True to his word, Brooks left. He literally up and left town. He was gone all weekend, and when he returned to his office Monday morning, lo and behold, there was Lolly sitting in the mayor’s chair.
He should have done this a year ago.
“Brooks,” she breathed, like he had been declared dead and come back to life. She stood as he came around the desk and threw her arms around him, hugging him tight.
He really should have done this a year ago.
“Where were you? You didn’t answer your phone. You stomped into my workroom on Friday morning throwing around ultimatums, gave me a week to figure out my entire life, and then just hightailed it out of town.”
“I told you I was leaving.”
“Yes, but I didn’t realize you meant Henderson. You never leave Henderson.”
“And I told you, you were forcing me to play dirty.”
“Well, that was playing dirty. And so was telling every busybody in town to ask me why we aren’t engaged yet.”
“Finally! Do you know how much shit I’ve taken for the last two years about making an honest woman out of you? All those old women who used to love me are now convinced I have commitment issues. So from now on, when they ask me about it, I’m sending them directly to you.”
“I’m sorry about that and I’m setting the record straight as best I can. So how ’bout you making it up to me by taking me to dinner tonight?”
“You figure out how to run your business from eight to five?”
“Brooks. I own the business. I can’t run it from eight to five.”
He leaned back against his desk, folding his arms over his chest. “Lolly, do you understand the definition of an ultimatum? I am not kidding with this.”
“But it’s my business.”
“So you’re telling me that your business is the top priority in your life?”
“Well, no. But it is a business. It takes time. And I love it.”
“I know you love it. What else do you love?”
“Good answer. And?”
“And … friends, family, life.”
“Right. Now what percentage of a seven-day week are you currently devoting to me, friends, family, and life outside of your business?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have four days to figure it out,” he said, turning around and getting involved in his own business.
“Brooks,” she shouted. “Where were you?”
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to throw out another ultimatum.” He deliberately kept his back to her. “And trust me. That will go a lot easier if you’ve already figured out how to scale back your time at House of DuVal.”
“What is with you and the ultimatums?” she said quietly and in that sneaky way that always undid him. When her hands slid up his back, he closed his eyes. He felt her arms wrap around his waist, her tight athletic body flatten against his back. Fucking A. She was a damn master at fighting dirty.
He took her hands from his waist and turned around, leaned back against his desk, and drew her to him, spreading his legs so she could snuggle in between. “Lolly.” He laughed when he saw the expression of victory on her face. “If you must know, I went to New York.”
Lolly blinked. “New York? As in New York City?”
“That’d be the one.”
“Why?” she gasped. “Why would you go to New York? And why would you go without me?”
“Oh? You would have liked to go to New York?” he teased. “A shame your business takes up so much of your time; you could have come with me.”
“Ah!” she huffed, then stammered and squirmed, until finally she knocked him on his shoulder out of sheer frustration.
“I told you I was playing dirty.”
“Why? Why would you go to the fashion capital of the world without me when I—”
He shut her up with a kiss. A long, eager, satisfying kiss. Jesus, he was missing her in his bed. This shit had better not backfire.
“I bought you a ring,” he said against her lips. Those pretty sapphire eyes popped open in shock. He couldn’t contain his smile.
“You went all the way to New York to buy me a ring?”
“All part of playing dirty,” he teased, placing more light kisses on her lips. “Lewis has a guy. A contact in the diamond business.” He kept kissing her even though her mouth was hanging open. “I’ve seen the way you look at Piper’s ring.”
Lolly pulled back and blushed. “Brooks, that’s Piper’s ring. It’s beautiful but I don’t need something like that.”
“Good. Because your ring is nothing like that,” he said as he kissed her jawline. “Your diamond is a lot bigger.” She stiffened in his arms as surprise and disbelief shot through her body. He smiled against her mouth. “It’s true. I could show it to you right now if you want,” he coaxed.
“You have it? Here?” she squealed.
“In my pocket.” He put his hand in his khakis and pulled out a royal-blue velvet box. Lolly’s hands flew to her mouth as she stared at the thing. He turned it around and slowly pulled open the hinged top revealing a five-carat, round-cut diamond seated on a diamond-studded platinum band.
Her eyes started to water as they flew from the ring to his face and back again.
Oh, this was so going to work.
She started jumping up and down, and that’s when he did the meanest thing. He slapped the top back down on the ring and shoved the box back into his pocket.
“Yup. We’re playing hardball here. Now I can’t think of a better time for you to be sporting that ring than on the Fourth of July, can you? All your friends back in town. All our relatives in one place. I know Darcy would love to see it.”
“Sorry, darlin’. Hardball.”
“Are you telling me I have to figure out how to run House of DuVal in a forty-hour workweek before you let me wear that ring?”
“No. Once you figure out the forty-hour week, you can see the ring again. You don’t get to wear it until you give me a date.”
“A wedding date. An in-the-books, got-the-church-lined-up, Henderson-Country-Club-reception wedding date.”
“And you want all that by the Fourth of July?”
“I think it’d be perfect timing.”
“That’s, like, next to impossible.”
“Which is why I went to New York. I wanted to give you plenty of motivation.”
“So you’re serious.”
“Seriously in love with you.” He pulled her back into his arms. “Beyond ready to make you my bride.” He kissed her tenderly. “And willing to stoop to any level to get you to come along for the ride.” He took her head in both his hands and drew her face to his. “Do you like the ring?” He honestly wanted to know.
“I’m not sure,” she pouted. “I think it blew out one of my retinas.”
He laughed and hugged her to him.
“Brooks,” she said from over his shoulder. “It looked gorgeous from the stingy glimpse you gave me, but it also looked like something our illustrious but scarcely paid mayor would have to go into debt over. I don’t want that.”
“Lolly?” Brooks pushed her from him so he could see her face. He narrowed his focus. “You do know I’m sort of made of money, right?”
“What do you mean, you’re made of money?”
“Well, I’m not Hale Evans, but I do have a sweet nest egg thanks to my investment with Lewis.”
“What investment with Lewis?”
“Oh. Back when Lewis was starting his KampApps company, he needed seed money. You know, capital. Vance talked me into investing. Said it was going to be big. I had a chunk of cash because of my athletic scholarship to State. My parents put the money they were saving into an account for me. So I turned a large portion of that over to Lewis. Reinvested any dividends when they came, at Vance’s suggestion. Now, well, the two of them have made me look like a financial genius. But really, I had nothing to do with it.”
“So you and Vance have gotten rich right along with Lewis?”
“Seems so. Which is why I can afford to be mayor and still buy a big-ass ring for my fiancée. If it’s not exactly what you want, we can go to New York together and choose another. After.”
“Yes, yes. After I figure out how to do my job in half the time,” she said, pulling out of his arms. “And after I book the church and the reception,” she continued, pulling her purse over her shoulder like she was getting ready to go. “Anything else you’d like me to take care of in the next four days, Mr. Hardball? World peace?”
“Have at it,” he said grinning.
She huffed and puffed and told him it was nice to know he had a nest egg, but even still, he really was playing dirty.
He didn’t deny it as he watched her stalk out of his office.
To be continued …