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"Someday your prince will come," Vanessa Wilbur sang in a strained falsetto voice as she ran a feather duster along the top of the bookcase.
Cindy Territo ignored her work partner and vigorously rubbed the thirtieth-story window, removing an imaginary smudge from the glass. The pair were employees of the janitorial company contracted by Oakes-Jenning Financial Services. For four nights a week they were responsible for cleaning the offices of the corporation's top executives. Tedious work, but it supplemented Vanessa's family income so she could pursue her dream of script writing; her hope was to someday see her plays performed on Broadway. And the job paid well enough to keep Cindy in computer classes.
"You have to admit you spend more time cleaning Mr. Prince's office than any of the others," Vanessa said, eyeing her friend suspiciously.
Unable to hide her amusement, Cindy stuffed her cleaning rag in the hip pocket of her coveralls and laughed out loud. "Has anyone told you that you're a hopeless romantic?"
"Of course." Vanessa's eyes shone with laughter. She pointed at Cindy with her feather duster and released an exaggerated sigh. "Sometimes I think you, my friend, could be living a modern-day fairy tale."
"A what?" Cindy might be far more cynical than Vanessa, but one of them had to keep her head out of the clouds.
"A fairy tale."
Cindy ignored her friend and continued window washing—her least favorite task.
"Someday… some way… a handsome prince will come riding into your life on a white stallion and rescue you from all this," Vanessa said.
Cindy shook her head. "You've been spending too much time in dreamland," she scoffed.
"No, I haven't." Vanessa perched on the corner of a large mahogany desk, her legs swinging. "In fact, I believe it's fate. Think about it, girl. Your name is Cindy— as in Cinderella—and you clean the offices of a man named Prince, as in Prince Charming. Now doesn't that strike you as fate?"
"Thorndike Prince!" Cindy spewed out his name in a burst of laughter.
"And, as I mentioned, you do spend more time in his office than any of the others!"
"He's the first vice president. His office is largest, for heaven's sake."
The idea was so ludicrous that Cindy had to choke back laughter. "Besides, he's got to be at least sixty."
"What makes you think so?"
"First, Oakes-Jenning Financial Services isn't going to make a thirty-year-old their first vice president, and second—"
"It's been done before," Vanessa interrupted. Folding her arms, she hopped down from the desk to look stubbornly at her friend.
"And second," Cindy continued undaunted, "I clean his office. I know the man. He's staid and stuffy, and that's just the beginning."
"What do you mean?"
"He's so predictable. He eats the same sandwich— pastrami on rye—for lunch nearly every day and orders it from the same deli. He's so set in his ways that he's as predictable as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The only thing he knows is business, business, business. Oh, I'm sure he's dedicated and hardworking, but there's a lot more to life than slaving away in some office and making oodles of money." A whole lot more—and Cindy doubted the first vice president knew anything about having fun.
"What do you think about the photograph of the gorgeous brunette on his desk?"
Cindy smiled. "Nothing. I'd venture to guess that Mr. Thorndike Prince has been married to the same woman for fifty years."
"The photo," Vanessa reminded her.
"That's probably the old coot's granddaughter."
"Yup. How'd you like to see a picture of your 'old coot'?"
The twinkle in Vanessa's brown eyes told Cindy she was in for a shock. "And just where did you happen to find a picture of ol' Thorndike?"
"In the financial section of today's paper. Read it and weep, Cindy Territo." She reached inside her cleaning cart and whipped out the folded newspaper, shoving it under Cindy's nose.
One glance at the dark, handsome man in the photograph made Cindy take a surprised breath. She grabbed the paper and held it in both hands as she stared at the picture. "I don't believe it," she murmured. "He's, he's—"
"Gorgeous," Vanessa supplied.
"Young." The word trembled from Cindy's dry throat. He was gorgeous, all right; she admitted that. Rarely had she seen a more strikingly handsome man. He was the type who'd stand out in any crowd. Forceful. Persuasive. Vigorous. His face was square and serious, his chin determined. His eyes gazed back at her and even from the black-and-white image, Cindy could tell they were an intense gray. There wasn't a hint of amusement in those sharp, keen eyes, and Cindy guessed the photographer had been lucky to get the shot. Perhaps most astonishing of all was that Thorndike Prince couldn't be more than thirty-five… if that.
"Well?" Vanessa prodded.
"He isn't exactly how I pictured him."
"You're right about that," Vanessa said with obvious pleasure. "Now all we need to do is to find a way for the two of you to meet."
"What?" Cindy tore her gaze from the paper, assuming she'd misunderstood her friend.
"All we need to do is come up with a way of getting the two of you together," Vanessa repeated. "You're perfect for each other."
Playfully, Cindy placed the back of her hand against her friend's forehead. "How long have you had this raging fever?"
"I'm not sick!"
"Maybe not, but you're talking like a crazy woman."
"Come on, Cindy, dream a little."
"That's no dream—that's a nightmare." Her hand flew to the barely tamed blond curls sneaking out from beneath the red bandana tied at the back of her head. The blue pinstriped coveralls did nothing to emphasize the feminine curves of her hips and breasts.
"Naturally you wouldn't look like this."
"I certainly hope not."
"He'd like you, Cindy," Vanessa continued enthusiastically. "I know he would. You're bright and witty, and ol' Thorndike looks like he could use someone to bring him some love and laughter. You're probably right about him— I bet business is all he thinks about. And you're so pretty with that blond hair and those baby-blue eyes, the minute he sees you, he'll feel as if he's been knocked over the head."
Cindy gave a wistful sigh. She didn't need to close her eyes to imagine her prince—this Prince—smiling down at her with a look of such tenderness that it would steal her breath. Just the thought produced a warm, tingling sensation in her stomach.
A frown pinched Vanessa's forehead as her eyes grew serious. "We have one minor problem, though—that woman in the photograph on his desk. I doubt she's his sister. They could be involved."
"Involved," Cindy repeated before she realized what she was saying. She shook her head to dispel the image of Thorndike Prince leaning over to kiss her. In just minutes Vanessa had nearly convinced her that with one look, the first vice president of Oakes-Jenning Financial Services would swoon at her feet. Well, it was easy to dream, but life's realities faced her every day.
"Come on, Neil Simon, we've got work to do."
"Apparently you've decided to turn your talent toward writing comedies."
"But, Cindy, I'm serious!"
"I'm not. Someone like Thorndike Prince isn't going to be interested in the cleaning woman who vacuums his office."
"You're underestimating the man."
"Stop it! I've got work to do even if you don't."
Although Cindy returned to cleaning and scrubbing with a vigor that had been lacking earlier, her thoughts were far from the tasks at hand. When she left the Financial Center for the dark, windy streets of Manhattan, her mind was still on the tall, dark man in the photograph. It wasn't like her to be so affected by a man simply because he was good-looking. But Thorndike Prince was more than handsome; something deep within her had instantly responded to that picture of him, had innocently, naively, reached out to him. She saw in him the elusive qualities she'd been searching for in a man. He was proud yet honest. Shrewd yet gentle. Demanding yet patient. She couldn't have explained how she knew all this. Call it intuition, but she sensed that he wasn't an ordinary man.
The December wind whistled down the canyon of tall office buildings and Cindy drew her thick wool coat more snugly around her, burying her hands in the pockets. The clock in front of the jeweler's across the street told her Uncle Sal would be there any minute. No sooner had the thought formed than the sleek black limousine came to a stop at the curb. The front door swung open as Cindy approached and she quickly climbed inside, savoring the warmth.
"You been waiting long?"
"Only a couple of minutes." Cindy gave her uncle a reassuring smile.
He removed the black driver's cap and unbuttoned his chauffeur's uniform, letting out a deep breath. "Remind me to talk to your aunt. The cleaners must've shrunk this jacket."
"Right," Cindy said in a mock-serious voice. More than likely it was Aunt Theresa's cooking that was responsible for the tight jacket, but she wasn't about to tell her uncle that.
As the limousine wove through the New York traffic, Cindy stared out the window, too exhausted to talk.
"You're quiet tonight," her uncle commented.
"Count your blessings," she said with a tired laugh. Life in their large Italian family rarely left a moment's peace. Sal and Theresa's home was the hub of the Territo clan. Her aunt and uncle had raised Cindy as their own, nurturing her with all the love they gave their natural child. Cindy's own parents had divorced when she was too young to remember, and her mother had died when Cindy was five. She'd never heard from her father, and when she'd started grade school she'd taken the name Territo to avoid confusion.
Sal chuckled. "Maybe I shouldbe grateful for the quiet. When I left the house this afternoon your aunt was blistering the sidewalk with her rant."
"What happened now?"
"She caught Tony and Maria necking on the fire escape again."
At fifteen, Cindy's cousin was already showing the potential for breaking young girls' hearts. "That Tony's just too good-looking."
Sal playfully nudged her with his elbow. "Too much like his old man, huh?"
"Right." Although he'd become a bit portly, her uncle was still handsome, and the gray streaks at his temples lent him an air of distinction.
They grew silent again, and once more Cindy felt Sal's eyes on her. "You feeling okay?" he asked.
"I'm just tired."
"How many more weeks of school?"
"A couple." Two full weeks and then she could concentrate on the fast-approaching Christmas holidays. Christmas was sneaking up on her this year. Although she'd set aside the money from her last paycheck, she hadn't started her shopping. There hadn't been time and wouldn't be until her computer classes were dismissed.
Her uncle parked the limousine in front of the apartment building in a space unofficially reserved for him. Nothing was posted to claim this curb for Sal's limousine, but the neighborhood, out of love and respect, made sure there was room for him to park every night.
The apartment was quiet. Cindy and her uncle paused in the crowded entryway to remove their coats. Cindy hung hers on the brass coatrack while her uncle reverently placed his jacket inside the hall closet, setting his cap on the shelf above the rack.
"You hungry?" her uncle whispered.
"Not tonight." Aunt Theresa kept plates of food warming in the oven for them, and Cindy and her uncle often sat in front of the TV and enjoyed their late-night dinner.
"You sure you're feeling okay?" Sal squinted as he studied her carefully.
"I'm fine. I think I'll take a hot bath and go to bed."
"You do that." Her uncle was already heading for the kitchen, eager for his meal.
Cindy's bedroom was tiny, as were all the bedrooms in the apartment. There was hardly room to walk between the double bed and the heavy mahogany dresser that had been her mother's as a child. The closet was little more than an indentation in the wall, by a faded curtain. Cindy glanced around the room with fresh eyes. Thorndike Prince definitely wouldn't be interested in a woman who slept in a room like this. Her thoughts drifted to the dark woman in the photograph on his desk. No doubt her bedroom was carpeted with Oriental rugs and decorated with a fancy brass bedroom set. Perhaps there was even a fireplace…. Cindy sighed and sat on the corner of her bed feeling the hopelessness of it all. Vanessa had told her it was time to dream a little, and that was exactly what Cindy planned to do: she was going to save this special feeling she had for Thorndike Prince to savor in her dreams.
After luxuriating in a tub filled with hot soapy water, Cindy fell into a deep, natural sleep.
The following day she managed not to think about Vanessa's crazy schemes during any of her classes. Nor did she allow thoughts of Prince to invade her mind while she hurried home from school and changed into her work clothes. However, the minute she stepped into the Oakes-Jenning Financial Services building, Cindy was assaulted on all sides by fantasies she had no right to entertain.
"Hi," Vanessa muttered as she checked the supplies on her cleaning cart.
"What's wrong with you?" Of the pair, Vanessa was usually the one with the ready smile and quick conversation.
"Traffic was a nightmare."
"Hey, this is New York. What do you expect?"
"A bit of sympathy would come in handy."
"Poor Vanessa. Poor, poor Vanessa." Soothingly, Cindy stroked her friend's arm. "Did that help?"
"A little," she grumbled, leading the way to the service elevator. They rode it to the main floor, then transferred to the passenger one. Bob Knight, the security officer who guarded the front entrance, waved as they continued through the foyer.
Cindy leaned her weight against the back of the elevator as the door glided silently shut. She was concerned about cleaning Thorndike's office. The room would never be the same to her again. She couldn't empty his garbage without wondering what was happening in his life and knowing she'd never be part of it.
"Hey, did you see that?" Vanessa cried excitedly, making a futile attempt to stop the elevator as it began to rise.
"See what?" Cindy was instantly alert.
The moment the elevator hit the thirtieth floor, Vanessa pushed the button that sent them back down.
"Vanessa, what's going on?"
"Give me a minute and I'll tell you."