On assignment to do a story about the romantic magic of the Cactus Inn Lise Bergere is disgruntled. It has been a year since her boyfriend Drew unceremoniously dumped her and she finds the idea of romance distasteful.
To Lise’s surprise her boss Martin shows up, apparently hoping that the romantic atmosphere will influence her to accept his proposal. Then Drew, the man who broke her heart, arrives apparently intent on reviving what was between them, and just to complicate things Helga, the dumpy and unattractive office manager at Lise’s magazine appears to try for one last, desperate chance at fixing Martin’s interest.
Lise must write her story, sort everything out, and decide what she really wants... then see if she can get it. Is the Cactus Inn really magic when it comes to romance?
There were problems in holding a scene in the midst of an elegant restaurant. At a motion from the maître d’ a small army of waiters swept up everything from the romantic table for two Martin had reserved and transplanted it, glasses, flowers, champagne and all, an action that pleased no one. Now acting as sommelier, the manager cum maître d’ after only a moment’s hesitation presented the wine bottle to Lise, who then went through the classic routine of swirling, sniffing and tasting before nodding approval that it be served. It was a bit of theatre that obviously did not make Martin happy but amused Drew, who was having trouble stifling laughter.
Only after their orders were placed - Lise’s scaloppini going to Helga, prime rib (“Bloody rare,”) for Lise and a New York strip (“Medium,”) for Drew and their salads delivered - did the waiter withdraw. The noise level in the room had returned to almost normal, though Lise would have wagered that every ear in the place was at least half-way tuned to their table. Well, for once she was going to be in control, and she didn’t care who heard.
“Well, gentlemen, since you have intruded on Helga’s and my girl’s night out, it is obvious that you want to talk to us. So talk.” Lise speared a cherry tomato, dipped it in the bleu cheese dressing and chewed.
Martin glowered. “I need to talk to you privately.”
“So do I,” said Drew. His expression was close to a glower as well, but the effect was spoiled by a fringe of humor.
He, Lise thought, knows what I’m doing and is enjoying it. He would, the beast!
“There’s nothing you can say that can’t be said in front of my friend Helga,” she said smoothly. “So if you can’t talk in front of each other, I suggest you take turns leaving the table.”
“No,” said Martin.
“No,” said Drew.
Lise sighed theatrically and turned to Helga. “If that’s the way you want it. Helga, did I tell you about the dress I saw in this shop at the airport? It would be perfect for you.”
Helga was quick and, in full understanding, shook her head. “No. you didn’t.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful! All sparkly with red sequins and beads. It would look spectacular with that red beaded flower you liked. I hope it’s still there...”
“Red?” Martin’s mouth dropped open. “Helga doesn’t wear red.”
Sparks flew from that lady’s unfortunately small eyes. “I don’t wear red at the office, Mr. Gilbreath. You have no idea what I wear on my own time.”
“Well said,” Lise murmured, smiling with pride at her protégée. Helga was indeed learning very fast.
Drew smiled. “And I’ll bet you look wonderful in it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Norton. No one has complained yet.”
Their entrees arrived, and with every indication of pleasure Lise cut into her prime rib, delighted to find that it was as rare as she could want.
“Good grief!” Martin was horrified. “That looks raw!”
“I know! Isn’t it wonderful?”
“She likes her meat where if you give it a bandage and some TLC it has a 50/50 chance of getting well,” Drew said indulgently. “Always has.”
“Why are you here, Drew?” Lise asked, spearing a piece of broccoli.
“There’s someone I need to talk to.”
“A friend? Anyone I know?”
“I’m beginning to wonder.” Drew cut a piece of steak, which did not run red but was a darkish pink at the center.
Emboldened as much by a sense of mischief as by the wine Lise decided to go all out. “Did you manage to get a room or do you expect to sleep in mine again tonight?”
“What!” Martin roared, his jerking hands sending his water and wine glass flying, his knife across the table to land in Helga’s scaloppini and his own entrée slithering over the edge onto the tablecloth.
The entire room fell silent. Again.
As if they had been expecting such madness, the manager and two waiters flew across the room, their hands instantly busy with cloths and trays.
“Mr. Gilbreath, what a mess you’ve made!” Helga said pertly, checking to see that her dress was unspattered with sauce.
“Martin, what on earth do you think you’re doing?” Lise snapped, colliding with a waiter as she jumped up away from the waterfall of wine which had aimed directly for her lap.
His eyes alight with barely repressed hilarity, Drew instantly took his napkin, dipped it into his water and held it out to her. “Here. Hopefully if you get it out quickly enough it won’t spot.”
“I don’t care,” Lise said angrily, swiping at the wet spots. “Martin’s going to have to buy me a new dress anyway.”
“I’m going to what?” he yelled. “You - you slept with this man! In a room I’m paying for!”
“Martin!” Helga sounded scandalized, so startled that her assumed formality vanished. “That’s a terrible thing to say. Lise, did you?
“Of course not.” Her attention switching from Helga back to Martin, Lise stopped dabbing at her lap and glared. “Whatever gave you that idea? And if it’s any of your business - which it is not! - he couldn’t get a room last night, so I let him crash on the couch. That’s all!”
“If you please,” the manager/maître d’ approached cautiously, as any sensible man would a bunch of uncontrolled animals, his hands jerking up and down in an very useless ‘hush’ motion. “Can you lower your voices? We must think of the comfort of our other guests...”
“Damn your other guests!” Martin screeched. “We’re going to get this settled now...”
Lise’s eyes shot icy fire. “It is settled, Martin. I’ll do this article and then our association is terminated.”
“The hell it is! We have a contract!”
“I can recommend a good lawyer,” Drew said laconically, slicing another bite of his steak.
“You stay out of this, you - you - intruder!”
“Helga, why don’t you take Martin somewhere and get him calmed down... or at least acting like a civilized person. You - ” her gaze swept to Drew, who was inoffensively chewing his steak, “ - stay still, stay quiet, and stay away from me. And you - ” this time it was the maître d’ who fell under her laser-like look, “please send this up to my room. I will finish my meal there - alone!”
It was a pity Lise was wearing a sheath instead of a full skirt; swaying and billowing crinolines would have made the perfect punctuation for her grand exit.