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She was a woman with a mission. Her move from West Virginia to New York had a series of purposes, outlined carefully in her mind. She would find the perfect place to live, become a success in her chosen field, and get her man.
Preferably, but not necessarily, in that order.
Frederica Kimball was, she liked to think, a flexible woman.
As she walked down the sidewalk on the East Side in the early-spring twilight, she thought of home. The house in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with her parents and siblings, was, to Freddie's mind, the perfect place to live. Rambling, noisy, full of music and voices.
She doubted that she could have left it if she hadn't known she would always be welcomed back with open arms.
It was true that she had been to New York many times, and had ties there, as well, but she already missed the familiar her own room, tucked into the second story of the old stone house, the love and companionship of her siblings, her father's music, her mother's laugh.
But she wasn't a child any longer. She was twenty-four, and long past the age to begin to make her own.
In any case, she reminded herself, she was very much at home in Manhattan. After all, she'd spent the first few years of her life there. And much of her life in the years after had included visitsbut all with family, she acknowledged.
Well, this time, she thought, straightening her shoulders, she was on her own. And she had a job to do. The first order of business would be to convince a certain Nicholas LeBeck that he needed a partner.
The success and reputation he'd accumulated as a composer over the past few years would only increase with her beside him as his lyricist. Already, just by closing her eyes and projecting, she could envision the LeBeck-Kimball name in lights on the Great White Way. She had only to let her imagination bloom to have the music they would write flow like a river through her head.
Now all she had to do, she thought with a wry smile, was convince Nick to see and hear the same thing.
She could, if necessary, use family loyalty to persuade him. They were, in a roundabout way, semicousins.
Kissing cousins, she thought now, while her eyes lighted with a smile. That was her final and most vital mission. Before she was done, Nick would fall as desperately in love with her as she was, had always been, with him.
She'd waited ten years for him, and that, to Freddie's mind, was quite long enough.
It's past time, Nick, she decided, tugging on the hem of her royal blue blazer, to face your fate.
Still, nerves warred with confidence as she stood outside the door of Lower the Boom. The popular neighborhood bar belonged to Zack Muldoon, Nick's brother. Stepbrother, technically, but Freddie's family had always been more into affection than terminology. The fact that Zack had married Freddie's stepmother's sister made the Stanislaski-Muldoon-Kimball-LeBeck families one convoluted clan.
Freddie's longtime dream had been to forge another loop in that family chain, linking her and Nick.
She took a deep breath, tugged on her blazer again, ran her hands over the reddish-gold mop of curls she could never quite tame and wished once, hopelessly, that she had just a dash of the Stanislaskis' exotic good looks. Then she reached for the door.
She'd make do with what she had, and make damned sure it was enough.
The air in Lower the Boom carried the yeasty scent of beer, overlaid with the rich, spicy scent of marinara. Freddie decided that Rio, Zack's longtime cook, must have a pasta special going. On the juke, Dion was warning his fellow man about the fickle heart of Runaround Sue.
Everything was there, everything in place, the cozy paneled walls, the seafaring motif of brass bells and nautical gear, the long, scarred bar and the gleaming glassware. But no Nick. Still, she smiled as she walked to the bar and slid onto a padded stool.
"Buy me a drink, sailor?"
Distracted, Zack glanced up from drawing a draft. His easy smile widened instantly into a grin. "Freddiehey! I didn't think you were coming in until the end of the week."
"I like surprises."
"I like this kind." Expertly Zack slid the mug of beer down the bar so that it braked between the waiting hands of his patron.
Then he leaned over, caught Freddie's face in both of his big
hands and gave her a loud, smacking kiss. "Pretty as ever."
And he was, she thought. In the ten years since she'd met him, he'd only improved, like good whiskey, with age. The dark hair was still thick and curling, and the deep blue eyes were magnetic. And his face, she thought with a sigh. Tanned, tough, with laugh lines only enhancing its character and charm.
More than once in her life, Freddie had wondered how it was that she was surrounded by physically stunning people. "How's Rachel?"
"Her Honor is terrific."
Freddie's lips curved at the use of the title, and the affection behind it. Zack's wifeher auntwas now a criminal court judge. "We're all so proud of her. Did you see the trick gavel Mama sent her? The one that makes this crashing-glass sound when you bop something with it?"
"Seen it?" His grin was quick and crooked. "She bops me with it regularly. It's something, having a judge in the family." His eyes twinkled. "And she looks fabulous in those black robes."
"I bet. How about the kids?"
"The terrible trio? They're great. Want a soda?"
Amused, Freddie tilted her head. "What, are you going to card me, Zack? I'm twenty-four, remember?"
Rubbing his chin, he studied her. The small build and china-doll skin would probably always be deceiving. If he hadn't known her age, as well as the age of his own children, he would have asked for ID.
"I just can't take it in. Little Freddie, all grown up."
"Since I am" she crossed her legs and settled in "why don't you pour me a white wine?"
"Coming up." Long experience had him reaching behind him for the proper glass without looking. "How're your folks, the kids?"
"Everybody's good, and everyone sends their love." She took the glass Zack handed her and lifted it in a toast. "To family." Zack tapped a squat bottle of mineral water against her glass. "So what are your plans, honey?"
"Oh, I've got a few of them." She smiled into her wine before she sipped. And wondered what he would think if she mentioned that the biggest plan of her life was to woo his younger brother. "The first is to find an apartment."
"You know you can stay with us as long as you want."
"I know. Or with Grandma and Papa, or Mikhail and Sydney, or Alex and Bess." She smiled again. It was a comfort to know she was surrounded by people who loved her. But "I really want a place of my own." She propped her elbow on the bar. "It's time, I think, for a little adventure." When he started to speak, she grinned and shook her head at him. "You're not going to lecture, are you, Uncle Zack? Not you, the boy who went to sea."
She had him there, he thought. He'd been a great deal younger than twenty-four when he shipped out for the first time. "Okay, no lecture. But I'm keeping my eye on you."
"I'm counting on it." Freddie sat back and rocked a little on the stool, then askedcasually, she hoped"So, what's Nick up to? I thought I might run into him here."
"He's around. In the kitchen, I think, shoveling in some of Rio's pasta special."
She sniffed the air for effect. "Smells great. I think I'll just wander on back and say hi."
"Go ahead. And tell Nick we're waiting for him to play for his supper."
"I'll do that."
She carried her wine with her and firmly resisted the urge to fuss with her hair or tug on her jacket again. Her attitude toward her looks was one of resignation. "Cute" was the best she'd ever been able to do with her combination of small build and slight stature. Long ago she'd given up on the fantasy that she would blossom into anything that could be termed lush or glamorous.
Added to a petite figure was madly curling hair that was caught somewhere between gold and red, a dusting of freckles over a pert nose, wide gray eyes, and dimples. In her teenage years, she'd pined for sleek and sophisticated. Or wild and wanton. Curvy and cunning. Freddie liked to think that, with maturity, she'd accepted herself as she was.
But there were still moments when she mourned being a life-size Kewpie doll in a family of Renaissance sculptures.
Then again, she reminded herself, if she wanted Nick to take her seriously as a woman, she had to take herself seriously first.
With that in mind, she pushed open the kitchen door. And her heart jolted straight into her throat.
There was nothing she could do about it. It had been the same every time she saw him, from the first time she'd seen him to the last. Everything she'd ever wanted, everything she'd ever dreamed of, was sitting at the kitchen table, hunkered over a plate of fettuccine marinara.
Nicholas LeBeck, the bad boy her aunt Rachel had defended with passion and conviction in the courts. The troubled youth who had been guided away from the violence of street gangs and back alleys by love and care and the discipline of family.
He was a man now, but he still carried some of the rebellion and wildness of his youth. In his eyes, she thought, her pulse humming. Those wonderful stormy green eyes. He still wore his hair long, pulled back into a stubby ponytail of dark, bronzed blond. He had a poet's mouth, a boxer's chin, and the hands of an artist.
She'd spent many nights fantasizing about those long-fingered, wide-palmed hands. Once she got beyond the face, with its fascinating hint of cheekbones and its slightly crooked nosebroken years ago by her own sharp line drive, which he'd tried unsuccessfully to fieldshe could, with pleasure, move on.
He was built like a runner, long, rangy, and wore old gray jeans, white at the knees. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbow and missing a button.
As he ate, he carried on a running commentary with the huge black cook, while Rio shook the grease out of a basket of French fries.
"I didn't say there was too much garlic. I said I like a lot of garlic." Nick forked in another bite as if to back up his statement. "Getting pretty damned temperamental in your old age, pal," Nick added, his voice slightly muffled by the generous amount of pasta he'd just swallowed.
Rio's mild, good-natured oath carried the music of the islands. "Don't tell me about old, skinny boyI can still beat hell out of you."
"I'm shaking." Grinning, Nick broke off a hunk of garlic bread just as Freddie let the door swing shut behind her. His eyes lighted with pleasure as he dropped the bread again and pushed back from the table. "Hey, Rio, look who's here. How's it going, Fred?"
He crossed over to give her a casual, brotherly hug. Then his brows drew together as the body that pressed firmly against his reminded him, uncomfortably, that little Fred was a woman.
"Ah " He backed off, still smiling, but his hands dipped cautiously into his pockets. "I thought you were coming in later in the week."
"I changed my mind." Her confidence lifted a full notch at his reaction. "Hi, Rio." Freddie set her wineglass aside so that she could properly return the bear hug she was enveloped in.
"Little doll. Sit down and eat."
"I think I will. I thought about your cooking, Rio, all the way up on the train." She sat, smiled and held out a hand to Nick. "Come sit down, your food's getting cold."
"Yeah." He took her hand, gave it a quick squeeze, then let it go as he settled beside her. "So, how is everybody? Brandon still kicking butt on the baseball diamond?"
"Batting .420, leading the high school league in home runs and RBIs." She let out a long sigh as Rio set a large plate in front of her. "Katie's last ballet recital was really lovely. Mama cried, of course, but then she tears up when Brand hits a four-bagger. You know, her toy store was just featured in the Washington Post. And Dad's just finishing a new composition." She twirled pasta onto her fork. "So, how are things with you?"
"Working on anything?"
"I've got another Broadway thing coming up." He shrugged. It was still hard for him to let people know when something mattered.
"You should have won the Tony for Last Stop."
"Being nominated was cool."
She shook her head. It wasn't enough for himor for her. "It was a fabulous score, Nick. Is a fabulous score," she corrected, since the musical was still playing to full houses. "We're all so proud of you."
"Well. It's a living."
"Don't make his head bigger than it is," Rio warned from his stove.
"Hey, I caught you humming 'This Once,'" Nick noted with a grin.
Rio moved his massive shoulders in dismissal. "So, maybe one or two of the tunes weren't bad. Eat."
"Are you working with anyone yet?" Freddie asked. "On the new score?"
"No. It's just in the preliminary stages. I've hardly gotten started myself."
That was exactly what she'd wanted to hear. "I read somewhere that Michael Lorrey was committed to another project. You'll need a new lyricist."
"Yeah." Nick frowned as he scooped up more pasta. "It's too bad. I liked working with him. There are too many people out there who don't hear the music, just their own words."
"That would be a problem," Freddie agreed, clearing a path for herself. "You need someone with a solid music background, who hears words in the melody."
"Exactly." He picked up his beer and started to drink.
"What you need, Nick, is me," Freddie said firmly.
Nick swallowed hastily, set his beer down and looked at Freddie as though she had suddenly stopped speaking English. "Huh?"
"I've been studying music all my life." It was a struggle, but she kept the eagerness out of her voice and spoke matter-of-factly. "One of my first memories is of sitting on my father's lap, with his hands over mine on the piano keys. But, to his disappointment, composing isn't my first love. Words are. I could write your words, Nick, better than anyone else." Her eyes, gray and calm and smiling, met his. "Because I not only understand your music, I understand you. So what do you think?"
He shifted in his chair, blew out a breath. "I don't know what to think, Fred. This is kind of out of left field."
"I don't know why. You know I've written lyrics for some of Dad's compositions. And a few others besides." She broke off a piece of bread, chewed it thoughtfully. "It seems to me to be a very logical, comfortable solution all around. I'm looking for work, you're looking for a lyricist."
"Yeah." But it made him nervous, the idea of working with her. To be honest, he'd have had to admit that in the past few years, she'd begun to make him nervous.
"So you'll think about it." She smiled again, knowing, as the member of a large family, the strategic value of an apparent retreat. "And if you start to like the idea, you can run it by the producers."
"I could do that," Nick said slowly. "Sure, I could do that."
"Great. I'll be coming around here off and on, or you can reach me at the Waldorf."
"The Waldorf? Why are you staying at a hotel?"
"Just temporarily, until I find an apartment. You don't know of anything in the area, do you? I like this neighborhood."
"No, II didn't realize you were making this permanent." His brows knit again. "I mean, a really permanent move."
"Well, I am. And no, before you start, I'm not going to stay with the family. I'm going to find out what it's like to live alone. You're still upstairs, right? In Zack's old place?"
"So, if you hear about anything in the neighborhood, you'll let me know."
It surprised him that even for a moment he would worry about what her moving to New York would change in his life. Of course, it wouldn't change anything at all.