In this short excerpt from In the Best Interest of the Child, Olivia Chandler is meeting Bruce Bellamy for lunch. There is a definite attraction between the two, but both are holding back – though Bruce…not as much! Enjoy!
Having arrived fifteen minutes early, Olivia took a few minutes to visit the ladies’ room to check her hair and makeup, and wash her hands. She was glad no one else was around because every time she glanced at her reflection in the mirror, she couldn’t stop herself from grinning.
“Get a hold of yourself, Olivia Louise! It’s just lunch with a man. You’ve done this more times than you can count.”
Exhaling slowly, Olivia hung her head. Yes, lunch with a man who seems to like me. Lunch with a man I actually like even though I just met him.
Olivia groaned and leaned against the sink. She should never have agreed to this. Bruce seemed like a decent man. He didn’t need to be getting involved in the dark pit which was her life. But even if she walked out the restaurant right now, Bruce would not disappear. Courtney and Marissa were his were his family, and he was very much involved in Rena’s life.
The silly grin returned to her face. Honestly, she didn’t want him to disappear. They may never do more than have lunch, but Olivia wanted it in the worst way. She wanted to be normal and have a life without her past hanging over her like the Sword of Damocles.
Steadying herself with a couple of deep breaths, Olivia decided to stop hiding in the ladies’ room and talking to herself like a crazy person. She grabbed her handbag and went in search of her lunch date.
As Olivia approached the hostess stand, the young woman working there smiled. “Good afternoon, I’m Connie.”
Olivia returned her smile and gave her Bruce’s name.
“Yes, Ma’am. He’s already here.” Laughing, Olivia shook her head slowly.
“That man. Of course, he is.”
The hostess smiled but looked confused, not understanding the joke.
Olivia waved her hand. “It’s nothing. Lead the way.”
Olivia tried to spot Bruce as they approached the main dining room, but was caught off guard when the young hostess turned right and proceeded down a short hallway. No stranger to the Black Dragon, Olivia knew there were formal banquet rooms in the opposite direction, but she’d never been down this hallway. The hostess stopped in front of a small elevator.
“I never realized the restaurant had an elevator. I thought it was a single story building.”
“You’re right, it is.”
“Then where does this lead? You have a basement?”
Covering her mouth to hide her giggles, Connie nodded.
“We do, but trust me, you do not want to go down there. This elevator goes up to the mezzanine.” The elevator doors opened as she finished speaking, and both women stepped inside.
“Well, I didn’t know you had one of those either!”
“Few people do. The owners don’t advertise it much. It’s usually for special guests or customers who request a more… intimate setting.”
Olivia’s eyes quickly widened.
Connie gave her a knowing grin.
Intimate setting? She had no time to process the hostess’ comment. The doors opened. Connie took a step outside the elevator and motioned to the left.
“Your date is right over there.”
“Date? But this isn’t a da-…”
Connie quickly stepped back into the elevator, leaving Olivia with a wink as the doors closed.
“What am I going to do with this man?”
She only had to take three steps before she spotted Bruce. Olivia froze as her mouth gaped open.
Rising from the table, Bruce walked towards her.
Olivia still hadn’t moved, too in shock at his appearance. Gone were the weather-beaten jeans and worn Henley shirt. The thick heavy work boots? Gone too. The Bruce Bellamy standing before her was elegantly attired in a charcoal gray, two-piece Brooks Brothers suit and gray Sardegna Loafers. And he’d had a haircut. He leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Good to see you again, Olivia.” He glanced at his watch. “And right on time. Why am I not surprised?”
Olivia still stared at him, wide-eyed.
Bruce frowned. “Olivia? Is something wrong?”
Taking a deep breath, she finally found her voice.
“Who are you? And what’s all”, she motioned up and down his body, “…this?”
His big boyish grin returned as he took her hand and led her to their table.
“I’m a successful businessman having lunch with a gorgeous, successful attorney in one of the city’s finer restaurants. I couldn’t very well show up in jeans and boots, could I?”
“Well, no…but- “
“And besides, I had to show you I could dress myself and behave appropriately in public.”
Olivia threw her hands up, laughing.
“There you are, Bruce! How nice to see you again!”
Filling their wine glasses, Bruce stopped mid-pour to keep from spilling it the laughter hit him so hard.
Laughing along with him, Olivia visibly relaxed and placed her hand on his arm.
“And just so we’re clear, Mr. Bellamy, I like you in jeans and work boots too.”
The smile he gave her nearly took her breath away. Suddenly self-conscious, Olivia placed her hands in her lap.
Bruce didn’t miss the gesture but continued pouring the wine while changing the subject.
“Would you like to look at the menu, or do you already know what you want?
“No menu needed! I definitely know what I’m having!”
He chuckled as he handed her a glass of wine, then signaled for the waiter.
“I had a feeling.”
“Think you have me figured out already, Bellamy?”
“Not even close, beautiful one. But I do look forward to the adventure.”
She grinned at the compliment and the comment.
“Oooo! I’m an adventure!”
Bruce couldn’t help but stare at her face. The way her eyes sparkled, the genuineness of her smile. She was the same woman he met in his cousin’s driveway, but there was no sign of the sadness he saw in her eyes that day. He had long ago made peace with his own issues of abandonment, but this woman was the first woman to actually make him want to risk his heart again. Bruce was getting lost in Olivia Chandler, and he had no problem with that. His cheeks reddened as heat rose into his face when he realized the waiter and Olivia were staring at him. “I’m sorry. What?
“Where did you go, Bellamy? Are you ready to order?”
“Of course, but ladies first.” Olivia clasped her hands together excitedly.
“I’d like Yum Nuah salad, Tom Yung Kung with shrimp, and with steamed rice, and Pad Thai with chicken…extra spicy, please.”
Bruce’s eye widened.
Olivia frowned. “Is that too much?”
“Not at all. It just sounds like my usual meal here. But my brother goes on and on about me not trying new dishes, so I promised to try a different entrée on my next visit.” He turned to the waiter. “I’ll have the same as the lady, but instead of Pad Thai, I’ll have Phad See-ew with beef.”
After the waiter left, Bruce folded his arms and leaned towards Olivia. “So…how long have you been into Thai food? The dish names usually confound most people, but you seem to have memorized the menu.”
Olivia laughed while shaking her head.
“Only my favorite dishes. And like you, it wouldn’t hurt me to try something new.” She folded her arms on the table and leaned in his direction. “I first had Thai food during my intern days. This place wasn’t open yet, but Siriwat’s was around the corner from the courthouse.”
“And your boss always had lunch delivered to keep you working, right?”
Olivia shook her head. “It was more the boss’ wife dropping in and reprimanding him for working me so hard, and dragging me out of the office to Siriwat’s. After one visit, I was hooked.”
“Wow! The boss’ WIFE? Sounds like you made an impression.”
“Miss Dee is good people. She and Judge Dennison have always been kind to me. He’s actually the judge who assigned Rena’s case to me.”
“He must be really confident in your abilities. I knew you were a legal shark!”
“I am not a shark! The judge just taught me to pay attention to the details, and what is not said. I’ve never forgotten that, and it’s always seen me through, especially with the difficult cases. What about you? When did your love affair with Thai food begin?”
He refilled their wine glasses, while Olivia wondered when she’d emptied her glass.
Slow down, Chandler.
“That is yet another story in my life which involves Court.”
She smiled remembering their antics.
“You two are really close, aren’t you?”
“As brothers. He seemed to be at my side during all the important moments of my life. Including my introduction to Thai food.”
They shared a chuckle.
“It wasn’t too long after Joanna, my ex-wife had left. Mom and dad had taken the kids for the weekend. I’d planned to use the time working on cars, but Court shows up, says he’s hungry and orders me to get in his truck.”
“HE ordered YOU?”
“Never underestimate Courtney Bellamy. He may not be a big man, but he’s all muscle and heart. He’s dropped me on my ass more than a couple of times.”
She laughed aloud and he scowled. “You laugh so easily at my pain.”
This made her laugh even harder. Olivia buried her face in her hands, embarrassed as Bruce continue to stare at her.
“I’m so sorry, Bruce. I don– “
“Don’t ever apologize for laughing, Olivia.” He reached over and pulled her hands from her face.
Olivia placed one on the table, but Bruce had not released the other. She didn’t pull away.
“Or for enjoying yourself. Makes me feel good to know you’re comfortable with me.”
Still holding his gaze, Olivia slowly flipped her hand over until they were palm to palm, and squeezed.
“I’m very comfortable with you, Bruce, and yes, I am enjoying myself.”
Bruce froze. The squeeze of her hand and the sexy timbre of her voice had gone straight to his crotch. She was flirting with him and he loved it! Bruce assumed from her demeanor, Olivia would be a tad more skittish. Perhaps she truly was comfortable with him…maybe even liked him a little. He deftly adjusted himself under the table.
“But you didn’t finish telling your story about you, Courtney and Thai food.”
“Oh yeah. Well, he gets me in his truck and we drive over to Blaine. I think we’re headed to Mike’s Dugout for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, right? He pulls up to this tiny little building near downtown. I have no idea where we are because the name is not written in English. I ask tons of questions before we even get out of the truck, and Court just said, “Trust me.” I follow him inside like a big goof, and the aromas hit me in the face. It smelled like every food dream I’d ever had.”
Olivia’s brows furrowed. “Food dream?”
“Yes, food dream. Women are not the only thing men dream about.”
“Good to know.” She smirked.
He pulled a face at her and continued. “Court had only been there a couple of times himself. Of course, introduced to it by the Mighty Marissa, so we asked the owner to bring us an order of whatever it was we smelled, and keep it coming.”
“Yep. I’m sure I had at least three orders of Pad Thai and Tempura vegetables.”
“The food was great, but it wasn’t just that. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to admit how I felt about Joanna walking out on the kids and me. The family knew I was hurt and upset, but Olivia, I was pissed off… and it felt good to say it. Even if she didn’t want to be with me, what kind of woman walks away from her children? Breck wasn’t even six months old! And she just… leaves.”
Olivia tightened her grip on his hand. She understood all too well how it felt to be abandoned. But she couldn’t share that with him… could she? He made it look so easy to admit his feelings. He was open and honest. No. She couldn’t tell him her story. He’d see how thoroughly damaged she really was and walk away. Olivia knew she couldn’t have Bruce in her life forever, but she greedily wanted whatever time with him she could get. Just the chance to feel normal for a little while was better than not at all.
Bruce appeared lost in his thoughts too when she spoke.
“It must be wonderful for you and Courtney to have each other to lean on. And you mentioned a brother?”
He cleared his throat.
“Actually… I have–“
Bruce was interrupted when the waiter appeared with a huge tray of hot food, followed by a co-worker with still more food. Olivia gasped.
“Bruce! What did we order?”
“Oh no, no, no! Not ‘We’… YOU. I was just following your lead, Counselor.” Glancing at the food-covered trays, he added, “And I hope you have more than a thirty-minute lunch hour.”
“That’s your defense? Blame me?”
“Only if it’s working.”
One of the waiters turned away and covered his mouth to keep from laughing.
“Olivia, you’re disturbing these gentlemen while they’re trying to work.”
Her mouth flew open. Then, she didn’t even try to stop the laughter bubbling forth. Neither did the waiters.
The couple chatted amiably as they devoured the hot and spicy food. Bruce loved that Olivia wasn’t one of those women who wouldn’t eat in front of a man, choosing to munch on lettuce and sip water instead.
Olivia couldn’t remember a time when she’d had more fun, and was so relaxed. Bruce was easy to talk to and attentive. She reveled in his admiring glances, so different from the leering, lecherous looks she learned to ignore around the courthouse. He told her about building up his business until he had the current dozen auto shops—and plans to open two more—and Olivia suggested new advertising ideas to him because the guy doing his commercials always looked sleepy.
Learning the guy was actually a supervisor at one of Bruce’s shops, and that he had taken acting lessons at the local college especially for the commercials, caused Olivia to nearly choke on her food.
Bruce stood behind her, patting her back and trying not to laugh.
“I’m glad… you… find… this amusing, Bellamy,” Olivia sputtered, the coughing only made worse by her laughter.
“Here, try this.” Sliding his large hands under her upper arms, Bruce raised them straight up into the air. Within seconds, her coughing stopped. Leaning her head backward, Olivia looked up at him, frowning.
“Where did you learn that, and why did it work?”
Bruce was momentarily speechless. Staring down into her eyes as she leaned back against him tested all his resolve. He knew Olivia was special. When he dared consider his future, he saw her by his side. Bruce didn’t know how or why, and he wasn’t about to second-guess himself. He hadn’t wanted to spend more than a few hours with any one woman since Joanna left. He’d known Olivia Chandler less than a week, and he couldn’t get enough of her. Bruce hadn’t even had the pleasure of kissing Olivia, but he would wait for that too. He would do what it took to make the vision of his future a reality, but it would never happen if he followed his carnal mind in this moment. Bruce quietly exhaled, grateful for the chair separating his hardening erection from Olivia’s back.
“Just something you pick up during the journey of raising kids.”
He slowly lowered her arms, then side stepped behind Olivia to adjust himself. Clearing his throat, Bruce returned to his seat.
“You know kids… little scamps. They can turn a quiet movie night into a high-speed car ride to the emergency room in a heartbeat. Happened to me more times than I care to remember. And boys are the worst. I took Casey, my daughter, to the ER one time in eighteen years, when she had the flu and spiked a high fever. But those boys?” He shook his head. “Science experiments gone wrong, superhero stunts, bike races…no matter what they were into, an accident could… and usually did happen.”
Olivia didn’t miss the faint smile playing on his lips.
“I’m glad everyone was okay… eventually. But, you look as though you enjoyed it.”
Bruce grinned. “Every last second!”
“Sounds like they are lucky to have a dad like you.”
“No, I’m blessed to have them. My life may not have gone the way I intended, but my children saved me. Without them, I would have been just some loser guy spending way too many evenings sitting in a bar. Having them made me see what was truly important.”
Olivia nodded slowly.
“Yes, they are definitely lucky to have a dad like you.”
The slight tilt to Bruce’s head let her know he didn’t understand.
“I have no problems believing you would do anything for your children.”
She glanced away unable to hold his gaze. “There are far too many people on this planet having children and then treating them as an afterthought, or even a burden. Some even believe their young children owe THEM something.”
“I didn’t miss the fact you did not refer to these people as parents.”
“No. Bringing life into the world does not make one a parent.”
“I guess you see a lot of ugliness in your line of work.”
Olivia was still looking away, focused on a spot in her mind she couldn’t clearly see when she heard him.
“Excuse me, what?”
Looking concerned, Bruce grazed his fingers across the back of her hand.
“Where did you go?”
Embarrassed, Olivia tried to slide her hand away from his, but Bruce caught her hand in a firm, gentle grip and held on.
“I meant what I said the other day, Olivia. I’m a good listener. Anytime you want to talk, I’m available. No sermons, no judgments, not even any advice. I’ll just listen.”
He watched her slowly raise her head to look at him, and squeezed her hand as the pain he saw hit him like a punch in the gut. What haunted this beautiful, intelligent woman? She was engaging, witty and funny. She spoke with purpose and authority. But, something triggered a memory. An event? A person? Bruce wasn’t sure, but whatever it was caused Olivia’s walls to rise swift and high.
“Thank you, Bruce, I just may take you up on that.”
He smiled as he felt Olivia squeeze his hand in return. It gave him hope.
“I hope you do, Olivia. I’ll take any opportunity I can get to look into those beautiful eyes of yours.”
Before Olivia could respond, Bruce raised her hand to his lips while his eyes were still lost in hers, and kissed it gently. He didn’t miss the slight tremble in her hand nor her barely audible gasp. He was not in this alone. Olivia was affected too. Neither spoke for several seconds, both of their minds… and pulses racing.
Olivia leaned towards Bruce about to speak when the Imperial Death March from The Empire Strikes Back began to play. Bruce’s eyes widened, then he smirked. Olivia had already buried her face in her free hand, totally embarrassed.
“Guess you’re a really big Star Wars fan, huh Olivia?”
Raising her head, Olivia tried to avoid glancing in Bruce’s direction as she slipped her hand down into her bag to retrieve the offending cell phone.
He leaned in trying to glance at the screen. “Who merits such an ominous ringtone?”
Olivia’s lips twitched as she tried to decipher the text. She figured it out on the third try and her mouth fell open.
“I’m going to kill her!”
Bruce watched Olivia, amused and curious. She finally met his gaze, smiling sheepishly.
“My office manager, Margot. She can be a bit of a… pain.”
Frowning, Bruce asked, “Has she fouled up a case or upset a client?”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that. Margot’s a jewel. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
“And yet, you want to kill her? What am I missing?” He leaned in again, still trying to see the cell screen.
“As an executive assistant and office manager, she’s the best. As a friend, Margot can be over-the-top pushy.”
Recognition dawned in his eyes.
“Was that text about me?”
Olivia dragged her hand over her face. “Just kill me now.”
Bruce pumped his fist in the air.
“I’m trending with the women!”
Olivia roared with laughter. “There’s only two of us, Bellamy. I hardly call that trending.”
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