Dressed in black slacks and a white shirt protected by a fresh white apron, Kate stood behind the buffet table in the Elks Lodge dining room. Similarly attired and with carving knife and fork in hand, David had taken his place behind the roast prime rib, rosy under a pair of heat lamps. The members of the Chamber of Commerce and their spouses were busy mingling, but in a few minutes they would begin lining up for dinner.
Orren Waxman approached the buffet with a double scotch in one hand and a well-lubricated smile on his face. “Looking good, Katie.” He turned to David. “Doesn’t she look good, Hardison?”
David smiled at Kate, ignoring Orren. “She does.”
Orren’s already florid cheeks took on a deeper hue. “That apron suits you, Hardison. Much better than desert camo and a flak jacket.”
David regarded him with an imperturbable expression. “I try to dress for the occasion.”
Orren’s left eyebrow began to twitch, and Kate wondered if she was about to witness a genuine fit of apoplexy.
“Sorry to hear you lost your job.” Orren’s slurred words dripped with implied insult.
David gave him a polite smile. “I don’t know where you heard that. I have a job.”
“Yeah, as Katie’s kitchen boy.” Orren waved the hand holding his glass, and several drops sloshed over the side onto the patterned carpet.
David straightened his spine, emphasizing the difference in their heights, and his eyes narrowed. Kate had seen that look before, and it usually spelled trouble. While David wasn’t likely to lunge at Orren with a carving knife in front of the mayor and most of Morrisburg’s leading citizens, she was grateful for the width of the table separating the two men.
Movement at the doorway caught her eye as three men entered, two of them carrying bulky equipment. “Isn’t that the camera crew from Channel 6?”
Orren immediately switched his attention. “They must be here to cover my speech.” He waved his drink again and called out, “Over here!”
Kate recognized the baby-faced young man with the high-top, shave-sided, hipster haircut in the lead as one of the anchors of the local evening news, and the other two appeared to be a cameraman and sound technician.
Orren wrapped one arm around the anchorman. “My speech isn’t ’til after dinner, but you boys are welcome to grab a plate and make yourselves comfortable, courtesy of the Morrisburg Chamber of Commerce.”
The young man disentangled himself. “Thank you, Mr. Waxman, but we’re working. We’ll just set up our equipment and try to stay out of the way.”
Orren drained the remaining contents of his glass. “Whatever floats your boat. I think I’ve got time for one more refill before dinner.”
Kate noticed the anchorman staring at David. He motioned to his crew and approached.
“Excuse me, this might sound weird, but do people ever tell you that you look a lot like David Hardison, the TV reporter?”
David’s lips twitched. “You’d be surprised how often that happens.”
Orren shoved the sound man aside with a scowl. “He is David Hardison, you idiot. The great David Hardison—and look at him now, working the buffet table in Boonieville, USA.”
The anchor ignored Orren and gazed at David with puppy-like eagerness. “I’m a huge admirer of yours, Mr. Hardison. Your reports from the Middle East inspired me to go into television journalism. And now you’re here in Morrisburg. I bet there’s quite a story behind that.”
David opened his mouth, but the young man charged ahead full-steam. “I’d love to do a series of interviews about your career.”
“Don’t be modest. Our viewers will be fascinated. In fact, we can film the intro segment right now.” He nodded to his crew, and they began moving their equipment into place.
Orren wedged himself between the anchorman and the buffet table. “Wait just a minute. You’re supposed to be here to cover my speech, not this has-been.” He flung one hand toward David in a dismissive wave.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Waxman, we’ll cover your speech. This will just take a few minutes.”
The technicians continued setting up.
Orren tipped his chin and glared at David. “I don’t know what he’s doing here, anyway. This is a private party.”
He sounded like a six-year-old on the verge of a major tantrum. Kate glanced around the room. Conversation had stopped, and the partygoers had migrated toward the commotion. It was time for a grown-up to step in.
She moved to David’s side, frowned at Orren, and dropped her voice to a harsh whisper. “Calm down. You’re making a spectacle of yourself. He’s here because I need his help.”
Orren puffed his chest in a parody of outraged ego. “You can’t tell me to calm down. I’m the president!”
From the back of the crowd came the voice of Marva Dooley, the owner of a gift shop on Main Street that specialized in dog-related accessories. “Shut up, you big windbag!”
Orren bristled, grabbed the big spoon stuck in the serving dish of mashed potatoes and flung a glob in Marva’s general direction. Unfortunately, between his inebriated aim and the natural aerodynamics of mashed potatoes, the mass hit Shirley Cheever, the mayor’s wife, square in her ample bosom. Shirley shrieked, the mayor swore, and mayhem ensued. Kate stared in fascinated horror as the formerly dignified guests lobbed carrot sticks and dinner rolls at each other.
David slid one arm protectively around her shoulders as an ice cube whizzed by. “Do you think we should call the cops?”
Before she could answer, the double door to the dining room flew open, and in marched three uniformed police officers. The manager of the Elks Club must have called them. As the officers broke up individual brawls and rounded up the participants, Kate noticed the Channel 6 News team filming in the corner. Her lips tipped up in a smile.
As a hefty, middle-aged patrolman escorted Orren past the film crew, he halted and started yelling at the cameraman. When the man refused to stop filming, he tried to grab the camera. At that point, the officer strong-armed him through the doors.
David leaned down until his mouth brushed Kate’s ear. “Looks like Orren’s forgotten his own motto.”
“Any publicity is good publicity.”
She laughed. “I wonder how he’ll feel when he sees himself on the news tonight.”
“You know what they say about Karma.”
“She’s not very nice?”
He chuckled. “Exactly.”
After the police cleared the room, Kate surveyed the wreckage. “I hope the Lodge got a hefty security deposit.”
David tore off a long strip of foil and began wrapping the roast beef. “You shouldn’t be out too much. The potatoes are a complete loss, but at least the savages didn’t get to the meat.”
She plucked an errant serving spoon from the floor behind the podium. “Potatoes are cheap. Thanks for protecting my main investment. I foresee hot roast beef sandwiches as our daily lunch special for the rest of the week.”
“As long as they’re available to the staff, you won’t get any complaints from me.” He snuffed the flames under the big rectangular warming dishes and began stacking them to carry to the van.
Kate returned the serving spoon to the pile of utensils. “You don’t have to keep working. I’m sure I can get Pam to help out until Mom gets back from Florida.”
He stopped and took her hands in his. “Kate, I’m here for you as long as you need me.”
“After this fiasco, are you sure you still want to stay in Morrisburg?” She’d meant to keep the question light, but her voice cracked on the last syllable.
His lips quirked up in a wry smile. “It might not be the peaceful little town I remember, but that’s not such a bad thing.”
She grimaced. “I suppose there’s nothing like the occasional public free-for-all to ease war-zone withdrawal.”
He pulled her closer and drew her into his arms. “I’ve missed you.”
She searched his warm brown eyes. “I’ve missed you, too.”
He glanced at the ceiling. “Too bad the decorations in here don’t include mistletoe.”
“We don’t need it.” She stood on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his jaw. “Besides, I’ve sworn off mistletoe for good.”“Well, in that case…” His head dipped, and his lips met hers in a long, slow kiss that melted the years away like marshmallows in hot Christmas cocoa.