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Unrecognized and unnoticed, David Montgomery had a plan when he walked into Nikita's Place. He placed a coffee and pastry order and then asked the clerk about the owner, Nikita Coles. She was next on the list, after her sister, Natalia. To his disappointment Nikita was busy in the kitchen and didn't have time to come out and meet the patrons. Thwarted, but ever resourceful, he grabbed a seat at a table in the rear with his coffee and newspaper and waited. She had to come out sometime.
He was angry, jet-lagged and exhausted, a dangerous combination. He had flown in from London two days before, and then he hit Chicago, Dallas and L.A., all in the span of forty-eight hours. So now, to stay focused and alert, he listened to the chatter around him. They were mostly trivial conversations about sports, cooking, current events and local gossip. He was beginning to think this was just another waste of time when to his surprise, after half an hour, a woman came from behind the counter with two cups and a small pastry plate. A few seconds later she was joined by a second woman. David sat and continued listening.
Natalia Coles's fiery dark eyes narrowed as she marched through the small parking area toward the main entrance of Nikita's Place, her sister's bakery and café. Usually low-key and calm, Natalia had a way of getting attention and getting her point across with little fuss. She didn't yell or scream or go in for high drama or disruptive behavior. Most days she pleasantly eased into her orderly life. Today wasn't one of those days. Today she stormed into the bakery like a hurricane on steroids. She quickly looked around, spotting her sister in the back.
"Over here," Nikita Coles called out.
Natalia nodded and smiled briefly, noting that her younger sister had cleared a table at the back of her café and waved her over. She sliced her way through the crowd and narrow seating, then finally reached the table already prepared with two cups of tea and a small tray of pastries. As soon as she got there her sister smiled and hugged her warmly. "Hey, girl, I wondered what happened to you. I thought you were going to stand me up or something. Come on. Have a seat. My break's almost over and the kitchen's been crazy busy all morning."
"You're not going to believe this. I can hardly believe it myself," Natalia began immediately.
"Whoa, calm down," Nikita soothed. "What's going on? You look exhausted."
"I am. I was up most of the night. You won't believe this. The city and state rejected my grant renewal applications. I was up half the night trying to figure out what to do next."
"Oh, no, Nat. I'm so sorry." Her sister opened her arms immediately. The two hugged. "I know how much getting that money meant to you."
She sat down next to her sister. "No, not to me, Nikita, to the kids. I don't know what I'm going to do now. The center's running on bare bones as it is, and I was really depending on the government money. Now it's too late to apply anywhere else."
"Do you know why or what happened?" Nikita asked.
"No, and I just don't understand it," Natalia complained. "I know I did everything exactly right. All the paperwork, everything was completed perfectly. I get that the competition is intense. The grants are amazing and they come with all kinds of incredible extras and benefits. They even include a summer camp option! I've applied the last three years and have always gotten approved. But this time it was different. I got a very polite 'Thanks, please apply again' letter." Natalia's voice cracked with emotion as she shook her head. "So last night I started all over again. I went through everyone I could think of, but all my contacts came up short."
"What about that other foundation grant you applied for last year? Did you apply again?"
"Yeah, but that never comes through," Natalia answered. "I don't even know why I still apply. Getting monies for the Teen Dream Center is a long shot when it comes to that grant. It's past fantasyland and into the realm of 'Ain't never gonna happen in this lifetime.'"
"Don't say that," Nikita sympathized. "Anything's possible."
"You know I'm a realist, so believe me when I say not this."
"But you still applied?" Nikita asked.
Natalia nodded and sighed heavily. "The last thing I want to do is tell the kids that I failed and it's over."
"Trust me, I know that won't happen." Nikita reached over and gently touched her older sister's arm. "Nat, I have money saved. Take it and do what you need to do. If you need more, you know Dominik, Mikhail, Tatiana and Stephen want to help, not to mention the rest of the family."
"No, I can't take your money, Niki, or theirs. That's not how it works. It's a nonprofit organization, not a family thing. It's all about funding through grants. If I want Teen Dream to thrive and grow, I need to do this the right way." She sat back and looked around. A man seated right next to their table immediately caught her eye. It wasn't what he was doing that piqued her interest, it was what he wasn't doing. He was dressed inconspicuously. He kept his head bowed low into a newspaper, yet there was something about him that seemed odd, at least to her.
"Nat, don't worry. Everything will work out."
"I don't see how," she said, shifting her attention back to her sister. "It just makes me so mad. They profess to want to help kids. Then they sit up there on their high perches and with just a few signatures destroy children's lives. They gave no reasons other than that the grant money would be better served elsewhere. Are you kidding me? What does that even mean?"
"Everything will work out, just as it's supposed to. I have a good feeling about this and you know I know these things."
Natalia smiled and nodded, but she still wasn't reassured by her sister's comforting words. Although she was right about one thing: Nikita had a way of knowing when things were going to work out. She had definite instincts and ever since childhood she'd learned to trust those instincts. Since then they had led her to an enviable culinary career all around the world and now back here to Key West.
"Here, taste. You'll feel much better after just one bite," Nikita offered from the small tray of treats she'd placed in front of them when she sat down.
"Niki, your sensual delights, as amazingly sinful as they are, won't fix this. I'm running out of time and out of money even faster. I figure I only have until mid-May to find a sponsor for the center. I'm giving myself until Mother's Day. Seems appropriate."
"Do you think that…" Nikita began.
"I don't want to go there." Natalia held her hand up, interrupting quickly, knowing exactly what her sister was thinking.
"You're thinking the same thing, aren't you? Clay Sullivan did it. He blackballed you just as he threatened," Nikita said.
"I don't want to go there," Natalia repeated.
"Why not?" Nikita continued. "It's a very real possibility and it needs to be addressed. Let's face it: the jerk is a pathetic excuse for a man. And he calls himself a philanthropist. Please, he's more like a horny, Viagra-soaked con man."
"And thankfully I found out in time to get out before contracts were signed."
"He's a jerk and a womanizer and a thug who deserves to have his checkbook cut off," Niki added. Natalia chuckled at her sister's clever phrasing. "And if he thinks that I haven't spread the word to every woman within earshot, then he's mistaken."
"Can we please change the subject now?" Natalia asked.
"Fine, but you know I'm right. He did it."
"Subject change, please," Natalia repeated.
"Fine, fine. So are you ready to be left alone this weekend?"
"I'll miss my guys, but after the morning I'm having, most definitely," Natalia said. "It's been one insane disaster after another. You wouldn't believe the craziness and it's not even noon yet."
"One of those, huh?" Nikita asked. Natalia nodded woefully. "So, what are your plans for this weekend?"
"You know, the usual. Meet a gorgeous man, fly off to an exotic island and have dinner on the beach. Or paint the kitchen and trim the trees in the front yard."
"I like the first one better," Nikita said.
"Me, too, but we both know that's not gonna happen. So back to the real world. I'm going to get some work done, paint the kitchen Saturday morning and then do some gardening the rest of the weekend."
"Working, painting and gardening—come on, Nat, you haven't had a day off since Brice was born. That's almost three years ago." Natalia noticed that the man at the next table looked up instantly. Earlier he hadn't moved an inch, but something got his attention now. Again his presence bothered her. This time she knew why. She recognized him; at least she thought she did.
Their eyes met, and in that one instant, even through his thick reading glasses, heavy brows, rough graying beard and lowered cap, she made out who she thought was David Montgomery. He was heavier, thicker around the middle, and the nose was all wrong. However, why would David Montgomery be in Key West?
The actor she'd seen onscreen was muscular, athletic and most definitely mouthwateringly gorgeous. The man at the table smiled halfheartedly. She nodded pleasantly then turned her attention back to her sister's comments.
"…so in my opinion you need to do something really exciting. I have an idea. Forget about painting. I'll get somebody to work for me and we'll go to Miami or Fort Lauderdale for a spa weekend special—just the two of us."
"Umm, a day at the spa really does sound tempting, but…"
"No buts, no second guesses. Come on now, don't wimp out on me," her sister warned. "You're a woman, not just a social worker and a mom. You need to do something for yourself sometimes. You know the boys will be fine. You told me that Stephen and Mia bought out half the toy store when they volunteered to babysit this weekend. You know they're really looking forward to this and you definitely need some time off."
"All right, let's do it. But how about going for just one day to the day spa at the Keys Gateway Hotel?"
"Sounds perfect," Nikita agreed.
"I'll make the reservations for Sunday, but right now I need to get back to the office. I have a million things to take care of before I pick up the boys this evening. I'll call you and let you know the appointment time." She took one last glance at the man intent on being inconspicuous. His head was buried in the newspaper and his cap had been lowered even more. David Montgomery was a ridiculous notion. She was upset and it was obviously just her imagination.
David had always been a student of human nature. He'd watched and learned as numerous scenes just like the previous one unfolded in cafés and diners all over the country. This was his studio. Some actors went to classes, learning techniques mastered by countless thespians before them. David didn't; he sought out the real thing. It was one thing to practice emotion. It was definitely another to see it actually revealed.
As an actor, his job was to mimic reality and that, coupled with an added dimension, brought that reality to the screen. Countless awards, a staggering number of accolades and pronounced notoriety proved that he did his job very well. But this time he wasn't on an undercover research trip. This was his life. This was to save his career and everything else he knew.
He had glanced at the women at the table next to him unnoticed a few times. They were attractive and most definitely favored each other. Both had soft facial features with full lips and high cheeks. Their eyes were dark, framed by thick long lashes. One had short hair with lighter highlights and wore jeans and a white T-shirt with the bakery's name printed on the front. The other, dressed more conservatively in a slim, knee-length skirt and sleeveless blouse wrapped in front, with hair pulled up in a relaxed bun, was slightly curvier and more feminine. She was the one who had noticed him.
As an observer, being noticed was always a risk. But lately he'd narrowed that danger down vastly by varying techniques. Disguises and props were a must, of course. He carried a supply of glasses, beards, mustaches and wigs to change his appearance. He also had padded clothing and an array of rubber and gelatin prosthetic devices that he could affix to his face and body. They changed his appearance, helping him to blend in as seamlessly as possible. But it seemed as if this time it didn't work. One of the women was looking at him suspiciously. She seemed to recognize him even though he had no idea how or why. She didn't say anything, so he assumed he'd succeeded.
Moments later he watched as the two women stood and hugged. Then one woman walked out the front door and the other walked behind the counter and entered the kitchen. He also noticed that the woman at the next table was looking at him strangely. He quickly gathered the rest of his meal into the take-out bag and tossed it in the trash can on his way out the door.
As soon as he got outside, he called his assistant, Pamela. "Hey, I've been waiting for you to call," she began. "Where are you now?"
"I'm back in Key West."
"Finally. David, seriously, you need to get some rest. You can't keep flying all over the place, plus trying to figure all this out. You're gonna burn out."
"I'm fine. I found her. At least I think I did. She's one of the two women we discussed, Natalia Coles."
"Are you absolutely positive?"
"Well, I tried to get birth records from the local hospital, but they're permanently sealed for family privacy. I couldn't even get into the computer, so their system must be airtight. I'm at the local newspaper office, going through old files, looking for birth announcements to compare dates. Apparently, they don't list them online."
"That's one good thing, I suppose. If you can't get to the hospital birth records or birth announcements, no one else can, either."
"We have to work fast," David insisted. "I can't wait for the attorneys. So I'm going to need more information."
"Hold on, I just found two birth announcements. You were right, it's Natalia Coles. Her second child was three weeks premature."
"Two announcements. That means two kids," he said slowly.
"Yes," Pamela confirmed.