The Wolfe and Three Little Griggs by Tanya Michaels

The Wolfe and Three Little Griggs (a WWR online read)
By Tanya Michaels

Chapter One

Risa Alexander opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. She was happy—of course she was happy—just surprised. While she and Phillip had discussed their future before, it had always seemed in the abstract. She hadn’t expected him to pop the question, here, at this restaurant, tonight.

Come to think of it though, it had been more like one of his winning closing arguments than an actual question: You and I are wonderful together, darling. The timing is right. My career, my supporters. I just need that smiling wife beside me. I need you. Let’s make it official and set a date.

Now, the handsome lawyer with political aspirations peered at her from across the candle-lit table, waiting, his perfectly groomed blond eyebrows raised over aquamarine eyes. "Clarise?"

Odd how even the doorman at her building called her by the nickname Risa, but Phillip clung to her formal, full name. Or maybe not so odd. He was the Judge’s protégé, after all. It still shocked her sometimes that golden, confident Phillip had sought her out in the crowd at her step-father’s Christmas party.

"Wasn’t there something you wanted to say?" He prompted with a gently teasing grin.

"Yes, definitely." Just as soon as she could form coherent thoughts again.

"Wonderful! Waiter, some champagne, please?"

Wait, she thought, you misunderstood what I was agreeing to! But it would be silly to object. She did plan to marry Phillip Donavan, after all. He was exactly the kind of man she wanted, the kind any smart, pragmatic woman would want. If part of Risa noticed that Phillip didn’t make her pulse race, so what? Life-altering decisions should be based on more than cardiac irregularities. He was a bright man with integrity, who shared many of her interests. They’d invested almost six months in each other, and he’d commented more than once that when he ran for senate, he hoped she’d be at his side. They were well-suited and enjoyed quiet, traditional hobbies such as chess and antiquing.

She’d never dared to be anything but "traditional." When her mother had died, leaving her in the custody of an autocratic step-father who hadn’t previously wanted children, Risa had been terrified of incurring his disapproval and being sent away. To the Judge’s credit, he’d provided well for her, buying her a good college education and co-signing a business loan to start the job-training-and-placement agency Risa owned in downtown Atlanta.

I’ll have a family of my own now, a real family. She knew Phillip wanted children, and that he’d be a wonderful provider. Her children would never know the poverty she had in early years, nor would they have to worry that they were unwelcome. Happily anticipating the life she and Phillip would build, Risa clinked her champagne glass to his. This was the right decision, a logical decision.

As the elevator rose from the parking garage, Risa swallowed nervously. Now that they were betrothed, would Phillip want to come in and…consummate their relationship? They’d exchanged their fair share of kisses, of course, but they’d never made love. She’d planned to cap off her evening with a facial, a pre-slumber glass of wine and an I Love Lucy re-run, but maybe tonight called for something more passionate.

"Did you, er, want to come in?"

Regret softened his gaze. "I wish I could, darling. But I’m headed back to work for a few hours, to prep for that big case. I hope you’re not disappointed?"

"No, you go make the world a better place." Should she be more disappointed? Surely, given the choice, she should prefer her fiancé over the Vitameatavegamin episode.

Then again, her mother, Maggie, had followed her romantic instincts, with mixed results. And Risa’s best friend, Janine Griggs, had been swept off her feet by a handsome charmer. Now Janine was the single mother of three and sole owner of the gambling debts she’d inherited when her late husband crashed his car fleeing the law.

A shrill ding startled Risa, and the elevator doors opened into an elegant marbled lobby. A ladder walked toward them—or at least a man carrying a ladder. Apparently misjudging the angle, he almost knocked Phillip over. Phillip scowled at the resulting smudge on his jacket.

"Sorry," the man said as he swerved inside. Dark-haired, with a face rougher than Phillip’s patrician features, the stranger wore a paint-smeared T-shirt and jeans with a threadbare patch on his right thigh, just below the pocket. He also carried a battered toolbox.

Phillip sniffed, but that could’ve been his allergies. The Atlanta pollen count in May was harsh. "I don’t mean to be rude, sir," he began. "But you should really use the service entrance. I know the superintendent here, and he’s a real stickler for rules."

The newcomer smirked. Maybe he hadn’t cared for the benevolent condescension in Phillip’s tone. "I take it you’re the elevator police?"

Normally surrounded by people who accommodated him, Phillip dropped his amiable, if patronizing, smile. "With an attitude like that, I’ve half a mind to talk to the superintendent myself."

Risa flinched, never a fan of confrontation. "Which floor?" she asked quickly.

The stranger did a double-take, as if he’d just noticed her presence for the first time. Great. Like she needed the reminder she was practically invisible to men. "Seven."

"Oh." Her floor.

Phillip slid a possessive arm around her waist, and the three of them rode in silence. Well, silence and some Mozart piped in through the speakers.

Staring straight ahead, Risa considered her appearance in the mirrored paneling. No one would ever confuse her for a stunner, but she and Phillip made a handsome couple. She resented her light brown hair’s tendency to frizz, and kept it twisted back to minimize the damage done by the southern humidity. Her face was a little long, and her height made her feel lanky, but Phillip was six-three and liked tall women.

When the elevator doors stepped forward, Phillip drew himself up to his full, commanding height and eyed the stranger. "As long as you’re here, you should look at her balcony door. It’s sticking."

"Well, I could. But you might want to ask one of the building’s maintenance men to do it."

Phillip nearly tripped as they all stepped into the hallway. "You don’t work here?"

"No." The corner of the other man’s mouth lifted. "I live here. 7-G. Been slowly moving in over the last couple of days, and I got the super’s permission to make a few modifications to my apartment. I didn’t find him to be too much of a stickler."

7-G? Risa’s heart sank. She lived in 7-H and would have preferred a less awkward introduction to her new neighbor.

He stopped at the apartment next to hers and dug a key out of the back pocket of his worn jeans. As he opened the door, he glanced over his shoulder, and their gazes locked. His eyes were like steel, tinged with the palest sky blue.

Heat curled in her abdomen and slowly rose to her face. Because you’re embarrassed. It had nothing to do with that half-grin of his or how he looked in form-hugging denim.

Clothed in a ratty sleep-shirt that said Girls Rule, Risa paced the red and black tile of her kitchen. Telling herself it was natural to feel keyed up after receiving her first marriage proposal, she dropped into one of the high-backed chairs at her black lacquered table. It was almost ten, still a bit early for I Love Lucy. Should she call the Judge, tell him she was officially engaged? Her relationship with the man had improved drastically since she’d started dating Phillip. Though the Judge rarely remarked on her personal life, for the first time in her twenty-six years, she rather thought he was proud of her. But she doubted he’d be home from his weekly poker game yet.

Janine! Duh. Risa leaned the chair back on its two hind legs to grab the red phone off the wall, then punched in the number.

"’Lo?" Janine’s breathless voice sounded typically harried.

"It’s me. Bad time?"

"For you, never. Wait a sec—no, Jason, we can’t get a cat just because Mikey Baxter has one. Your sister’s allergic, sweetie…no, we cannot give Natalie away!"

"Would you like to call me back after they’re all in bed?"

"They’re supposed to be in bed now, but Jace wanted a drink of water, so of course Natalie suddenly realized she was parched, too. Then Jason remembered Mikey’s cat gets to sleep at the foot of Mikey’s bed, and you know how that goes. Just let me restore order."

Waiting, Risa marveled at the hand life had dealt Janine. Jason was six, Natalie was five, and Janine had learned she was pregnant with her third, baby Grace, only weeks after her husband had crashed into an embankment on his way to Hartsfield Airport. They’d later learned he’d been fleeing the country after embezzling almost a hundred thousand dollars. Janine sometimes seemed to look up to Risa, grateful for the receptionist’s job Risa had offered at her agency. The truth was, Risa looked up to Janine, admired her strength.

Rustling came over the phone line. "Okay. Everyone’s in their respective beds for the time being. What were we talking about?"

"We were still in the hello, how are you stage."

Janine made a dismissive sound. "I have three kids and no time to waste on small talk. Let’s skip straight to good gossip."

"You think you’re making a joke, but I actually have news tonight."

"Thank God, I can live vicariously! I tell you what, Rees, I’m twenty-nine and feel more like ninety-two some days. You know I love the kids…"

"But it’s hard being a single mom." Risa still remembered the lean years before Maggie had found a job overseeing the Judge’s household.

"Sorry." Janine laughed nervously. "Didn’t mean to be a downer. What were you going to tell me?"

For a minute, Risa felt guilty. It wasn’t fair that she had someone while Janine shouldered her burdens alone. Risa made a mental promise to do more for her friend. "I’m getting married!"

Dead silence. Crickets chirping. "To senator Phil?"

"Of course."

"Erk."

Risa generously took it as congratulations. "You’ll be my maid of honor, right?"

"A night where I get to be around other adults? You bet. I just…"

"What?"

"Tell me about the proposal," Janine dodged.

"He took me to that ritzy new Italian place downtown. We had a candle-lit, six course meal," Risa recounted, playing up the romantic ambience for her vicarious friend. "And then—"

"He had the waiter bring out the ring with dessert?"

"No." Risa twisted the phone cord around her hand. "He said we should pick out a ring together, so I could find something I loved."

"Considerate. Did he get down on one knee?" Janine asked, belatedly getting into the spirit. "How did he phrase the proposal? Did you celebrate with champagne?"

"Um…we did have champagne, actually. It was nice."

"Nice? Good to know you’re deliriously happy."

"I’m happy, just overwhelmed."

"That’s because you’re such a planner," Janine said. "You’re probably already organizing the wedding in your mind. Then again, maybe if I were anal retentive like you, my life would have turned out differently. You know I meant anal retentive in a good way, right?"

"I know." The truth was, she could already picture the wedding—a grand but not ostentatious affair with lots of influential guests. She could envision everything but herself.

"If you’re happy, so am I," Janine added loyally. "If I’ve been lukewarm about Phillip in the past, it’s probably just because I adore you so much no mere mortal would seem good enough for you! But tomorrow, lunch is on me. We can talk about what kind of hideous bridesmaid dress you’re going to subject me to."

"It will have to be hideous, you know, or everyone will be too focused on the gorgeous blonde to notice the bride lurching around."

"You’re such a liar, but go on."

They exchanged laughing banter for a few more minutes, but when Risa hung up the phone, she still didn’t feel relaxed. Time for a glass of chardonnay and an apricot facial.

Passing through her room to the master bath, she studied her furnishings with a new eye. Her four-poster, iron-scrollwork queen-sized bed—would it be relegated to a guest room once she and Phillip were married? She couldn’t picture him sleeping under the pale pink duvet. Next to the bed was a cheap, two-drawer nightstand she’d bought herself in college; she’d stripped it and impulsively painted it in funky colors. Periwinkle for the top, yellow for the stand itself, purple for the drawers. Phillip would find it appalling. She’d been to his house many times and knew his fondness for stately antiques. Sipping her wine, she told herself she was being overly sentimental. It was an ugly nine dollar nightstand, for crying out loud, so who cared if she got rid of it?

She went into the bathroom, the linoleum floor cool against her bare feet, and pulled her hair back with a scrunchy. The mask needed time to dry, and Lucy wouldn’t start for another few minutes. Besides, Risa could do with some fresh air.

Her balcony was located right off of her living room and afforded a nice view of the Atlanta skyline. She slid open the glass door and stepped out into the dark humidity, reflexively sliding the door shut behind her, dimly noting the way the frame jangled as the handle latched. The spring night was a velvet mist against her skin. Softness clung to her arms and legs, which were exposed by the short-sleeved nightshirt that fell to the tops of her thighs. She took a deep breath and leaned against the railing. Too bad she couldn’t see any stars. With the illumination and haze from the city, the sky was a blurred violet, disturbed only by the occasional blinking red lights from passing planes.

She contemplated the view and let her mind roam, draining the last of the wine. Finally, lassitude began to seep through her tense muscles. When she turned to go inside, however, she frowned at the realization that, in her preoccupation, she’d closed the door all the way even though she hadn’t intended to latch it. Habit. Even as an adult, she could hear the Judge scolding that he wasn’t paying to air condition the backyard. Phillip had been right earlier—the door was prone to sticking, but no matter. She tugged stubbornly at the handle, adding "elbow-grease," as her step-father would say. As she tried repeatedly, without results, the muggy air around her became oppressive rather than welcoming as it had first seemed. During one particularly fierce attempt, she heard a grating, metal-against-metal sound. Glancing through the pane of glass, she could see that the runners were out of alignment. The door was not going to slide.

Now what? Shinnying down the building was not an option from the seventh floor.

Frustrated, she yanked one last time, but that only seemed to anger the door. The squealing, grating sound grew more pronounced, without so much as a budge. Okay. She was in the business of giving people options—what were hers? As she glanced around, it became apparent that she only had one. 7-G. Her neighbor’s balcony was mere inches from hers. She could make it over there and knock on his door. Her front door was locked, but the super could bring her a key. There was more danger of her humiliating herself to death than falling.

Biting her lip, Risa cursed the greed that had led her to rent a corner apartment. Sure, it was more spacious, but if she hadn’t been on the corner, there would be someone with a balcony to her right, an alternative to seeing him again. In her tattered blue pajama shirt and facial mask!

She was supposed to be safely inside watching a sitcom about a woman’s misadventures—not having her own.