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Nick Leonetti eyed the people around him with a sense of impending doom. He adjusted his tie several times, feeling like a man at the gallows about to be hung. He hated ties. Whoever invented them must have had a sadistic mind he decided with a quick jerk on the knot. He glanced at his shoes and saw his reflection. "This is definitely not the Nick Leonetti I know," he grumbled to himself.
He surveyed the room. Stale cigarettes stashed in overflowing ashtrays, magazines strewn haphazardly on the coffee tables, humdrum music playing in the background, and an impatient man strumming his fingernails incessantly against the plate glass window of the receptionist desk reminded Nick of his mission.
A company picture hung on one wall, men in hard hats--reassuring Nick that he was applying at a sheet metal company. It was the only thing that reassured him.
True, the note had been vague. So, he didn't get a look at who sent it to his table the other night at his mother's birthday party at L'Allegria's Restaurant. So what? It was a job, wasn't it? And Nick needed a second job to accomplish his goal.
Jumping up, he intended to make a quick dash for the front office door, but halted when the secretary came into the room. "Mr. Leonetti, would you follow me please?"
He followed her down a long narrow hallway. The secretary opened another door for him, and quickly closed it behind him. He felt as though a dungeon door had slammed shut. He took in the room with a single glance. It appeared empty. A solid plate glass window lined one wall, providing a highlighted view of the area. The carpet, a deep plush mauve, surprised him. Pink carpet? The furnitureechoed a cold modern art form of chrome, glass and black lacquer. Two tall black leather chairs adorned both sides of the wide expansive desk.
Not his style. No sir, not his style at all. He was out of here.
His hand on the doorknob stilled when he heard a woman's voice. Not just any voice, but a soft, sexy voice, the kind a man likes to hear in the heat of the night. Desire speared him like a hot sword aiming for his loins. Lord, it was just a voice, he scolded himself as he turned around slowly.
"Mr. Leonetti?" The woman whirled about in the leather chair to face him and abruptly stood. Small, delicate, and composed with an air of confidence, she stepped toward him, her hand extended.
She didn't take his breath away, but few women did that anymore. Nick's heartbeat returned to normal. She just didn't knock his socks off, and with a voice like that she should have. For a man that usually dated busty blondes, or redheads with figures like Venus statues, a sexy voice shouldn't have thrown him. Still, he admitted, God granted some with looks, some with brains, and some--with a voice. And she definitely had a voice.
"I assume you are here about the job?"
He nodded. The voice lied to him, played him for a sucker. It promised much more than this little lady could deliver.
Nick studied the woman. He faced straight lines, starched linen, and big black glasses that were so thick they distorted her eyes into two sunken wells of who knew what color. Even the color of her suit--a blah brown-didn't invite a second glance. Only her long, straight, golden brown hair, held by a clasp at the base of her neck, caught his attention. It looked like the only thing she didn't control. Little Miss Plain and Simple. Not all that bad, just not his type he conceded, with an inward grimace.
"Sorry you had to wait so long. I've had numerous interruptions this morning."
He clasped her hand. Her skin felt petal soft, but her grip firmed in his. More like the handshake of a man than a woman.
"It's unfortunate, but unavoidable."
The intercom buzzed. She pivoted then hit the switch so hard the phone rattled. She looked delicate, but apparently she packed quite a punch. Nick smiled at her actions.
"What is it, Paula?"
The secretary's voice faltered. "Uh, Mr. Guyon is on line three, Ms. O'Sullivan."
"Tell him I'll call him back. And hold my calls for now, Paula, please." She waved Nick to the chair in front of her.
She snapped off the intercom and slumped into the chair, grabbed an odd object off the top of her desk, then turned away from Nick for a moment. He saw her shoulders bunch, her spine stiffen. He couldn't be certain about the object in her hand but it appeared to be some sort of baby rattle. Funny, he hadn't pictured her as the motherly type, more along the lines of Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, married to her job.
"Now, where were we?" Once again composed, she whirled about and glanced at Nick. He watched her lay the rattle down, gently. It could've been fine bone china the way she was handling it.
Unexpected awareness shot through Nick again at the sound of her voice, low and raspy. If she kept that up, he wouldn't be able to walk out of the room. How could a voice so sexy, belong to a woman so--bland? And yet, bland or not, she had his attention. Her voice and mannerisms caught him off guard.
Curiosity and unwelcome awareness forced Nick to notice her finer features. Not that he wanted to notice, but the need to find a reason for his reactions became necessary. She did have a peaches and cream complexion, thin brown brows that arched arrogantly at his stare, and full lush lips. He couldn't quite pull his gaze from her lips--undoubtedly one of her better features.
She returned his sensual glance, scanning every inch of him from his shoe tips to his thick head of black hair, without a trace of embarrassment. Nick didn't mind; he was used to assessing stares from women. Yet her examination of him went deeper than most, as though she were probing his mind and soul. What was she after?
Her lips slanted, capturing his attention again. Not overtly full, nor too thin, just well formed and dotted with a pale pink lipstick, barely noticeable. There were no laugh wrinkles around her eyes or mouth. This woman took life seriously. Too bad.
"Please make yourself comfortable, this--interview, might take a while."
He watched her every move, oddly fascinated. He wondered what she might taste like--sugar or vinegar.
He was definitely losing it. He'd never entangled himself with a boss-lady before. Hell, he'd never had a boss lady before. The guys down at the garage would get a kick out of this, if they knew.
Glancing at the pile of files on her desk, she set his aside as though it told her nothing. She tapped her fingernail on the desk. "Mr. Leonetti." She cleared her throat and waited until he looked straight at her. "May I call you Nick, or do you prefer Nicholas?"
Nick watched the way her hands clenched the arms of her chair, as though this interview made her uncomfortable too.
Annoyed and puzzled by his mild attraction to her, Nick stirred restlessly in his chair. He'd walked straight into this one. Okay, so he'd walk out of it too. He'd come here for a job, and he wasn't leaving until he found out about it.
"Good, I hate formalities. I'm Kelsey O'Sullivan. I'd like to keep this on a first name basis. You are answering the ad in the paper, aren't you?"
"Paper? Uh no, as a matter of fact it was the note at the restaurant last night."
Nick adjusted his tie. He wanted to jerk it off his neck and throw it in the nearest trashcan. He shouldn't have come here. The woman would probably think he was crazy or desperate. Well--maybe he was. Still, if she had forgotten the note, he was in trouble.
"Note? Restaurant? I'm afraid there must be a mistake."
Uneasiness surged through him, but he'd tough it out. "The waiter said a lady sent this note," he explained as he reached into his jacket pocket and offered her the crumpled paper with the O'Sullivan logo on top. She stared at the note a long time.
"Oh dear, at L'Allegria's?"
"Yeah, that's it." He sighed with relief, glad she finally remembered.
"Oh ... I'm so sorry, Mr. Leonetti."
Uh-oh, back to last names again. "No problem, I figured it had to be a screw-up."
"It was meant for a colleague of mine," she said hurriedly as he stood and began backing toward the door.
"Yeah, well, no harm done. Thanks anyway."
"Wait!" She practically jumped from her chair, knocking the rattle off the desk. She issued a soft exclamation, glanced at him, then stooped to pick it up. That's when he noticed she wasn't wearing shoes. Goody-Two-Shoes barefoot? He spotted the shoes beside her desk on the floor. As though she'd kicked them aside. At first it stunned him, then it tickled him. He grinned. Maybe she wasn't quite as uptight as he thought.
She slipped into her heels with a reluctant grimace. "I feel as though I owe you an explanation, and the job is still open. You did come about the job? Didn't you?"
Bare feet and baby rattles? What next? Nothing seemed to fit with this woman. He'd form an opinion of her, and she'd destroy it within seconds. Everything about her looked professional except for her bare feet and that rattle.
"Yeah, sure, but--"
"Well then the least I can do is give you an opportunity, if you're still interested."
Nick hesitated, detecting what seemed to be a note of desperation in her voice, another unexpected twist to the lady. Now why would a lady like her be desperate? And what was she desperate for? He should be walking out about now, but something rooted him. Yeah, his brain wasn't working.
"You don't like ties, Mr. Leonetti?" she asked jerking him out of his thoughts again.
"No ma'am," he admitted, taking his hand away from the offending material. "As you can see I'm not a white collar man, although I'm willing to try almost anything once."
This time, her mouth quirked.
Something told him he should be out the door. Still, this might be a good opportunity and he couldn't pass it up. He had to give it a shot.
"Then please remove it."
"What'd you say?"
"I said, please remove the tie, if it's bothering you. If something bothers you, get rid of it. I remove my shoes when they bother me, which I'm sure you've already noticed. And I'm aware that it's very unprofessional but you try wearing three inch heels all day and see how you feel."
Something comfortable slipped between them--a smile.
Removing things wasn't how it was supposed to work. Remove the tie? Just like that? What next? He didn't like this. Bosses weren't supposed to say such things. Bosses weren't supposed to go bare foot, either, or have rattles on their desks.
Nick loosened the tie, and moved slowly back to the middle of the room. "About the job?"
"This isn't an ordinary job, Nick. I'm sure you've already guessed that much. And it isn't easy for me." She sank into her chair. The smile disappeared. Tension took its place. Her lips firmed into a grim line. "The first three men I interviewed ran out before we could get to the details."
Nick waited for her to continue. Wasn't easy for him to sit through this either, but he had to.
She sought eye contact when she spoke. He liked that. He could read her better that way. She looked almost vulnerable as she sat staring at him.
"I do remember you now, at the restaurant," she gasped. "You were with a large group of people. It looked like a celebration. You were sitting next to an elderly lady who only had eyes for you."
Another hint of a smile lit Kelsey's eyes, softening her expression. "A very beautiful woman."
Just then she could have grown two heads and turned purple and Nick still would have liked her. No one, absolutely no one had said that about his mother before, and it touched him deeply.
Rosa Leonetti had worked hard all her life as a laundress in a Dry Cleaner's. She'd never enjoyed the finer luxuries of life. Her hands wore raw calluses from working with hot water and chemicals all day. Her hair was always in a frumpy bun on top of her head, frizzed from the humidity. She was a fine woman, a good woman, but no one, had ever called her beautiful except her children--and this woman.
He took a good long look at Kelsey O'Sullivan, realizing he had misjudged her. There was more to the lady than met the eye. Much more. "Yes, she is," he agreed slowly, his eyes never leaving Kelsey's. He took the chair again, relaxing despite the odd circumstances. "It was her birthday."
He shouldn't be talking about birthdays. He couldn't fathom why he felt so comfortable with a business executive in starched linen suits and Coke bottle glasses.
"And did you arrange for all the family to be there?"
"Not much arranging in the Leonetti family. Everyone knows Mama's birthday and they are there, or else."
"Or else they'll have Nick Leonetti to deal with?"
"Something like that." He wondered where this was leading. Dammit, he was attracted to her. He didn't want to be attracted. He could think of a million reasons not to be. So why her? He didn't have time for a woman in his life. He had other worries. He needed to concentrate on getting his family out of Hell's Kitchen and into a nice comfy home in Queens.
"Tell me about your mother, your ... family."
"Y--you wanna know about my family?"
"What do you wanna know? I mean, they're just family. Like anybody else's. My mother is a God-fearing Italian woman who loves her children more than her life. My sister Tina is sixteen. She's turning into quite a young lady, which happens to scare the hell outta me. And Tony, well, what can I say? I guess we tend to spoil him a little. He's the baby of the family."
Nick watched Kelsey's face. No ridicule there. Instead, she was quiet, pensive, glancing occasionally out the window as he spoke. Her expression reminded him of a child looking inside a department store window at Christmas and longing for the toys. He recognized something in her face, something he'd seen many times before, from neighbors, friends, even relatives. He saw loneliness--and sudden envy.
"It sounds like a lovely family." She cleared her throat, straightened her jacket and blinked hard. God, the woman was close to tears. And all he had done was talk about his family. She might appear a hardened businesswoman, but Nick suspected a hidden tenderness lurked beneath her surface. "I like you, Nick." Her voice sounded soft, like a whisper.
He liked her too, and he had absolutely no idea why. They had nothing in common. He ate hot dogs with 'kraut on top, she probably had caviar and imported wines. He was poor, she was rich. It'd never work, even if he wanted it to.
"I don't normally form opinions so quickly about strangers," she explained, her face strained. "But I'm very glad we met, even if it was through a--a screw-up."
Nick didn't say a word.
"The note was meant for an old friend. But I'm not the least upset."
"No. Because I am a desperate woman."
Oh God, here it comes. She wants me to kill somebody! He knew he should have walked out. He couldn't kill anybody; he wasn't the type. Sure, he'd seen the "Godfather." Sure, he was Italian, but that was as far as it went. Just because he lived in the infamous "Hell's Kitchen" didn't give her the right to jump to conclusions.
He could take care of himself, in any given situation. His thorough knowledge of Karate saved him more than once, but kill--no, not this Leonetti! She had the wrong guy. He had the wrong job. He was out of here!
Yet instead of leaving, like he knew he should be doing, he heard himself saying, "Go on." He wanted to yank his own tongue out, but he had no control over his mouth any longer.
Her eyes locked with his, darkening with intensity. "It's really very simple."
Why did he not quite believe that? "What is?" Nick prompted, totally curious.
She was doing it again, looking him straight in the eyes and daring him to leave. She actually glanced at the door, as though she might be waiting for him to do just that. But Nick Leonetti was no quitter and she'd soon learn that.
"The job you applied for--the reason you're here--what I need ..."
Now he was nervous. Why didn't she just spit it out? The longer she waited the more tense Nick became. The way she hedged, he was sure he wasn't going to like what she was about to say. Obviously no one else had.
"There's just no delicate way of putting this. No way to sound nice. I don't want you getting a wrong impression, nor jumping to conclusions but I need your ..."
Her voice grew low, like a whisper and even then Nick wasn't sure he had heard right. He sat very still. It became very quiet. Very, very quiet. "My--what?"
She exhaled a long breath, rolled her eyes, and blushed. "I said I want you to be a sperm donor for me!"
Disbelief and outrage shot through Nick. Surely he hadn't heard right. Did the lady say ...sperm? He finally found his voice. "What? Are you crazy?" He stood up. "You don't go around asking a total stranger something like that." He flailed his hands in the air dramatically. "It's crazy! You're crazy! It's--indecent."
"You're shocked. I expected a reaction. At least you haven't made a run for the door."
"I can't. My legs are in shock, too."
But his eyes found hers, and a strange compassion filled him again. He didn't know why. Something about her expression held more than words. Poor woman, she probably couldn't get a man of her own. But this...
"I know that sounds blunt. But I've learned it's always best to state your goal. I'm a woman, and I run a multi-million dollar business. My branch alone brings in twenty-five million a year. It's taken some time to establish myself as a corporate executive. In my line of work a woman has to push hard to be respected. Especially if she's the boss. I've worked like the devil. I'm a success because of it. I've always known exactly what I've wanted and I've gotten it. This is no different."
Compassion and outrage warred. "And now you want a sperm donation? Just like that? As though we were talking about salt and pepper passed across the table. It ain't decent."
"I've shocked you?" She picked up the rattle and tapped it against her palm. "Come, come, Mr. Leonetti, I thought you'd be hard to shock. A big tough guy like you. Your application reads like a refugee from a war zone. You've attacked every job from truck driving to mud wrestling. How can something like this throw you?"
Big? Maybe from her point of view, but he was probably only a half-foot taller than her. Tough, sure. But crazy, no. He tilted his head, pulled at his tie again, cleared his throat and waited for the right answer to come. It didn't.
"You've got the wrong man." He finally forced the words from his mouth.
Kelsey firmed her lips, narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms over her chest. Raw determination glared at him. His words hadn't deterred her. "Oh, are you sterile?"
Sterile? It was a challenge, a gauntlet. Nick felt his blood pounding in his head. He didn't deserve this; all he wanted was a job. His nostrils flared, as he wiped his face with his hand. He wondered what might happen if he slowly kissed away her judgmental expression and opened that straight linen jacket of hers. In ten minutes he could make a real woman out of her, change her entire attitude. Damn, he'd been way too long without a woman! That wasn't his style though.
He blew out breath, as he willed his body to calm. "Not that I know of, no. But I came here under the impression this was a sheet-metal company. I figured you were looking for a warehouse foreman, or shipyard crew. Not--not something like this."
"It is a sheet-metal company Nick. And I have a full crew right now. But what I don't have is a sperm donor."
"You can say that again, lady." Jeez. No way was he going to give this woman what she wanted.
She sighed heavily, as though the weight of the world were on her shoulders. "I should be used to dealing with this reaction. As I said earlier, three of the others stormed out of here this morning as though I'd shot them. But Nick, there isn't an easy way to approach the subject. I figured bluntness might be best. I know it's a big thing to ask of any person."
The way she wrung her hands made Nick stop and consider her request for just a second. This couldn't be easy for a woman like her, he reflected. Not for Goody-Two-Shoes. But there was nothing short of moving the earth that would make him agree to something like this. So why was she proposing such an outlandish thing in the first place?
If it hadn't been for that sultry voice, but damn if the woman didn't turn him on. It was crazy but he found himself wondering what her hair might be like if he undid the clasp, and what lay beneath that dowdy linen suit and thick set of glasses. Forget it, he silently scolded himself. She's crazy!
"Look, I thought this was a job."
She leaned forward, her expression earnest, almost pleading. "Oh, it is. It is, Nick. This isn't personal, believe me. I mean, I don't expect it to be. It can all be taken care of clinically. I've made all the arrangements. All I have to do is find a donor. And I will pick my own donor. But there are a few things that have to be done first--if you agree to it."
Of course he wouldn't agree to it! Did she need it in writing? Mama would pin his ears back for staying as long as he had, if she knew.
The word No, was on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying, "Such as?"
"First," her face lit with hope, "I'll need to run a complete check on your background. Have a medical history done. This will require more information than you might be willing to give. I see you listed no medical problems, but of course that would have to be checked out. You listed a lot of jobs. On an ordinary resume that wouldn't look good. It hints at instability. There's probably a reason behind all of them, but I don't have the time nor the inclination to delve into it."
"Look, don't bother. There's nothing wrong with my background, medical or otherwise. As for the jobs, it's real simple. My family comes first. A lot of bosses just don't seem to get the message. But that's how it is in my family. That's why I'm not the right guy. I've got enough obligations for now."
He wanted to shake some sense into her, but he'd never manhandled a woman and he certainly wouldn't start now.
"Nonsense." She cleared her throat. The arrogance was gone from her face. "I'm glad to hear it, Nick. And I find you a very well rounded man. You are a street-wise, self-educated man who happens to have morals, too. I like that. But naturally, I'd need more information. I'd have you investigated; I want you to understand that. I'm an honest person. Then you'd be sent to a clinic and tested for sperm count and a complete physical, that is, if you pass the background check. Assuming you are 100% healthy we'll draw up a contract that in effect makes me the legal guardian of the child. You'll have no further responsibilities. That's all there is to it."
She made it sound like a formula for a corporate deal. But she still hadn't got his message yet.
"Is that all?" Nick respected the lady, even went as far as feeling sorry for her, but now, he was rethinking it. Not that she hadn't calculated every move. That was the problem, it was too calculated. The woman was obviously suffering from delusions. No further responsibilities? Who was she kidding? Babies weren't born that way--in a clinic, with no responsibilities. They spelled responsibilities, with a capital R. Besides, babies were meant to be born out of love and affection and family. Who was she trying to kid?
"No." She took her glasses off and wiped at her eyes. Nick saw fatigue, and something else, something deeper, something that made him feel protective of her. He didn't want to feel protective.
Strange, he'd decided she didn't have eyes when he first walked in, but he was wrong. She had beautiful blue eyes, the kind a man remembers for a long, long time.
She stood up and paced, her shoulders bunching.
Nick's thoughts went into overdrive.
She strummed her fingers against her upper arms as she crossed them again. "You haven't walked out yet, so I'm assuming you're considering this. I'd want to explain a few things. Things you probably aren't aware of. You see, I'm from a very wealthy family. My parents expect me to marry and have children. And as long as the prospective husband has a couple of million in the bank, they'll be satisfied. But that's not for me. I've been down that road once; it didn't work."
She looked away, her expression pensive. Nick's gaze lingered on her face, squelching the need to reach out and console her. So, she'd been hurt, that might explain a few things. But you didn't go off the deep end just because someone hurt you. She looked stronger than that.
Kelsey faced him, her eyes luminous and big. "I really want a child, Nick. I've always wanted one. But I can't go through another marital disaster. I won't." She glanced at him, then went on. "Naturally, I've already gone to the sperm bank and spoken with them about this. They are very understanding. But I just couldn't go along with the insemination process. Not their way. I wouldn't know the father. And it's important to know the father, even though I don't expect him to be around. There are qualities in a man I want to pass on to my child. Traits, looks, personality. And yes, I'm looking for something even deeper than that. So you see, if I'm willing to go to that length for what I want, I'll go a step farther and choose the man I want for the job. It can be done. I've already inquired. They'll work with me, any way I choose. After all, I'm doing all the footwork so to speak. But make no mistake, Nick, I'm the one who wants this baby. It will be my baby!"
Her vehemence didn't deter Nick from his own convictions. So, she wanted a kid, so what? Didn't mean he had to compromise his principles for her. "Doesn't the father have any say in this?"
"I'm not advertising for a father. I'm looking for a sperm donor. There's a big difference."
He twisted his head sideways. Okay, someone had hurt her and naturally, Goody-Two-Shoes wasn't about to get hurt again. No, she was too smart for that.
"Maybe so, but it's pretty hard to rule out a father, lady. Having a baby takes two people, a woman and a man."
"Unfortunately, yes. I've considered other options, but this is the only acceptable answer for me." Her voice faded away as though a sadness gripped her.
"No, the only thing I want is a baby--without the man."
"I figured that part out, but why?"
"Why?" She stared blankly at him for a moment, as though the question had never been asked. "That's my concern." She lifted her chin a notch.
"A man helps you bring life into this world and he isn't entitled to know why? Don't you think he's a little involved? You can't have everything your way."
"You're right, of course. Okay, if you decide to try this--I'll tell you. Fair enough?"
Their eyes met and held for a long breathless moment. Then slowly he shook his head. "Nah. I'm not interested in one-way deals. What about the guy the note was really intended for."
"George? I doubt he'd have any part of it, now that I think about it. The note wasn't a preconceived idea. George plays everything by the book. I'm glad it was misdirected. You probably saved a friendship."
"You'd rather have a baby by a stranger?"
"The more I think on it, yes. Less complications. Besides, George wouldn't like my terms."
"Terms? You got terms?"
She looked him straight in the eye, and he realized again with surprise she was pretty. God, he was losing it. Next thing you know he'd be asking her out on a date.
"Yes, it's called a contract. I wouldn't dream of doing something this important without it. No strings. No personal involvement. Nothing to argue about. Everything covered. This is strictly a business arrangement. It's a job, and that's all. That's why I advertised. Naturally, I'll need a man with a high sperm count. That's why you'll be subjected to tests, which can all be accomplished with one visit. I've waited long enough. I need quick results."
"Just science to you, huh?"
"Then why not just adopt?"
"Oh, no, that would never do. The baby must have O'Sullivan blood. We're a rather old and proud Irish family. I'm obligated to carry on the bloodline in some respect at least. I took my maiden name back when I divorced. My baby will be an O'Sullivan. Besides, it takes much too long for a single woman to adopt."
His brow shot up, questioningly.
"And, no, I'm not off my rocker, as I assume you're thinking." She wrung her hands once more and Nick saw the inner turmoil in her eyes. "You've passed one test. You're still here. You must need money badly if you'd consider a job from something so trivial as a note in a restaurant."
The barb stung, but what could Nick say. He was desperate for cash. One job wasn't enough for what he needed to do.
She sat down again, her posture very regal, her hands tightening against the armrest. Slipping on her glasses she looked at the application again.
"I see you still live with your mother."
"I take care of my mother and family."
"Oh, then you're..." she swallowed, "...married?"
"No wife. Just a mother, a sister and a younger brother to look after. My two older brothers married and moved off."
"Also right." His voice started to harden.
"That could be a drawback."
Nick nodded and this time he stared directly at her until she met his gaze. "I'm from an old Italian family, and believe me, babies aren't born into this world that way. Not where I come from."
A blush crept across her cheeks. "Of course. I understand."
Did she? He doubted that.
"I'm Irish Catholic," she continued. "I realize what I'm asking of you, Nick. The only consolation might be the money. So tell me, why do you need it so badly?"
"We rent on 47th street." He cleared his throat. "In Clinton, better known to most as 'Hell's Kitchen.' My mama, sister and younger brother, live there too, I take care of them. I own a garage on 44th."
"Oh, you live in Midtown West?"
"No, ma'am. Hell's Kitchen. It'll always be Hell's Kitchen no matter how many skyscrapers they decide to put up. No matter how many tenement buildings they tear down."
"I see. You are a product of the zoning wars?"
"That's it. I want my family outta there. It ain't the same anymore. Price wars on rent, porn shops offering top dollar for land. We got rid of some of the problems and earned a few more in the process. I'm sure you're aware. Reconstruction sometimes causes people to rebel, in one way or another. Not everyone can adjust to change, nor afford them. No, I want to buy Mama a house in Queens, in a quiet little neighborhood. I want to give them a better life."
"That's understandable. But why move, if reconstruction is improving the area, why not just move into a newer apartment building?"
"Nah, If I'm going to pay those prices, at least I want something worth it in the long run. A real house--a home. And I'm willing to work two jobs to get it. Three if necessary. It's something I been promising Mama for years. A place of her own. Where she can grow flowers, and the kids can walk to school without fear."
"I see. Tell me about this garage of yours?"
"It's just a hole in the wall. I tinker with older cars, ya know, the classics. It's not a business anymore, just a hangout. A place for me to go. It don't bring in much, not in that neighborhood."
"I said it doesn't bring in much." She paused, grimacing slightly. "Sorry, bad habit I have of correcting people."
He didn't need this. No one needed to remind him of his lack of education, or that he was Italian, or Catholic. He stood and walked slowly to the door. "Look, I'd like to help, but I'm not the right guy."
"Nick, wait! Won't you reconsider? I happen to think you might be the right guy."
He turned to look at her again. "How do you figure?"
"A man who supports and cares for his family is exactly the kind of person I'm looking for. A good man. You're dependable even though your job history doesn't reflect it. I detect a strong sense of character in you. I like that. It's rather hard to find these days. I like--you. Now, tell me what happened to your father. Why isn't he supporting your family?"
Startled by her shift in subject, Nick hesitated. "I don't wanna waste your time."
"I have to ask, Nick."
Why was he still here, putting up with her nosey questions?
"Please tell me."
"My dad left us. Enough said. A lot of dads walk out. He drank too much, didn't work enough."
"Nah, gambling and drinking and other women, mostly."
"I see." Her expression softened again and her voice lowered. "How painful for you. Were you very young?"
Her compassion confused him. He didn't need pity. "No, look, I was grown, okay? He done good to leave, I might have killed him if he'd hung around much longer. Tony was still little. I was twenty-one, trying to decide whether to go to trade school or the army."
"And you went to work instead, and supported your family." She cleared her throat. Pretty soon she'd be pinning medals on his chest and telling him what a hero he was. She had blinders on.
He didn't want pity or concern, and yet the very fact that she sympathized forced him to rethink his opinion of her--again. This stone woman, a woman who would ask for sperm so casually, apparently cared about people and their troubles. A woman from so different a world, who could understand. So what? That didn't mean he had to get her pregnant, did it?
"Look, Nick, I'm taking the time to find the right man, and I can make it worth your time."
"You'd pay me to go through with these tests?"
"Naturally. At least you won't lose any money being off work, and it might be worth the effort for both of us. As I said, this is strictly business. Contracts will have to be drawn. The money would be sufficient to take care of all your family's needs. I'd see to that."
"What if we don't get along?"
"That's irrelevant. This isn't personal. Please understand that."
He took a step toward her, leaning toward her. "You want to have my baby and that's not personal? You like a person who recognizes responsibilities, but you don't want me to hang around? That doesn't jive."
"Not in the way you're thinking at least. I'd want to get to know you for the child's sake, naturally. She'll want to know what her daddy was really like."
The woman was already determining sex. She'd really preplanned this, maybe down to the last detail. But even she wasn't God.
Daddy. He liked that sound. It warmed him. And a little girl, nice. But it was crazy and he wasn't about to do it.
"What about you?"
"Yeah. What qualifies you to be a mother? And who's gonna take care of you while you're pregnant?"
She chuckled, a heady little laugh.
"I'm quite capable of taking care of myself. My credentials are all over the walls of this office, in case you haven't noticed." She gestured to the walls behind her.
"Nah, I don't care about your credentials." He glanced to the walls and shook his head. "I wanna know who you are. What's behind all this? What qualifies you to be my kid's one and only parent? Don't you have any feelings for the kid? Don't you think the kid would miss a father? Don't you think you're being a bit selfish?"
"Of course I do. But I'd compensate. I've considered her feelings in the matter. But when a person is truly loved, how can they miss anything? And she would be loved. I'd give her so much love and attention, she wouldn't think about it."
"Look, being Chairman of the Board don't make you 'Mother of the Year.'"
Her cheeks flamed, her eyes blazed angrily. "I happen to be good at anything I set my mind to. I'll be a good mother! I'll love my child beyond limits. You can't imagine how much I've got stored inside to give."
It was as though he had turned on a switch, and boy did he like the switch. Now she looked real, sounded real, not just some Chairman of the Board talking out the side of her mouth. Not some plastic person sitting there, giving him a bunch of crap about test tube babies. Until this moment, the child seemed hypothetical. Now it was a female child, asking about its father. If that wasn't personal, what was?
The woman was fire and ice rolled into one.
"Look, lady, I came here for a job. You know, a laborer, a warehouse foreman, something I could understand. But this--this ain't a job. It ain't even decent."
He nodded, looking straight at her, past the glasses to the soul. He gritted his teeth, and clenched his hands. "Yeah, see what I mean? That should tell you somethin'. You probably graduated from Yale or Harvard. I'm from the other side of the tracks, and we stick to our own. Maybe that's what you should do. Most of my acquaintances are hoods, big ones and little ones."
She stiffened. "That's hardly relevant."
"Maybe, but I barely got a high school education. That's relevant. I had to finish in summer school--two years. With a part time job in the process. You want a refined gentleman to father your child. I can understand and even respect that. Besides, I'm not the kind of guy who goes around making babies. I know what protection is all about. What's the matter with gettin' pregnant the normal way? You gotta a disease or somethin'?"
She grabbed the rattle so hard her knuckles turned white, but she answered calmly. "Good question, at least you're well informed."
"You can't live in Hell's Kitchen without being informed."
She exhaled as though she'd been holding her breath too long. "All right. Look, you're attractive, in good shape, and you're also a very decent man. At least from what I've seen and heard today. What's not to like about you, Leonetti? You appear to be a man who finishes what he starts, since you took the trouble to go to summer school, and you do seem to find other jobs when you lose one. That's admirable. Things don't get you down easily. Our language barrier isn't a problem. But no, I don't have a disease, and would be happy to submit to any tests you want, to prove it. I'll also have a history of myself done, so that we can start on an equal basis."
"Why don't you just marry some nice guy, and have yourself some babies?"
"I've already told you--" Frustration fired from her eyes.
"Yeah, I know. You don't want a husband, because you obviously don't trust men. So why trust me? In case you hadn't noticed ...I'm a man."
She tossed the rattle on the desk, wiped at her eyes, and met his questioning gaze. "Of course I've noticed. And yet ... I do trust you, Nick. Don't ask me why. But I do. And I can make it worth your while."
Nick shook his head adamantly, irritated by her words. He should be flattered, but this was so wrong. "Everything comes down to money to you, doesn't it? There really ain't a lot of difference in you and most of the hoods I know. Pushers, loan sharks, and you." He knew it wasn't fair to size someone up so quickly, but she was doing it to him.
She slid the glasses back on once more. "I'm trying to be up front with you. Dear God, you don't know how much I admire your morals and conscience."
"Look." He stood and walked up to her. He purposely leaned closer. "When I make a baby, it's going to be with a woman I'm in love with."
Her eyes widened, her breath became labored. He liked rattling her cool facade.
"And I don't consider that misplaced. I got standards I live by, too. That baby is going to have me hooked around her finger. She's gonna know somebody loves her." He leaned closer and got a faint whiff of expensive perfume. He hadn't expected her to smell sweet. He'd expected her to smell like starch. "If I were to consider something this crazy, I'd want to date you. Be with you. I'd want to know everything about you. Not just some application on a desk. You're talking about creating a life, real life, and being responsible for that life. My kid will have a father. My father might have been rotten, but I'm not. Not by a long shot. I'm poor, but I have my principles. Sorry lady, no dice. I want a real job."
He turned to leave.
"Dammit, this is a job!" she cried, her voice breaking. "You think I don't take this seriously? You're wrong. Dead wrong. I want a baby, Mr. Leonetti. Is that so bad? You just don't understand. Marriage in my circles isn't what it's cracked up to be. It's more like a prison than a relationship."
"Then maybe you should change circles." Nick gave her one last look before he walked out the door.
The aroma of Mama's spaghetti simmering on the stove sent Nick careening into the kitchen, sniffing with a delighted smile. "Smells great, Mama. How's your back today?"
"It's better, Nicky, much better. Are you hungry?"
The small round woman brushed a wayward strand of graying brown hair away from her pumpkin shaped face, and washed her hands in the deep-welled sink. She glanced at her son over her shoulder.
Nick eyed his mother. She had aged much too quickly in the last ten years since their father had left. He wished he could turn back the clock for her. Now, if he could convince her to quit worrying.
"Always hungry. Hey, I got another job today, Mama."
"A job! Wonderful Nicky. Does it pay good?"
He shook his head, "Not as much as I wanted. But we'll manage, and it won't interfere with the time at the garage on the weekends."
"Ah yes, your garage." Mama sighed heavily. "The job where everyone takes advantage of Nicholas Leonetti. Nicky, Nicky, you work too hard and have too little time for yourself. You should be married by now. I want grandchildren."
Nick itched to tell her about the job he could have had, but she would never believe such a thing. He wasn't sure he believed it. "Jo-Jo is good for the money."
Wiping the sweat from her brow, she looked at him fondly. "He won't pay. He'll give you another hard luck story, and you'll believe it, or pretend you do. But no matter."
"We'll get out of here. I got my eye on a place in Queens. I'll get the money, Mama."
"Such a dreamer, Nicky. Just like your father."
Nick started to protest the parallel, but she rattled on.
"I've lived here all my life. Seen many changes. Some good, some bad. We do what we gotta do. We can always go live with Cousin Louis, if things don't work out here."
"Things aren't going to work out here, Mama. The building is practically sold. We gotta move." He picked up a toothpick and rolled it into the corner of his mouth.
Tina dashed through the kitchen, distracting everyone in her path. Her dark hair swished gently over rosy cheeks. Her books clutched in her hands, she headed straight for the kitchen door.
"Don't hold supper for me. I'm going to Gloria's."
"Come on, I'll walk you over, princess."
"Oh, please, just once, can't I go by myself? It's only across the street, Mama. It's Gloria's, for Pete's sake. This family, honestly."
"We've had this discussion before. Now, let's go."
"Walk her over, Nicky," Mama said chuckling softly, not giving either of them a second glance as she stirred her sauce. "Nicky knows what he's doing, Tina."
"Good grief, why couldn't I have been a boy?" Tina pouted and ran out of the door trying to escape her brother.
Nick grabbed her round the neck, pulling her to a slower pace. "Look, sometimes, I wish you'd been born a boy too. It would be easier for both of us."
"I told you Nicky, the car only stopped once, and asked to take my picture. They were going to pay me, Nicky."
"And you're old enough to know what they were paying you for. I catch you messing with those skin pushers again, I'll ..."
"I'd never do it. If I'd known you'd act this way, I wouldn't have told you about it in the first place. I'll probably never be able to date because of you."
"Who's to say you can't date? But you know the rules as well as anyone. First you gotta bring him home."
"Yeah, to be inspected."
"A hazard of growing up. You think Mama doesn't inspect whoever I bring home? Don't kid yourself."
Tina smiled, her anger fading.
They walked down the long row of stairs, across the dimly lit street, and up into the far building on the corner. Another tenement building, just as overcrowded as their own, just as run down. Before long, these old building would only be a memory.
"Maybe so, but you haven't bothered bringing anyone home in a long time."
Nick cast Tina a warning look, then waited until she was safely inside Gloria's apartment. He also made sure Gloria's mother was at home, and that the stairs were clear of any bystanders before he took off. It was a precaution.
He sympathized with Tina's impatience, but he knew best. Like his older brothers, Jeno and Lon had, Nick carried the burden of responsibility for his family with pride. He figured when he got the garage paid for, moved them into a better neighborhood, he could relax and start thinking of a family of his own. If that ever happened.
"Hey, Leonetti!" A raspy voice from the side of the apartment complex brought Nick out of his thoughts. "Babysittin' that sister of yours again?"
"That's right. Gotta a problem with it, Calvin?"
The big man with long whiskers and dirty black hair shrugged, hiding the fact that the name 'Calvin' irritated him. "No problem. But it looks to me like she's big enough to take care of herself. A real looker, too."
The hair on the back of Nick's neck rose. He rolled his shoulders, then shot his intruder a quick, decisive glance. "That's exactly why I'm walkin' her, Davinchy."
"Gotta let go of the strings sometime." Davinchy snorted, a gold tooth protruding from the side of his mouth.
Nick felt the toothpick break in his mouth as he bit back a retort. It did no good wasting his breath with thugs like this one. But Calvin Davinchy was harmless--one of the few--all mouth.
"Not as long as mean little hoods like you are around, Calvin." Nick switched his toothpick to the other side of his mouth and nodded at him. Calvin Davinchy was twice Nick's size, but not in Nick's league.
You'll make plenty of money, Kelsey had promised.
Somehow, he had to get that dame off his mind. Sure he had his troubles, but they were his troubles, and in time he'd solve them. Kelsey O'Sullivan was a nut; he had to remember that.
Wrestling with his priorities, Nick didn't sleep well that night. Late for work the next morning, he grimaced as he drove the kids to school, and dodged the traffic jam. Not that it was his intention to be late. It never was. Naturally, his explanation didn't keep his six-foot-nine boss from glaring at him, a half-eaten cigar hanging from one side of his bagel-shaped mouth as he watched Nick clock in a half hour late.
"Sorry I'm late, boss," Nick managed, awaiting instructions with the other men. "I had to take the kids to school and there was this traffic jam ..."
"Thought you weren't married," the big man said, drooling his tobacco.
"Nah. It's my kid sister and brother."
"So, can't they walk?"
Nick ignored the jabs like he always did. He always tried explaining about his family. Family first. No one understood, or cared. Why should this boss be different?
Four hours later, Kelsey O'Sullivan stood watching Nick as he sat on a concrete slab in the shade, talking garbage to one of his coworkers, munching on a delicious smelling sandwich. Kelsey's mouth watered; she'd forgotten to eat this morning in all the excitement to catch up with him. Seeing him again still did things to her heart rate. How could such a drop dead gorgeous guy like him stay single?
It wasn't just the sight of all that muscle and brawn, nor the sexy twinkle in those secretive black eyes. Maybe it was his magnificently white smile against perfect olive skin? Or the way his lean hips hugged a pair of jeans, or the way his arms bulged from his t-shirt, sending her imagination spiraling in avenues she never dared before. Did he have hair on his chest or was he a solid golden torso? Would his long legs curl about her hips perfectly, protectively? Slow down, she ordered her wayward heart. He wasn't perfect, his nose crooked at the bridge, as though it might have been broken once, and he had a couple of scars by his left ear. His mouth was full and firm, and begged to be stared at when he grinned that sexy grin.
He looked up and frowned instantly. So much for fond greetings, Kelsey surmised, sniffing his sandwich, and trying not to lick her lips. God, she was hungry.
"Mr. Leonetti, you are the devil himself to find."
"Didn't know anyone was lookin' for me." He smirked, until one of the men began whistling. Cat calls.
"Hey, Nick? Who's the dame?"
"I'm Kelsey O'Sullivan, good morning." She extended her hand to the man closest to her and shook it firmly.
"That's some piece ya got there, Nick."
"That your old lady, Nick?" another called.
Kelsey kept her smile in place, refusing to be intimidated.
"Cut the crap, she's a lady." Nick stood up and pulled her by the upper arm, out of earshot. The warmth from his touch spread through her quickly, surprising her, again. His handshake in the office had been firm, and warm, not hot and sweaty. She was fighting this underlying attraction she had for the man all along and every time he touched her she went to putty. She'd had so many dealings with men through her business she hadn't expected direct contact to affect her. But Nick's touch electrified, and momentarily confused her.
"What do you think you are doing here? How on earth did you find me?"
"Well, which answer do you want first?" she huffed, straightening her slacks. "I came to talk some sense into you."
"Here? Are you crazy? How did you find me? I've been in six different places this morning. And we don't have visiting hours. You might be a corporate executive, but here, you're just another dame. This ain't no place for you."
He frowned and shook his head. "Go home."
"Now wait a minute," she protested vehemently, following him back to the concrete slab. Throwing her purse down beside him, she dusted the spot next to him with the flat of her hand and sat. "I tried calling first. The line was constantly busy. When I finally got your mother, she couldn't tell me exactly where you were. She said you worked for the city sewer, and I spent some time tracking you here, after I called the city. I've been running all morning to keep up with you. I'm hot, tired, and sweaty, and if you think traveling on foot in these shoes is easy, try it sometime."
A smile escaped his stern face. "For a girl who doesn't like shoes, I'm surprised you never heard of sneakers?"
She rolled her eyes.
"You tracked me all this way?"
"Yes, of course."
"To the city sewer? Nobody does something that stupid."
"Stupid? Are you calling me stupid?"
"If the shoe fits ..." He glanced at her feet, and shot her a lazy smile. "Look, it's lunchtime, Ms. O'Sullivan, do you mind? I only have thirty minutes."
"Thirty minutes?" she gasped loudly, making heads turn her direction. "That's absurd. You can't properly chew your food in that length of time."
"Chew my food?"
"Yes, of course. You should chew your food at least forty times before you swallow." When he crooked his head at her she continued, "It helps in digesting."
"Really? Do you?"
"Naturally." She withdrew a Kleenex from her purse to wipe the sweat from her brow. As she looked down at her hand by his side, she noticed a big ugly black bug crawling out of a crack in the cement, and she bolted upright. But when she tried to lift her foot to move, she found herself trapped by a big wad of chewing gum. "Dammit!"
Grinning, Nick flicked the bug away. He seemed to enjoy her losing her cool. He watched in fascination as she squirmed, trying to free her foot, but he didn't offer assistance.
Without forethought, she leaned a hand against his big strong shoulder, as she tried removing the gum with a Kleenex. It only made matters worse, and her more aware of him. He smelled like sweat and grime and all man. A combination she found heady. His flesh was hard and hot to the touch. Perspiration formed between her hand and his shoulder. Her mind skittered about recklessly wondering what the rest of him might feel like, as she lamely attempted to free her shoe.
Nick should be against the law; her mind wandered with her pulse rate pounding in her ears. Were all Italians so sexy?
Great! She groaned as she watched the gum yo-yo. She tried to pry it with a pencil from her purse. It merely stuck, then broke. Nothing would remove her heel from the offending goop. Nick whipped out his pocketknife, a big O'Henry, and loosened the gum from her shoe. Grabbing her chest, she gaped at the large knife.
"Thanks, I think. Do you always carry a weapon?"
"Hey, Nick, need some help?" one man called out.
"You're scarin' the sweet little thing," another said with a chuckle.
Nick ignored them, his gaze lingering on Kelsey.
Kelsey's heart felt as though it might explode it was beating so fast. He shouldn't stare at her like that. Those dark eyes probing her. His big wide smile contrasted with the perfectly teaked skin, taking her breath away as she stared back.
"I always carry my knife. But I wouldn't call this a weapon, merely a token of my grandfather's love. Now, go back to your tower, Ms. O'Sullivan. Where you belong."
For the second time Nick was calling her a snob and she didn't like it. Her mouth firmed, her frown widened and she glared at him. "You know you have a very nasty habit of putting people in their places, don't you? And they say the rich are snobs. Perhaps you should take a good long look at yourself."
He grinned. She grimaced.
"Look, all I want to do is talk. Give me a chance."
She glanced at his half eaten sandwich with open desire.
"Want some?" he offered.
She grabbed the sandwich, breaking it in half and handing the other half back to him. He watched her as though he couldn't believe she would take the sandwich.
Then he did the unthinkable--he ignored her. Not used to being ignored she bristled. Well, two could play at that game. Finishing the sandwich, she crossed her arms and waited. Why couldn't he see that she wanted to help him achieve his goal while attaining her own? They could have a beautiful child together. It wasn't a fantasy, it was fact. What was wrong with that?
"So, why are you following me? I've told you, I'm not interested. That should be plain enough. You had a whole room full of applicants. So, what gives, why me?"
She bit her lower lip. "I can't answer that." Honesty seemed best at the moment. She paused, trying to find the words. "Yes, I can. I sympathize with you and your neighbors over the zoning law. It's unfair, in some ways. Progress often is. Look, Nick, I trust you. I don't trust easily. You've been honest with me, so far. I like you. I like your attitude."
It was the truth. Still there was more to it than that and she knew it. Smart enough to know they came from different worlds, and a relationship would never work, she couldn't just blurt out this unbelievable attraction she had for him.
"Yeah, and you like giving to charity?" He shot her a thunderous look. "No thanks, lady. I'm not a charity."
"You're deliberately putting words in my mouth. I never suggested you were. If you weren't so pigheaded you might realize you've got exactly the qualities I want in the father of my baby."
"Just go to the damn sperm bank? Can't they pick the best sperm or something? A genius or something? I've got problems of my own. I don't need any more."
Now, the men were looking from her to him and back.
Kelsey pulled her gaze from Nick to their audience. She smiled, determined to make them all realize she wasn't shaken.
"But then I'd never know anything about the father of my baby. Why do you think I'm taking such pains with this in the first place? Do you think I'm approaching this frivolously? I've got to know something about him. Like him. He's got to be a person I respect. And I respect you, Nick. Don't you see? He has to be special in some way."
"And you think I'm--special?" Nick's head jerked up, a hint of a smile played at his lips again. "You know nothing about me. Why a poor schnook like me? Why not a rich guy with a pedigree? Besides, you gotta admit an Irish, Italian mix would be murder."
Exasperated, she felt like throttling him. "Yes, I do think you're a special kind of person. Pedigrees are not what I'm looking for. It's a quality, a spirit, a certain kind of character. And you're right. I don't know you. But I know what I like. I can help you. What you want is attainable. Taking care of your family is a noble gesture, and I'd like to be a part of it. That zoning law is putting families on the street. Decent families who have nowhere to go. Innocent children without a home. Won't you listen, for your family's sake?"
The money she kept promising should make him come around. Somehow, she had to convince him it was his one and only chance. Ten minutes passed and she was still talking. He was definitely a hard sell.
"We can help each other Nick," she persisted.
He finished his sandwich, and stood up, and she did the same. He towered over her by several inches, although she wore heels. She lifted her chin to meet his gaze evenly. Something smoldered in those dark Italian eyes, fusing her to the spot. She could almost feel the heat between them.
"Beat it, okay? I can't say it any plainer. I do need money. You've got me on that one. But I won't sell my kid down the river to do it."
"There's a call for you, Leonetti. I thought I told you no personal calls." Hatch bit down on his cigar once more and drooled onto his less than white shirt.
Nick stomped into the small office, grabbed the receiver off the wall phone, and gave a quick demeaning glance over his shoulder at Kelsey. She hadn't budged, and the men were crowding around her. She refused to let it rumple her. She wasn't leaving.
Minutes later he stormed out of the office, and approached his boss.
"Look Hatch, I've gotta go."
"Go? Hell, you just here, Leonetti. What do you think this is, a bridge party? Get your butt to work or you're fired!" Hatch yelled taking one last chew on the cigar.
"You don't understand, and I don't have time to explain. It's my little brother, Tony. He got in some kind of trouble at school. I've gotta go."
"Oh, Nick, I'm so sor--" Kelsey began only to be cut off by the big man.
"What kind of boss are you?" Kelsey demanded.
Nick shot her an incredulous glance. Then he stormed up the embankment. Kelsey stood rooted for a second, amazed by Nick's decisive choice of his family over his job. Never had she seen a man do such a thing. A man of his word, he did put his family first. God, she liked him even more now, if that were possible.
She took off after him. "Nick, wait, you're going too fast. I can't keep up."
Nick shot her a glance over his shoulder.
"Wait, please wait. My car's just up the hill. I'll drive you."
"Great," he muttered. "Get in it, and go home."
He didn't have to be so bossy. She was doing her best to be nice, offering assistance even. Why couldn't he just accept help?
Kelsey had no reason to care about Nick's little brother, but the look in Nick's eyes when he stormed out of the office told her this could be serious. She had to go with him, if for no other reason than to reassure herself that all was well.
She shouldn't care, but she did. It made no sense.
"I insist," she rasped, catching up to him at last. "Besides, it's much faster."
He turned to stare at her, and their eyes met. Kelsey was drowning in those dark orbs that stared like a savage beast at his prey. A new tension sprang between them like a live current. His frown began to fade. Of all times for a man to attract her. He did. Right here in the basement of the city sewer department. The thought scared her witless. Men had always been such a mystery to her. Unsure of herself. All her life she'd only managed to screw-up where men were concerned. Yet, Nick had some kind of draw on her, making her bolder, more daring. He pulled at her heartstrings.
He stopped abruptly, stared at her through her thick set of glasses.
"You just don't give up, do you?" his voice went husky. "Don't you ever take those damned glasses off?"
"Occasionally." The breath froze in her chest, her heart pounded like a drum. For a moment time seemed to stop. "And no. It's not in my nature to give up." She paused, trying not to drown in those big brown eyes. "Besides, I'd like to help, if I can."
Nick moved away from her. But her hand touched his and he took it, pulling her up with him.
Within minutes, they were strapped into a fire-red Lamborghini. "She's a beaut." He ran his hand along the soft leather interior.
"You like her?"
"What's not to like? This is the closest I've been to one of these babies, or ever will be. It's a privilege to sit here. Must have set you back a small fortune."
"Not really, it was a birthday present." She realized as soon as she said it how hollow it sounded. Most of her friends drove equally nice cars. She had never thought anything of it. He probably already had his mind made up that she was just some little airhead princess.
Nick's expression hardened.
"It's just a car, Nick."
"Hardly just a car!"
They rode in silence until Nick suddenly shouted, "Pull up there. Thanks."
As they pulled to the curb by his apartment building, he jumped out. He didn't say goodbye. He didn't even look back.
Nick flew up the stairs, taking them two at a time, his worry only tempered by the woman behind him. Kelsey followed, panting all the way. He heard her gasp, heard her curse under her breath, and turned at the top of the stairs to see what her problem could be.
She had stopped, and bent over to remove her shoes and now carried them in one hand. He didn't have time to look at feet! But dammit he was looking.
Whirling back, he threw open the door and stalked in. He slowed, calming himself, and cast a curious glance over his shoulder at Kelsey who had momentarily slowed down too. He watched her take in the surroundings. A frown puckered her forehead. His control snapped, grabbing her up short, he held her a moment. They seemed to stop breathing.
He hadn't expected or wanted to desire her in the middle of a family crisis. Hell, he hadn't expected to want her period. Silently scolding himself he declared vehemently, "Look, you don't belong here. You're r eally out of place. Don't expect much. It's no mansion, but it's clean. Nothing here bites either, okay?"
"I never--" She cleared her throat and backed up.
It wasn't until she retreated, that he realized how badly he must smell, but she was doing a great job of not noticing. A great job of not noticing a lot of things. After all, she was caviar, he was hotdogs. But damn, caviar sure smelled good!
Whipping about he stomped through the apartment, like a storm erupting into a tornado. His mind should be on Tony. But the truth was he had lost it back on the stairwell. What was wrong with him, bringing a woman like her here?
"Mama, where are you? What's going on? Where's Tony?"
Mama came running out of the bedroom, her hands raised in frustration. Sweat peppered her brow, her dark eyes full of worry.
"He's in here, Nicky. How many times have we told him not to fight?" Her voice shook.
Nick stormed into the small bedroom. Just the look in his mother's eyes convinced him he was right to come home. He hated to see that look. But she worried endlessly.
"Tony, what the he--" Nick saw Tony laying on the bed, but no blood like he expected. There were no huge lumps on Tony's face or body, only one obnoxious black eye, staring back at Nick. Nick let out his breath in one long rush.
Slowly, Nick sank to his knees, covering his face with his hands. "When's she gonna learn?" He moved his head back and forth. He shook for a moment. Lord, when would Mama stop pulling him off jobs for something so trivial as a black eye? The way Mama had described it, Tony had been beaten.
Nick fought his temper, then looked up at his brother and smiled crookedly. Running a hand through Tony's thick black hair, he asked, "First shiner, huh, Tony?"
"Pretty cool, huh?" Tony seemed amused by all the fuss.
"Yeah, really cool." Nick sighed aloud getting to his feet. His shoulders hunched tensely and his face felt frozen into a permanent frown. He quickly decided it would do no good to yell at Mama. It would only hurt her.
Going to the kitchen, he passed Kelsey again and realized how quickly he had squashed the strange sense of desire within him. But the look of concern on her face lit another flame inside him, and he had to turn away to keep from grabbing her to him. Something about this woman made him feel things he hadn't felt in years. Her compassion threw him, confused, needled him. He hadn