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When Josy Warner answered the phone that warm April day she thought it was going to be her lying ex-boyfriend begging her for a second chance. Instead it was Ricky Sabatini--her childhood ally and protector, and the closest thing to a big brother she'd ever had.
"Jo-Jo, it's me. Listen, I'm in a jam and I don't have much time. Sorry to ask this, but I need a favor. A big one."
"Ricky!" Josy sat up with a jerk, sloshing coffee over the rim of her cup and onto the sketches scattered across her desk. She grabbed a handful of Kleenex and blotted frantically at the drawings, her pale blonde hair falling into her eyes as she tried to rescue them. But as the summer sun glittered through her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side that Saturday afternoon, high above the roar of Manhattan traffic, she saw it was too late. The sketches were smeared, soggy--ruined. She tried to keep the dismay from her voice and to focus on Ricky instead.
"What do you need, Ricky? I'll help any way I can," she told him, clutching the soggy wadded Kleenex and trying not to moan at what was left of her carefully drawn images of lean pants and tailored blazers.
"It's a big favor, kid. Think about it for a second. Shouldn't be too much of a problem, but no guarantees."
The warning note in his voice struck her then. Her stomach knotted. She hadn't heard from him in several months, but she knew Ricky's life was a mess--possibly even more so than her own. She'd left messages for him when she'd read the accusations against him in the newspaper, when she'd learned of his suspension from the NYPD and the subsequent internal investigation. But he hadn't called her back, and she'd become distracted by her own problems. Her own carefully built, hard-won life had been falling apart, piece by precious piece, and lately it was all she could do to keep going, trying to salvage what she could.
First there'd been her breakup with Doug, now her job was on the line . . . it had been one thing after another, and Josy felt like she was frantically trying to stay afloat and sinking a little more each day. But if Ricky needed her, no matter what, she couldn't say no. Not to him . . . not ever.
"You still there, Jo-Jo? I don't have a lot of time here."
"Sorry, Ricky. I'm really sorry--about the investigation, everything. I tried to call you . . ."
"Forget about it, kid. It'll work out." His voice sounded the same as it always had--rough, hard, hurried.
"Do you want to meet for a drink . . . to talk?"
"Hey, you worried about me? That's nice. But I don't need a drink. What I need is this favor."
She took a deep breath. "Name it, Ricky," she said quietly. "As long as it's not illegal, it's yours."
"You don't believe that bunk they wrote about me in the papers, do you? That I was on the take? That I colluded with Caventini?"
There was a sudden edge to his voice and she immediately felt guilty about adding that "illegal" part to her condition. Ricky had been far more than her foster brother when they'd both lived in the Hammond home for two years. He'd been her rock, her shield against the Callahan boys who'd ruled their Jersey neighborhood, and against Karl Hammond and his unpredictable temper. If not for Ricky . . .
She shuddered, unwilling to imagine what might have been if not for him.
"Of course I don't believe it," she said quickly. Then she added in a low tone, "Not if you tell me it isn't true."
"That's exactly what I'm telling you. I'm a clean cop, Josy, always have been, since day one on the force. I never took a dime from the mob, or from anyone else. Not a dime. I went undercover like I was told, and I nailed some big-time asses, and then I got set up--set up by someone in my own department. It's all going to come out in the trial--"
"I'm on your side, Ricky. What . . . what do you need me to do?"
Maybe he's going to ask me to show up at the trial, be a character witness or something--give him moral support, she thought. Maybe he needs a friendly face in the courtroom.
No, that can't be it, Josy realized immediately. Ricky had never needed anyone in his life. He'd always been able to rely on himself, and he'd given her some valuable lessons in how to do that very thing.
For a moment her eyes closed and she could picture herself back in her old Jersey neighborhood, back in the run-down, weed-choked yard of the foster home owned by May and Karl Hammond, the home she'd lived in longer than any other of the five separate ones she'd grown up in after her parents died.
She could smell the fried onions and sauerkraut and beer wafting from the kitchen window, see the Camel butts littering the porch stoop and the driveway, hear the bawling of the television announcer in the broiling July heat as Karl watched the Yankees game from his tattered plaid easy chair in the living room. And she saw the three Callahan brothers from the next block, riding their bicycles on the broken sidewalk, sticking out their tongues at her, calling her names. Laughing . . .
"I had a package delivered to you," Ricky was saying, and she jerked herself back from her reverie of Jefferson Street to the present, to her own airy little apartment with its sleek cream leather sofa and hardwood floors, its carefully chosen prints, snazzy chandelier lamps, and striped red and cream throw pillows.
"Your doorman's holding it for you. Go get it. Put it away and keep it safe for me, just for a week--no more, until I need it back. Okay?"
"Well, yes, but . . . what's in the package, Ricky?" A prickle of uneasiness ran through her. She sat up straighter, speaking evenly into the phone. "You're going to tell me, right?"
"No can do, sweetheart. Just trust me. You know you can trust me, don't you?"
"Whatever you do, don't let the cops get hold of it. They're trying to fry me, but I'm not going down. I'll call you and set up a meet when I'm ready to take it back."
"Thanks a million, kid. You're my girl."
And he was gone, leaving her holding a dead phone and sensing that somehow she was going to regret this.
But Ricky would never do anything to hurt me, she told herself as she rode down the elevator to the lobby. And he wouldn't have taken any money from the mob. He was tough--he'd always been tough--and he liked to cut corners, but he'd always known what was right.
Even when he was fourteen and you were twelve and he caught the Callahan brothers dragging you through that garbage dump . . .
The elevator door opened and she pushed the images from her mind. She didn't like to think of those days, when she'd been a scared, skinny foster kid, bumped from one crowded, noisy home to the next. Until she met Ricky, she didn't know how to stand up for herself. But now she did. She'd come a long way from the pale, knob-kneed little ghost who hadn't spoken a word for three months after her parents died, who'd worn nothing but hand-me-down patched shirts and jeans, who had to borrow Carol Walinsky's older cousin's dress for the prom . . .
Yep, she thought, glancing down at her baby-blue capris and her skinny white tank top, at the Prada sandals that bared her seashell-pink-painted toes. She'd come a long way. And she was never going back.
"Afternoon, Ms. Warner. I was just about to call you. Got a package here for you." Len O'Brien, the spry sixty-two-year-old doorman, handed her a brown-paper-wrapped parcel about the size of a paperback book.
"Thanks, Len." As the doorman turned to consult with the super about an electrical problem in 17B, Josy stared down at the package in her hands. There was no writing on it, nothing but that plain brown paper and some wedges of Scotch tape. It looked innocuous enough. It felt solid, not squishy. Like some kind of box. What in the world could Ricky have sent to her? And why?
I'm not going to worry about it, she decided, heading back to the elevator. I'm just going to forget all about it until Ricky calls and wants it back.
She stuffed it in the bottom drawer of her dresser, beneath her winter sweaters and socks, and pushed it out of her mind.
It wasn't all that difficult to do. Josy had a lot going on in her life, all of it more pressing than a small brown package tucked in her dresser drawer.
For starters, there was her once skyrocketing career, which was on the verge of plummeting into the toilet. And there was her boss, Francesca, who desperately wanted Josy's completed sketches for the new ready-to-wear line and had been calling every day from Italy for a week, demanding to know when she could expect them.
"As soon as I finish them," Josy had been repeating, over and over. "It won't be long now, Francesca."
"Damn it, I'm trying to get a merger going here." Francesca's clipped voice had hammered like a Jimmy Choo stiletto in her ear. Despite her Italian name, she'd been born and bred in Beverly Hills, the only daughter of famed film director Marco Dellagio. Which was appropriate, Josy had reflected on more than one occasion, since Francesca had the imperious Hollywood diva bit down cold.
"After last season, that damned disaster of a season, I need an infusion of money. And before the Andiamo team agrees to anything, they need to see the new line. And I need to see it first. What about this don't you understand?"
"I get it, Francesca. I'm . . . trying." Josy had forced herself to keep her voice even, as Jane Boyd, the junior creative assistant, and Reese Ashley, the design firm's business manager, both gathered in her office doorway, rolling their eyes.
"Things just aren't . . . clicking right now. I'll have a breakthrough any day--just be a little patient. You told me you didn't need the sketches for another month--"
"At the latest!" Francesca snapped. "Two weeks would be much much better."
Two weeks. Two weeks to come up with a complete fall line. Josy's temples throbbed. Somehow or other, her creative muse had gone AWOL seven months ago, roughly the same time she'd found out that Doug Fifer, the clean-cut, funny, effortlessly charming investment banker she'd been dating for the previous six months, was a married man. A married man with two kids. The thought of it still made her sick to her stomach. For the first week after she'd found out, she felt like someone had taken a two-by-four to her head. She'd been stunned and furious, and she was still furious--and badly shaken by her own abysmal judgment in character.
And ever since, she hadn't been able to come up with a single inspired vision for the beautiful clothes she loved to design.
"I'll do my best," she'd told Francesca, her stomach roiling.
"There are dozens of girls, hundreds of girls, who'd give their eyeteeth to work for me, Josy. You can be replaced in less time than it takes me to put on my lipstick."
Fortunately Francesca had slammed down the phone before Josy said something she'd have regretted. Standing up for herself was one thing, but getting herself fired was another--especially in the current job market. She needed this job, at least until she had a few more notches of success on her belt and a comfortable financial cushion to fall back on in case she was out of work for any length of time.
But if she didn't have the sketches done in two weeks--a month at the latest--that point would be moot. She would be out of a job--and up a creek.
If only she could just get past this mental block, relax, and come up with an idea . . .
She went back to her desk and picked up the sketches. Coffee stains or no, they weren't that good, she realized, her heart sinking. Adequate maybe, some possibilities to work with . . . but . . .
The individual pieces lacked cohesion and . . . something else.
Flair. Freshness. Inspiration.
Frustrated, she sank into the chair and dumped the sketches in the wastebasket. She dragged her hands through her hair, trying to picture the runway at the spring show, the models all dressed in the new line from Francesa Dellagio. And what were they wearing? she wondered, closing her eyes, trying to see the suits and jackets and skirts and dresses draping the models' bodies. They were wearing . . . they were wearing . . .
Nothing. She saw nothing.
And that's what your future will hold if you don't shake off this block, she told herself furiously, opening her eyes and pushing back her chair. She began to pace through her apartment. She thought better when she paced.
But all she could think about was how much she was going to miss working with Jane and Reese after she was fired.
They'd both hurried into her office after that last nasty phone conversation with Francesca.
"That bitch ought to be kissing your feet!" Jane had exclaimed. "The only reason Francesca Dellagio Designs made it in the first place was because of your ideas! You've been letting her take the credit for three years, when you're the one who came up with every single element of the collections!"
"And look what happened this season, when she vetoed your stuff and went ahead with her own," Reese pointed out, as they both dropped into the chocolate suede chairs opposite Josy's desk. "The fashion writers crucified her. She knows the new line has to be a stunning success. You're her only chance."
"Start your own company and I'll come with you." Jane leaned forward, her blue eyes dancing beneath her crown of short, spiky red hair. "Wouldn't you, Reese?"
"Yes, if everything was in place. If Josy had the resources and was ready," Reese had said slowly. She'd studied Josy with frank appraisal. "I don't think you are right now, are you?" she'd asked thoughtfully. "You're still figuring out what direction you want to go in." At thirty-four, she was tall and lean as a model, with dark hair, flawless olive skin, and a master's degree in business from Yale. And she'd been married and divorced three times before she was thirty.