myself blush. People kept asking me that, like I'd had some sort of near-death experience or something.
Okay, I very well could have. But still. I'd rather that people stopped asking me about it. "I'm fine, thanks. I'm sorry about what happened with your dad."
Hannah had opened her mouth to say something that I was sure was profound, but Sam cut her off. "I'm sure Hannah'll get over the shock. What's this about a meeting with the Senator?"
We turned to him in surprise. Hannah's eyes narrowed, but when she looked between the two of us she did an about-face and grabbed Oliver's hand. "I think I'd like to see your . . . um . . . garage," she told Oliver brightly. "Won't you show it to me?"
"Now? It's kind of cold out there," he objected. "And I want to know what happened at the meeting."
"The garage, Oliver. Now."
Oliver jumped at her tone of voice and followed her meekly through the back door. It had only taken her a week to get Oliver to obey. It had taken my mom years – and my dad still wasn't fully trained.
When the door closed quietly behind them, Sam placed his hands on my shoulders. "Katie. Are you in some kind of trouble?"
He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
"It's not a big deal," I said defensively. "He just wanted to chat. And he . . . he . . . "
Why didn't I want to tell him I'd been offered a job in Washington? It wasn't like I'd done anything wrong; if anything, it was a huge honor. But for some reason I didn't want to tell him. "He apologized for stealing my name and making my life miserable."
Sam stood there and waited.
"And he might have offered me a job."
His head jerked almost imperceptibly. "Did he, or didn't he?"
I hesitated. "He did."
Sam stared out the window before he said anything. It almost seemed like he was addressing the tree in the backyard instead of me. "What's so bad about that?" he asked lightly. "I like him. He seems like a decent enough guy, even if he does have a horrid daughter."
I took another deep breath. At this rate I'd suck out all the air in the room and we'd have to borrow some from the neighbors. "In Washington."
All the color drained from his face. "What did you say?"
"He offered me a job in his Washington office."
The expression on Sam's face turned into something I didn't recognize. It was almost like he'd placed a pair of reflective sunglasses on his head, the kind that hide what you're really thinking. His fingers tightened ever so slightly around my shoulders. "What did you tell him?"
"I told him I'd have to think about it."
Sam's eyes met mine, and for a fraction of a second I could see panic reflecting back at me. Then it was gone.
Inexplicably nervous, I ducked around him and headed to the sunroom. It seemed like we'd been standing in that kitchen for a small eternity, and I suddenly felt like we needed to finish this conversation sitting down, on something comfortable and warm.
Sam followed me in and sat next to me on the loveseat. He was very careful not to touch me. "So have you thought about it?" he asked carefully, focusing his attention on the view outside.
"I haven't had a whole lot of time," I admitted. "Mr. P and I went to the trail so I could think, but I got a little sidetracked." I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He hadn't moved.
Was he? "I'm not." I pulled my legs onto the couch and rested my head on my knees. "I did have time for a little pondering, though. It would be stupid not to take it seriously – I mean, I don't have a job right now, and with the economy the way it is . . . " I let my voice trail off.
"What would you be doing for him?"
That brought me up short. I'd been so surprised by his offer that I hadn't even bothered to ask. "I don't know," I admitted. "I guess I should have been more thorough."
Sam smiled a little at this. "May I give you an alternative?"
I squinted at him. Unless he knew of someone that was hiring – immediately – there wasn't a whole lot he could do. "Knock yourself out."
"I happen to know someone who's looking for a partner in his office, and would like this person to start right away. It might start out very similar to what you've been doing, at least until you learn the ropes. Are you interested in that sort of work, or do you want to try something else?"
Hm. That was a good question. I didn't mind being a personal assistant; it'd been kind of fun, working for Uncle Bob, and besides the Agnes-inspired accidents, life at Peter's Perfect Catering had had its good points. "I might be willing to give it another try," I said cautiously. "No offense, but after your dad I think I'd like to watch the guy first. Assuming I'm hired, of course."
"Oh, I don't think there'd be a problem with that. You probably wouldn't make as much money as you were before; would that be a problem?"
I'd thought from the beginning that Mr. Selman had been paying me an ungodly amount of money, and I told Sam so. "Besides," I added, "it's not like I have a mortgage. Or a rent payment."
"You might eventually."
He had a point. And I was probably going to have to replace my poor, murdered car once George and Bea got back from Japan. "I'm sure I could work something out, if your friend likes me enough."
Sam smiled to himself. "Oh, he likes you, all right."
I suddenly became very suspicious. "Who's your friend? You're not trying to pawn me off on David, are you? Because if you are – "
Holding his hands up in the air, Sam laughed openly. "You must be the densest girl in Indiana," he said. "My 'friend' is me. Dad put me in charge of the business when we were in the police station. So now I need someone to keep me in line. Would you be willing to consider it? It's not as glamorous as living in the nation's capitol, but we have great food, and I'd be willing to throw in an occasional dinner if that'll sway you."
My legs slipped off the couch with a thump. "Are you kidding me?"
His eyes finally meeting mine, Sam shook his head. "I've never been more serious."
"I'd be your personal assistant." I felt like a parrot, but I needed clarification.
"Not precisely. I'd like you to work alongside me, learning the business as you go. You've already got a handle of what we fondly call our logistical nightmare, so the rest should be easy."
I wasn't quite expecting that. "Would I have to go on any golf outings?"
His lips twitched. "Not unless you're a closet golfer."
"Are you still doing all the catering at the track?"
"Not on your life."
I exhaled loudly and sank back into the cushions. "I have one more question. Do you still employ Agnes?"
Sam's eyes flashed. "Not as of this morning. I don't work with saboteurs, especially ones that try to hurt my girlfriend."
A delighted tingle went through me at those words, and I couldn't help beaming at him. Sam grinned back at me, draped his arm across the back of the couch, and propped his legs up on the coffee table. Mr. P, who'd come in sometime during our discussion, raised his head and growled. Sam quickly dropped them back down again. "That dog is the strangest creature I've ever seen. Are you sure he's not a human under some sort of evil spell?"
"I really doubt it. He's too interested in squirrels. Are you going to change the name of the company?"
Laughing, Sam picked up a strand of my hair and ran it through his fingers. "I thought you said you only had one question left. By my count, that's two. I don't feel obligated to answer."
"Sam . . . "
He laughed again. "Fine, fine. I have no plans to change the name, at least not until things have calmed down some." I assumed he meant, 'not until I find out if Dad ends up in jail or not.' "And then it'll depend on what he does with it long-term. If you wait long enough, you could help me think of names."
The fingers stopped playing in my hair abruptly. "Okay, what? Okay, you'll help me think of names, or okay, you'll think about working with me?"
Now who was dense? "Okay, I'll work for you."
Sam made a strange noise in his throat and pulled me into such a fierce hug that I was almost sitting on his lap. "Not for me, with me. When can you start?" I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Maybe my first order of business should be to schedule him a check-up, I thought absently. This couldn't be good for his health.
"Does right now work for you, Mr. Selman?"
Pulling a face, he cupped my chin in his hand. "Please don't call me that. I'm just Sam, no matter what."
"Yes, sir," I said meekly.
He just rolled his eyes and smiled ruefully. "I think you'd better get to work right away," he told me. "Then you won't have any time to bug me with your smart comments."
"I thought you wanted smart coworkers." I fluttered my eyelashes at him in a very dim-witted sort of way.
Groaning, Sam buried his face in my shoulder. "Enough, enough."
I laughed at him outright. "How about, Sam's Splendid Catering? Your catch phrase could be, 'We'll do anything to get your business.' It'd be very appropriate."
I thought for a minute. "You could always just name it Sam's. I kind of like that."
Sam thought about this for a minute. "How about S & K Catering? That's even better."
I stared at him blankly. "What's the 'K' stand for?"
Looking at me thoughtfully, Sam simply shrugged and leaned in closer. "Am I allowed to kiss my unofficial business partner, or is that against the rules?"
I put my hand on his chest to stop his forward movement. "Are office romances okay? I don't want to get into any trouble."
He pushed my hand away and laced his fingers through mine. "They're perfectly fine. Besides, after that kiss in the paper it's common knowledge that I'm crazy about you."
I smiled. "In that case, you can kiss me anytime you want," I breathed, and closed the gap between us to show him that I meant exactly what I said.
Hannah and Oliver emerged from the garage some time later, and if their cheeks were a little rosier than usual, even given the cold temperature, I didn't have it in me to give them a hard time. I did notice, however, that they seemed much chummier in the months after that.
Sam and I officially started working together a week later, and, with Mr. Selman and Agnes gone, the atmosphere changed quite drastically. I might even say that it was a great place to work. (The fact that I'm in love with the president-elect, so to speak, and he with me, hasn't added to that feeling at all, I'm sure.) I tried not to pay attention to what was happening with the bribery investigation, but it seemed like hardly any time had passed before both Mr. Selman and Josh were being formally tried.
My mother invited Sam and Hannah to Thanksgiving dinner with the family, and Sam and my dad quickly became fast friends. (This scared me, I must admit. Why couldn't I have fallen for a mechanic?) It went over so well that we repeated the experience at Christmas and again the following spring around Easter, which is how I found myself watching once again as my car-fixing father and my car-fixing boyfriend holed themselves in the garage, talking shop like they knew what they were doing. I wasn't too sure if this was a good idea; my poor car was still in a million pieces all over the floor. I'd have to start looking for a replacement before too long.
My mother, especially, loved Sam. "This is great, Mrs. Embury," Sam told her enthusiastically over dinner. "I haven't had a real Easter dinner in years." He eyed the distance between himself and the ham. I snorted under my breath and passed it to him – again.
"Didn't your mother cook for your family?" My mom seemed genuinely confused.
Sam shook his head. "No, ma'am. After the divorce we went out for Easter. And Christmas. And Thanksgiving." His voice died away like he'd just realized what he'd said.
She passed the rest of the dishes to him without another word.
After dinner a sulky Josie, along with the rest of us, trooped into the kitchen to clean up. Sam had offered to help but my mom had seen the speculative looks he'd been shooting at my father all through dinner and shooed the two of them out of the room.
Josie and I had been bickering pleasantly about dish-duty when Mom, tilting her head meaningfully in Hannah's direction, suggested that it would be a good idea for me to make sure all my things were out of my old room. "Take Josie with you," she ordered. "She could help you box things up. And Oliver – go watch a baseball game or something. There are too many people in this kitchen."
That was the lamest way to get rid of your children that I'd ever heard, especially since I'd cleaned out said room at Thanksgiving. Oliver threw Hannah an apologetic smile before he ducked through the doorway. I rolled my eyes at her, and was relieved when she winked at me and resumed drying. "I'll be fine," she mouthed, and we left her to my mother's interrogation.
"You realize, don't you, that Hannah may never set foot in this house again?" Josie seemed to think this was very funny. "Dad's in the garage talking to Sam about the nobility of his intentions, and Mom's in the kitchen making sure Hannah won't want to wait forever to start a family. I'm so glad I'm only fourteen."
"Can I quote you on that?" I countered. Josie stuck her tongue out at me.
"Very mature, Josie." A strange feeling of déjà vu niggled at me. Hadn't we had this discussion before?
"Mom's kind of taken over your room," Josie informed me. She seemed very happy at the thought. "I hope you weren't planning on coming back to live here when the Butterworths come back." She flung open the door with an expectant look on her face. "Here you are," she told me cheerfully. "Home, sweet home."
"I don't know why you're so excited about this," I said mildly. "Mom called me a few weeks after Christmas to ask if I minded if she turned my room into her 'project space'."
Josie squashed up her face in a frown and pouted. "You're no fun. For all you know she's given away all your precious books."
I had a moment of panic before I remembered that I'd given up Pride and Prejudice for good. Technically, it wouldn't matter if she'd sent my book to the landfill.
Noticing my worried look before I could hide it, Josie laughed. "Come on, Katie. No one would dream of doing something to your book. In fact, I kept it safe for you." She ran down the hall, and when she emerged from her own room she had an opened box under her arm. "Did something happen last fall? Have you finally decided that Mr. Darcy doesn't really exist?"
When I didn't say anything she adopted a sympathetic look that was as fake as Jessica's bust line. "You did!" she cried. "You've finally moved on! Does Oliver know? I'll have to put an ad in the paper so all your high school friends will know that you've finally seen reason!"
Wait a minute. "How do you know I sent my book back?" I asked suspiciously. "Surely that box didn't come open in the mail. Did you open it? That's a criminal offense, you know."
"Like you'd have the guts to turn me over – " She stopped talking abruptly, her eyes shifting back and forth like she was looking for an escape route. "I just remembered," she babbled, backing down the hall. "I need to work on my chemistry homework."
"On Easter Sunday?" I called after her. There was no reply.
I gave myself a mental pat on the back. Turning in Mr. Selman had more benefits than I'd expected.
I picked my old copy of Pride and Prejudice out of the box and fingered the pages. I'd spent so much time reading this one book that I'd let it overtake my life. No wonder Jane Austen was such a good writer. I hadn't done that with any other book. Of course, I hadn't read any other book as much as I had this one, but still. That had to say something.
Most of the bedroom furniture had been taken out, leaving room for my mom's work table (I couldn't figure out what kind of project she was working on; it looked like a bunch of handmade Christmas cards gone bad to me), my old, battered bookshelf, and a couch. I placing the book on the shelf next to Austen's other novels and stepped back to regard the collection silently. I still couldn't figure out what I'd been thinking when I'd thought Sam was a modern-day Mr. Darcy. Sure, he was tall and good-looking, and had a certain . . . Darcy-ish look about him, but that was about the extent of the similarities. Sam was too . . . friendly. And non-judgmental. And sweet. And understanding. And he asked girls out on proper dates. And --
Someone knocked on the open door, startling me out of my thoughts. "Hey, Sam," I said absently. "Are you done talking shop with my dad? I'm surprised he let you get away this soon."
He gave me a little smile and sank down on the couch, patting the seat next to him. "He's certainly very enthusiastic about fixing your old car," he told me. "I think you should let me have it the next time it breaks down. I'm sure I could get it back to you much faster."
I hadn't really expected to get it back in the first place, but this was hardly the time to criticize my father's efforts. "I'll do that," I said, leaning into him. Mental note to self, I thought as Sam's arm slid around me. Find a reliable mechanic as soon as you get home.
"I like your parents," Sam said suddenly. "They're very friendly. I can see where you get your personality from."
Not many girls like to be told they're just like their mothers, but I was too comfortable to argue about it. "I'm glad you're not just like your dad," I told him. "I'm not sure if I could date you if you were."
His chuckle rumbled through his chest. "He has his redeeming qualities," he said lightly. "I just can't think of any at the moment, since he's most likely headed for jail in the next few weeks. He did one good thing, though." He shifted in his seat and drew me closer to his side. "He gave me the company to do with as I please. He was going to give it to David – " I could hear the distaste in his tone – "but David's work ethic is a little less than desirable. And whatever he's done, Dad threw his all into the catering business. He couldn't bear to see it disappear because his son wouldn't go in to work every day."
"That's tremendous news!" I cried, sitting up so I could throw my arms around his neck. "Congratulations! Why didn't you tell me earlier? We could have celebrated properly."
"I'm right where I want to be." He turned to me and gazed at me steadily.
I could feel those familiar butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. By now I should be used to this, I scolded myself. But every time he looked at me like that I got all tingly.
"Well, you can hardly call it Peter's Perfect Catering now." I tried to make my tone brisk. "I mean, Peter's hardly perfect."
A slow smile spread over his face. "And Peter no longer works there."
"My point exactly." I crossed my legs on the couch and tried to think. That was hard to do with Sam staring at me like that.
Frowning, I shook my head. "Just stupid ones. How about you?"
Sam took a deep breath, like he was trying to decide what to say. When he let it out again his eyes were as serious as I'd ever seen them – and that included the time he'd first told me that he loved me. "I still like S & K Catering. What do you think?"
I tilted my head and looked back at him, confused. "As in, Scrumptious and Killer Catering? Or maybe it's Super and Krazy Catering, only with the cutesy spelling. I don't know about that, Sam," I said doubtfully. "I don't picture you owning a cutesy company."
He laughed a little and then cleared his throat. "That's not really what I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of 'Sam's and Katie's Catering.'"
I sat there and gaped at him. I was sure I resembled a yawning hippo. "That's very sweet of you, Sam," I told him, feeling tremendously flattered – and also a little flabbergasted -- "but shouldn't you name it after you and Hannah? I'm hardly a member of your family."
Sam leaned forward and took my hands in his. "That could change."
The butterflies promptly exploded, leaving me feeling decidedly . . . unsure. "What?"
"I'm asking you to join my family."
I rolled my eyes at him. "Sam, you hardly join a family like you do the circus."
He passed a hand over his face and muttered something to himself. It sounded like he was saying something about dense women. "Katie. Focus. I'm trying to ask you something very important here. I've loved you for so long now that I can't remember not loving you. I can't imagine going through my life without you by my side. I know I have a psycho family, but the normal members all love you to pieces. Katie Embury, will you marry me?"
I just sat there and stared at him stupidly.
"We've only known each other for a few months," I reminded him feebly.
"Seven, to be precise. But I've never been so sure about anything in my life. We can have a long engagement, if you want."
I'd never been a fan on long engagements. The temptation to do something you shouldn't seemed to get stronger and stronger the longer you waited around. "I don't want," I told him decidedly.
Sam's face was suddenly full of hope. "Does that mean you'll marry me? As long as I don't insist on a long engagement?"
I grinned at him, suddenly happier than I could ever have imagined. "I guess I am."
He leaned so close I could feel his breath on my cheek. "Say it for me?" he breathed. "I'd like to hear you say the words."
I tilted my head so he'd have better access to my lips. "Yes, Samson Selman. I'll marry you."
There was hardly any talk after that.
Later, as we gazed outside my old window, I spied Hannah and Oliver kissing in the backyard. I smiled to myself. I hadn't exactly meant to set them up – well, okay, I had. If I did say so myself, it sure seemed like it was working out splendidly for all involved.
Sam's arms tightened around my waist and he leaned close to my ear. "I love you," he whispered.
I smiled softly. "I love you, too," I replied, and turned my face up for another series of his all-too-addicting kisses. When, sighing in content, I resumed my place in front of the window, my eyes fell on the row of books stacked neatly in the corner.
Nope, I told myself, grinning inwardly. Sam was no Mr. Darcy, and I really wasn't an Elizabeth Bennet. The thought didn't even bother me.
Maybe I was more of . . . an Emma.
Author's note: Well, it's all finished. I'd be terribly remiss if I didn't thank Linnea one last time for all her hard work on this thing; it would have been terribly confusing without her help! Also, a huge thank you goes to CJ – who helped me get my facts straight about catering companies.
I'm tremendously grateful to all of you who had read and faithfully commented on this story, especially since Northanger Abbey isn't the most popular of Ms. Austen's books. Thanks so much!