“Ms. Cassidy, dear?”
“So sorry, darling, but your table simply isn’t large enough.”
“Damn,” Brin muttered under her breath as she struggled with the zipper at the back of her dress. She twisted around to check in the mirror what was causing it to stick. When she turned, an electric curler slid out of her hair, leaving a heavy strand to fall over her eye. She shoved it off her face, looping it around one of the hair-curler pins that radiated from her head like a space-age halo. “Arrange everything as best you can, Stewart. Has the bartender arrived yet?”
“I have arranged everything as best I can,” he said petulantly. “You need a larger table.”
Brin’s arms fell heavily to her sides. Glancing at the harried image in the mirror, one eye artfully made up, the other as yet untouched, she called herself a fool for hostessing this party in the first place. She had timed everything down to the second. She didn’t need any kinks in the tight schedule, such as a stuck zipper and a querulous caterer.
Turning, she flung open the bathroom door and confronted Stewart, who stood with his pale hands on his hips, wearing an expression just as sour as hers.
“I don’t have a larger table,” Brin said irritably. “Let’s see what we can do. Is the bartender here yet?” On stocking feet she hurried through the bedroom, down the stairs, and into the dining room, where a buffet was being set up. Her dress was slipping off her shoulders, but then, there was no need to be too concerned about modesty in front of Stewart.
Two of his assistants were standing by, arms crossed idly over their chests, as though waiting for a bus. She shot them exasperated looks that didn’t faze them in the slightest.
“Jackie said he’d be here by now,” Stewart said of the missing bartender. “I can’t imagine what’s keeping him. We’re extremely close.”
“Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”
Brin spoke the question under her breath as she studied the table. The food on the silver trays was attractively arranged and lavishly garnished, but the trays were jammed together, overlapping in places. Some extended over the edges of the table. Stewart might be difficult and aggravating, but he knew his stuff, and she couldn’t argue with him. “You’re right, we’ll have to do some rearranging.”
“It’s that ghastly centerpiece,” Stewart said, pointing with distaste. “You should have let me select the flowers. Remember I told you — ”
“I remember, I remember, but I wanted to choose my own florist.”
“Can’t we remove the thing? Or at least let me rearrange it so it isn’t so ... so...” He made a descriptive gesture with his hands.
“You’re not to touch it. I paid a hundred dollars for it.”
“You get what you pay for,” he said snidely.
She faced him angrily, hooking the errant strand of hair around another pin when it slipped from the first. “This has nothing to do with money. The florist happens to be a friend of mine, and she’s been in the business longer than you’ve been alive.”I must be agitated,
Brin thought. Why am I standing here arguing with smug Stewart, when I’m only half dressed and forty guests are due to arrive at any moment?
She returned her attention to the crowded table. “Can you leave some of the trays in the kitchen and replace the ones on the table as they empty?”
Stewart’s hand fluttered to his chest and his mouth fell open in horror. “Absolutely not! My darling, these dishes are planned to alternately soothe and excite the palate. They’re a blend of tart and — ”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Brin cried. “Who will know in what order their palates are supposed to be soothed or excited? These people will just want to eat. I doubt they’ll pay attention to anything except whether the food tastes good or not.”
Gnawing her cheek in concentration, she scanned the table again. “All right,” she said, her mind made up, “set that bowl of marinated shrimp on the coffee table in the living room. Have a cup of toothpicks nearby. And you,” she said, pointing to one of the indolent assistants, “move that cheese tray over there by the bar. I think there’s room for that chafing dish of Swedish meatballs on the table by the sofa. That should make room on the table.”
The three young men rolled their eyes at one another. “You’re a gastronomical philistine of the worst sort,” Stewart said snippishly.
“Just do it. And where’s that bartender you promised me? Nothing’s set up.”
“He’ll be here.”
“Well, he’d better be here soon, or I’m going to start deducting from your bill.”
The doorbell chimed. “See?” Stewart said loftily. “No cause for panic. That’s him now.” He swished toward the front door before Brin had a chance to.
“Who are you?” The disembodied voice asking the rude question was deep and demanding.
Brin recognized the voice immediately and felt the earth drop out from under her.
“Oh my dear, I’m positively dying!” Stewart cried theatrically, his hands aflutter. “I can’t believe it. She didn’t tell me you would be among the party guests.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What party?” the voice asked in a surly growl. “Where’s Brin?”
She forced herself into motion and went toward the door, stepping in the line of vision of the man standing on the threshold. “Thank you, Stewart,” she said quietly. “I believe you have work to do.”
She was amazed at how calm she sounded. On the inside, chaos reigned: Her vital organs were doing backward somersaults; her knees had turned the consistency of Stewart’s famous tomato aspic; all the blood had drained from her head. But outwardly she presented a facade of aloofness that should have won her an Oscar at least.
After Stewart had moved out of earshot, she looked at the man. “What are you doing here, Riley?”
“Just thought I’d drop by.” He propped his shoulder against the doorjamb and let his eyes — damn those blue eyes — drift over her. He seemed amused by the curlers in her hair, the unfastened dress she was having a hard time keeping up, and her stockinged feet.
“Well, you should have called before you came, because you couldn’t have picked a more inconvenient time. You’ll have to excuse me. I have guests due to arrive in a few minutes. I haven’t finished my makeup — ”
“That’s not a kinky new fad? Making up just one eye?”
“ — or touched my hair,” she finished, ignoring his teasing. “The bartender hasn’t shown up yet. And the caterer is being a colossal pain.”
“Sounds like you need help.” He shoved his way in- side before Brin could stammer a protest. “You guys have everything under control?” he asked the three caterers, who were staring at him in awe.
“Everything’s perfect, absolutely perfect, Mr. Riley,” Stewart gushed. “Can we get you anything?”
“Riley,” Brin ground out between her teeth.
“Hmm?” He turned around, supremely unconcerned about her apparent agitation.
“May I see you alone? Please.”
“Sure, honey. The bedroom?”
“The kitchen.” She walked stiffly past the three gaping caterers, saying, “Carry on,” in as firm a voice as she could muster.
Excerpted from Riley in the Morning by Sandra Brown. Copyright © 2001 by Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.