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HE'D BEEN SITTING here so long his rear end was starting to go numb.
Nick shifted his weight, stretched his legs in their lightweight outdoor trousers, settled his back more comfortably against the tastefully neutral-coloured wall, and then he was motionless again.
There was a clock on the wall down the corridor from him, near the creaky elevators. It ticked in the emptiness, a constant artificial monotony that dragged on Nick's nerves. It wasn't the noise that bothered him. He was used to noise back home: the constant rush of the ocean and the whirr of leaves and the bickering of birds. Those were timeless sounds. But this tick was a precise measurement of time passing. Every second ticking by was another second he had to wait for the mysterious Ms Drake and the answers he'd waited far too long for already.
He glanced at his watch; it was over two hours since he'd spoken with the uniformed concierge in the fancy lobby downstairs.
If Nick hadn't known he was in New York already from the traffic and the blare and the buildings and the stink, he would've known from that guy. Surely nowhere else in the world could someone whose job it was to welcome people to a building be so hostile. As soon as Nick had walked in the building the concierge had been glaring at him.
Nick had ignored it, of course, striding across the marble floor straight to the art deco elevator and punching the up button.
'Can I help you, sir?'The words dripped with condescension, especially the last one. 'No. I know where I'm going.' Nick stared straight ahead at the bronze elevator grille.
'Staying for a while, are you?'
Nick didn't answer. Maybe if he ignored the man he would go away.
No luck. The man's next words came from behind his shoulder. 'That's a very large backpack.'
The large pointer above the elevators crawled slowly down the dial from the tenth floor towards the ground floor.
'What apartment are you visiting? Or are you moving in?' The sarcasm made him finally turn to face the concierge. Nick was a good half a foot taller than the guy and much broader and he knew for a fact he was radiating anger. The concierge didn't blink an eye.
'Forty-three,' Nick growled. 'I'm looking for Ms Drake.' That, for some reason, did make the concierge blink. 'Ms Drake?'
Nick was a patient man, but not today. He saw no point in repeating something that had been perfectly clear in the first place. He watched the hand crawl from five to four.
'You won't find Ms Drake,' said the concierge, and there was something in his voice that made Nick look away from the dial and at him again. His thin lips were pursed, his blue eyes practically bugging out of his head. If Nick didn't know better, he'd think the little glaring guy was close to tears.
The elevator dinged. 'I'll wait,' Nick said, pulled the grille aside, and stepped into the elevator.
'You'll be waiting a while,' the concierge said, but Nick pressed the button for the fourth floor and the doors were closing.
Over two hours later, Nick had to admit the concierge had been right. Irritatingly right. Nick rubbed his hand over eyes that felt as if they were full of sand and considered his options.
He could stay in this corridor easily for several days, as far as food and drink were concerned. But unless he used one of his water bottles, he was going to need a break soon. He very much doubted that the concierge would direct him to a restroom in the building, and it would be just his luck if his quarry returned while he was searching Manhattan for a public convenience.
Nick closed his eyes. He wasn't going anywhere. He was sticking it out. He was good at waiting. He'd waited sixteen years for this day, after all.
If only that damned clock would stop ticking.
The elevator dinged and Nick opened his eyes. Without moving from his position on the floor outside apartment forty-three, he turned his head towards the elevator.
If a man stepped out, would Nick even recognise him? Were his memories that clear? What would have changed in sixteen years?
The bronze grille slid open and a woman stepped out into the corridor and headed his way. The feeling in his stomach was, strangely, like both disappointment and relief. He watched her approach.
She was medium height, in her twenties, with blonde hair in a short style tucked behind her ears. Within a split second Nick could tell she wasn't Ms Drake. He didn't know much about Ms Drake, but knew she used heavy, high-quality writing paper, expensively embossed with her return address, which was a corner apartment of one of the most exclusive buildings in the upper west side of Manhattan. Ms Drake did not wear a huge ill-fitting ancient black leather jacket, a black skirt even Nick could tell was out of fashion, and battered running shoes.
Probably a cleaner or a nanny or something. Nick began to look away, but the blonde caught his eye with her own. She nodded a slight greeting, her chin high, her broad mouth unsmiling.
Nick nodded back and shifted his gaze to the tasteful wall across from him. No point antagonising the neighbours' hired help.
'Looks like you could do with a cushion,' she said. Her voice was surprisingly low and throaty.
'I'm okay. It's a lot more comfortable than the top of a mountain,'he replied, and exchanged half a smile with her before dropping his gaze again.
'The view's not as good, though.'She walked past him, giving his hiking boots a wide berth. Though her skirt was ugly, her bare calves and ankles were well toned and defined. She was no gorgeous Manhattan socialite, but she did have good legs.
'It's not too bad,' he said.
She chuckled and he heard keys jingle. Nick looked up sharply to see her inserting a key into the door to apartment forty-three.
In an instant he was on his feet. 'Ms Drake?' She tilted her head up towards him, her slight smile disappearing from her lips, and slid the key out of the lock. 'Yeah?'
It was impossible to tell her size with that jacket on, but she suddenly drew herself up taller and when Nick glanced down he saw that she had her keys between her fingers, held stiff as if to serve for a weapon.
New York, what a hell of a town, Nick thought, and eased back so as to appear less aggressive. Not an easy thing to do while his heart was beating a mile a minute and his entire body was tense.
'My name is Nicholas Giroux,' he said. 'Uh huh.' Her blue eyes, narrowed before, relaxed a little, but he couldn't see any recognition in them.
'I'm Eric Giroux's son.'
The blonde looked him up and down, and then one of her eyebrows lifted and the corner of her mouth came up, too. 'Well, that's nice for you,' she said. 'Excuse me, I'd like to go inside now.' She turned to the door and slid the key back into the lock.
She was mocking him. Fine. Nick didn't care. What this woman thought wasn't important. All he wanted was what she knew.
He stepped closer to her. He kept his face calm and his eyes steady on hers, as he would when showing a dangerous animal who was boss. The woman stood unmoving, her hand on the doorknob, her bottom lip and her chin thrust out, her own eyes defying his stare.
'Where is my father?' he demanded.
There was a tall, dark, handsome, very angry man on the doorstep. Well. And she'd thought today couldn't get any weirder.
Zoe stood poised with her hand on the doorknob, equally ready for fight or flight. She didn't need to size the guy up; she'd done it already, when she'd first seen him lounging against the wall in the corridor. He was about six two, probably two hundred pounds and all of it muscle. His hands looked big enough to crush her skull like a bug. And he was fast.
She thought she could probably take him.
Then again, by all indications he was insane, and insane people were harder to beat.
'I don't know where your father is,' she said pleasantly. 'Do you lose him often?'
'Very funny,'said the man, but he wasn't laughing. Just as well. When he'd smiled at her earlier he'd been even more gorgeous, and she really didn't need the distraction, what with him possibly being some sort of mental psycho killer with a father fixation.
She continued in the same cheerful tone, 'I'm sorry I can't help you. You know sometimes when I lose something I go back to the last place I saw it and work forward from there. I'm not sure it works with lost people, though.'
He clenched his teeth, making his jaw seem even stronger, took another half-step towards her, and Zoe knew that while he'd been mad before, now he was furious.
She'd dealt with quite a few aggressive people. There were lots of scumbags in NewYork, and most of them seemed to cross her path at some time or other. This guy wasn't one of them. His dark brown eyes were narrowed and flashing; his well-formed mouth was compressed. But he wasn't going to hurt her.
She could see it in the restraint of his shoulders and the humour lines beside his mouth. He was strong, but he wasn't violent. And she'd bet he didn't get angry very often, either.
She'd been calm up till nowwell, as calm as she could be, given her errand to her great-aunt's apartment. But with that realisation, her pulse sped up.
He was tall, dark, handsome, self-controlled, and on some sort of quest. Just her freaking type.
This guy might not be dangerous in general. But he was dangerous to her. 'Listen,'he said, 'I've waited a long time and I've come a long way to find my father.'His words were carefully paced. 'You can laugh all you want, but I'm going to find him.'
'Hey, I'm not laughing. Good luck. I hope you find your dad if it means that much to you.' She twisted the doorknob. 'Well, it was nice meeting you but I've had one hell of a day and I've got to do something I'm not looking forward to.'
His hand unclenched and dropped over hers on the doorknob. Zoe's throat closed up. His palm was warm and his fingers strong. A charge of desire zapped through her body.
Oh, damn. 'Your name is Drake, right?' His voice had sunk to low intimacy, still angry, but controlled.
She tried to answer and couldn't. All of her brains had migrated between her legs. This was a dangerous, dangerous man. She nodded.
He leaned even closer to her, so close she was breathing his scent. He smelled like outdoors. Leaves and living earth. His eyes were incredibly dark and he hadn't shaved for a couple of days. Nor, she would bet, had he slept. Up close his face was weary.
'Ms Drake, you don't have to cover for him. He wrote to me. That means he wants me to find him. Just let me in, and let me talk to him.'
Let me in. He meant into the apartment. Zoe was coming up with entirely different interpretations, which involved letting him into her body, into her mind, into her life.
'You think your father is in this apartment?' Zoe asked. 'Yes.'
Well, that was a point. For all she knew, he might be. For all she knew, the whole NewYork Giants football team might be in there. She hadn't been to her great-aunt Xenia's place for a few weeks.
'Have you knocked?' she asked. 'Nobody answered,' he said. 'That was why I was waiting for you.'
'So you think there might be a man waiting inside this apartment who's not answering the door?' That thought was a little creepy. Quite a bit creepier than this guy waiting outside the apartment.
'That's why I want to go in.' 'Listen,' she started, squaring her shoulders and firming her resolve, 'I really don't'
The word was full of longing and of loss. Zoe stared at his dark eyes, no longer narrowed but open and full of feeling. This man, Nicholas he'd said his name was, missed his father. He wanted him back.
Even though it was probably for two totally different reasons, and certainly for two totally different people, right now, she and this man shared exactly the same emotion.
Suddenly, fiercely, Zoe wanted her great-aunt Xenia back. And Xenia was gone for ever.
She twisted the doorknob under his hand and pushed the door open. 'Go ahead,' she said. 'Have a look.'
He dropped her hand and went past her into the apartment. 'Manners,' Zoe murmured, watching him rush past her. But she couldn't take much offence; the guy was in a hurry and she was the last person on his mind. He'd even left his enormous backpack in the hallway. And if there was somebody skulking in here, she could use some backup.
Hold on. Backup? Three minutes ago she'd thought this guy was a psycho killer and now she was thinking of him as backup?
Zoe shrugged. Stranger things had happened to her today already, and at least this was a good distraction from why she was really at the apartment. She followed him inside, closing the door behind her.
He was halfway down the entrance hall already, giving her the opportunity to observe that he was also good-looking from behind: broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted. A great butt. His brown hair curled slightly on the back of his neck. When she got to the living room she leaned against the doorway and watched him looking around.
It was a big room, with floor-to-ceiling windows and enough furniture and screens to make it not immediately obvious that there wasn't anybody else in it except for the two of them. The man scoped it out with quick efficiency, looking swiftly in the reading nook behind the Chinese silk screen, behind the tall armchairs and into the corners and even, briefly, behind the heavy velvet drapes.
Zoe saw with amusement that for all his searching he didn't seem to notice the collection of thumbscrews on the wall or the chain-saw in the glass case on a sideboard.
'Does your father usually lurk behind drapes?' He didn't even spare a glance for her; instead he opened the door to the library. Zoe wandered across and watched him examine this room, too, and the study beyond it. She followed him back into the corridor, waited as he searched the big tiled kitchen, and then trailed after him as he headed towards the bedrooms.
'If you tell me what your dad looks like I'll help you,'she said. 'About six feet tall,' he said, not glancing at her as he opened a closet door and then closed it again. 'Brown hair, brown eyes, forty-eight years old.'
'You mean he looks like you, except older.' Zoe pretended to consider. 'And he's fond of hiding in closets, apparently.'
Nicholas turned, walked towards her, stopped, crossed his arms on his impressive chest, and looked at her. He started at the top of her head and took her in, head to toe, with a flash of his dark eyes. She noticed he didn't exactly linger on her body or her face.
The attraction was one-way, then. What a surprise. 'I don't have your father hidden underneath my clothing,' she said.
He didn't acknowledge the crack. 'I'm trying to figure out how far I trust you.'
'Hey, you're the one who was hanging outside in the corridor looking suspicious.'
'You're the one who has a chain saw in your living room.' He had noticed, then. 'Well, a girl has to protect herself.' She smiled at him, though he didn't smile back. 'When was the last time you saw your father?' 'Sixteen years ago.' 'And what makes you think he's in this apartment?' 'Because this is his last known address.'
That made her blink, though it probably shouldn't. Her great-aunt Xenia must've had plenty of guests in her apartment. And some of them were bound to be male guests. Just because Xenia had never married didn't mean she didn't like male company, and if Nicholas's father was as attractive as Nicholas was, Zoe couldn't blame her great-aunt for letting him move in for a while.
'Is he your lover?' Nicholas Giroux asked.
That really did make her blink. 'What? Your father? No.' Nicholas searched her face more closely. 'You're not his daughter, are you? Are we related?'
Zoe laughed. As if she and this god could possibly be related. 'My father is Michael Drake and he lives in Fairfield, New Jersey. I wouldn't mind losing him sometimes.'
'What's your connection to my father?' 'I don't have any. I told you I don't know him.' 'No, you didn't. You said you didn't know where he was.' She thought back. He was right. 'Well, I don't know him, either.' Nicholas shook his head, and even though she'd just met him, she could recognise exasperation. He turned his back on her and opened the door to the first bedroom.
This was Xenia's guest bedroom, the one that Zoe usually used when she stayed over, and Nicholas's conviction that he would find his father was so strong that Zoe almost expected to see an older version of Nicholas stretched out on the bed reading Sports Illustrated.
But the bed was made, the room empty.
He only had to glance into the second bedroom, which was full of junk and boxes and a small cot, and then he was twisting the knob of the third bedroom, Xenia's bedroom, which had been Zoe's destination in the first place.
'If you haven't seen your father in sixteen years, how do you know this was his last known address?' she asked, quickly, to distract him from opening the door. She didn't want to go into that bedroom; she didn't want to do what she'd come here to do. It would make the truth too real and too permanent.
Nicholas reached inside his coat. He was wearing a weatherproof jacket, as a hiker would wear. It went with his all-weather trousers and his waterproof boots. Nice that he had a style theme going, anyway: rugged outdoorsman, not a common look in New York City. Of course, the man would look delectable in a plastic sack.
He pulled out a crumpled, cream-coloured envelope, and Zoe recognised it right away. She'd received letters in envelopes like that, written on matching stationery, embossed with this address, on every birthday since she could read. Even though they were standing right in the middle of Xenia's apartment, the envelope was an almost shockingly intimate reminder of her great-aunt.
'Xenia knew him,' she said, almost to herself.
Nicholas had been extending the envelope to her, but he stopped mid-air. 'Xenia? Who's Xenia?'
'My great-aunt. She owns this apartment.'
Owned. 'You don't own this apartment?'
Zoe spread her hands out on either side of herself, indicating her big leather jacket, her worn-in running shoes, and her frankly gross skirtall of them the only black clothes she happened to own that weren't skin-tight spandex.
'Do I look like I own this apartment?'
He raised his eyebrows and twisted the side of his mouth in an acknowledgement that was, even though she'd asked for it, a little too readily given for her ego. Yeah, she looked like a tasteless girl from the Bronx dumped in a classy Manhattan apartment. He didn't have to rub it in.
'Why did you say you owned this apartment?' 'I didn't,'she said, glad that this time she remembered the conversation better than he did. 'I had a key for it and you assumed it was mine.'
'Why do you have a key for it?' Ah, now that was the question.