Operation Prince Charming(7)

By: Phyllis Bourne

He fished a crumpled gift certificate from his pants’ pocket and slid it across the desk.

“These classes were her gift to me.” He said the word gift as if his girlfriend had presented him with a rabid skunk.

Typical, Ali thought. One thing their male clients had in common was etiquette school was never their idea. It usually came at the urging of a boss, public relations rep, or love interest. Even then, the man in question was a reluctant participant.

So her first rule was to get them comfortable with the notion, and second, show them there was more to etiquette than saying “thank you” and knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner.

“Detective Coleman—”

“Hunter,” he corrected.

“Well, Hunter, I thought you might like to hear about some of the other gentlemen who’ve recently benefited from our classes.”

“So I’m not the first to get roped into this?” A humorless chuckle accompanied his question.

Ali watched his eyes grow wide with interest as she rattled off the names of several prominent Tennessee Titans football players.

“Him? You’re kidding me, right?”

Ali shook her head. “My aunt says he was one of her best students.”

“But why?” Hunter asked, obviously trying to reconcile the image of one of the National Football League’s most dominant linebackers with what he knew of etiquette classes.

“His job doesn’t end when he leaves the field,” she said. “His calendar is chock-full of charity fund-raisers and formal dinners.”

Hunter nodded his understanding and seemed more receptive. So Ali went for the coup de grace. “We’ve even worked with Percy Tompkins Jr.”

Hunter shrugged and shook his head, indicating he had no idea who she was talking about.

“Percy’s better known as rapper Buck-tooth Killah.”

Hunter’s eyes widened. “That foulmouthed little punk was in charm school?”

“Percy was overwhelmed by his sudden fame and not handling media interviews or communicating with executives at his record label very well,” Ali said. “So his handlers brought him to us, and he hasn’t thrown a tantrum with reporters or his label since he completed the course,” she said proudly.

Ali was relieved to notice Hunter had relaxed into his seat and was no longer eyeing the door.

“And like our other gentlemen, I’m sure you’ll find a working knowledge of the rules of proper etiquette will have a positive impact on other areas of your life.”

Hunter held up his hand, forestalling the remainder of her prepared spiel. “Look, I appreciate you trying to put me at ease, but save your breath.”

He blew out a weary sigh. He looked like a man who had something to say, but wasn’t quite sure how to put it.

“Here’s the deal. Erica’s recently come into money, and now she has her heart set on rubbing elbows with the city’s elite. She envisions herself as an up-and-coming socialite-slash-philanthropist, and she believes I’m the reason those snobs haven’t taken to her.”

“Are you?” she asked, picking up on the note of disapproval in his tone. “Could it be you’re unconsciously sabotaging her efforts?”

Hunter shrugged. “I’m not the kind of man who stands by and lets his date, or for that matter any woman, be insulted. It doesn’t matter if we’re having lobster at a fancy dinner or peanuts at a sports bar.”

Ali didn’t need details on the insults. She had a pretty good idea. After all, she’d come to Nashville after leaving one of south Florida’s ritziest communities divorced, unemployed, and utterly humiliated.

“Erica’s strategy has been to donate enormous amounts of money to the pet causes of the chairwomen of the so-called best boards and committees,” Hunter continued. “While they have no problem accepting her checks, they don’t seem any closer to inviting her to join their groups.”

Ali started to tell him that Erica’s approach was all wrong, but the pitying look on his face told her he already knew.

Ali found herself envying the woman, not for her wealth or having this hunky cop’s heart, but because she had someone who cared enough to stand up for her. Not only had no one jumped to Ali’s defense when she was being trashed, but the man who’d vowed to love her forever had been the one out to destroy her.

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