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For the first two weeks after he'd returned from the Middle East, Nick Santori genuinely didn't mind the way his family fussed over him. There were big welcome home barbecues in the tiny backyard of the row house where he'd been raised. There were even bigger dinners at the family-owned pizzeria that had been his second home growing up.
He'd been dragged to family weddings by his mother and into the kitchen of the restaurant by his father. He'd had wet, sticky babies plopped in his lap by his sisters-in-law, and had been plied with beer by his brothers, who wanted details on everything he'd seen and done overseas. And he'd had rounds of drinks raised in his honor by near-strangers who, having suitably praised him as a patriot, wanted to go further and argue the politics of the whole mess.
That was where he drew the line. He didn't want to talk about it. After twelve years in the Corps, several of them on active duty in Iraq, he'd had enough. He didn't want to relive battles or wounds or glory days with even his brothers and he sure as hell wouldn't justify his choice to join the military to people he'd never even met.
At age eighteen, fresh out of high school with no interest in college and even less in the family business, entering the Marines had seemed like a kick-ass way to spend a few years.
What a dumb punk he'd been. Stupid. Unprepared. Green.
He'd quickly learned and he'd grown up. And while he didn't regret the years he'd spent serving his country, he sometimes wished he could go back in time to smack that eighteen year old around and wake him up to the realities he'd be facing.
Realities like this one: coming home to a world he didn't recognize. To a family that had long since moved on without him.
"So you hanging in?" asked his twin, Mark, who sat across from him in a booth nursing a beer. His brothers had all gotten into the habit of stopping by the family-owned restaurant after work a few times a week.
"I'm doing okay."
"Feeling that marinara running through your veins again?" Nick chuckled. "Do you think Pop has ever even realized there's any other kind of food?"
Mark shook his head. Reaching into a basket, he helped himself to a breadstick. "Do you think Mama has ever even tried to cook him any?"
"Good point." Their parents were well matched in their certainty that any food other than Italian was unfit to eat.
"Is she still griping because you wouldn't move back home?"
Nodding, Nick grabbed a breadstick of his own. For all his grumbling, he wouldn't trade his Pop's cooking for anything especially not the never-ending MRE's he'd had to endure in the military. "She seems to think I'd be happy living in our old room with the Demi Moore Indecent Proposal poster on the wall. It's like walking into a frigging time warp."
"You always did prefer G.I. Jane."
Nick just sighed. Mark seldom took anything seriously. In that respect, he hadn't changed. But everything else sure had.
During the years he'd been gone, the infrequent visits home hadn't allowed Nick to mentally keep up with his loved ones. In his mind, when he'd lain on a cot wondering if there would ever come a day when sand wouldn't infiltrate every surface of his clothes again, the Santoris were the same big, loud bunch he'd grown up with: two hard-working parents and a brood of kids.
They weren't kids anymore, though. And Mama and Pop had slowed down greatly over the years. His father had turned over the day-to-day management of Santori's to Nick's oldest brother, Tony, and stayed in the kitchen drinking chianti and cooking.
One of his brothers was a prosecutor. Another a successful contractor. Their only sister was a newlywed. And, most shocking of all to Nick, Mark, his twin, was about to become a father.
Married, domesticated and reproducing that described the happy lives of the five other Santori kids. And every single one of them seemed to think he should do exactly the same thing.
Nick agreed with them. At least, he had agreed with them when living day-to-day in a place where nothing was guaranteed, not even his own life. It had seemed perfect. A dream he could strive for at the end of his service. Now it was within reach.
He just wasn't sure he still wanted it.
He didn't doubt his siblings were happy. Their conversations were full of banter and houses and SUVs and baby talk that they all seemed to love but Nick just didn't get.And wasn't sure he ever would despite how much he knew he should.
At least, he hoped he would. The fact that he was bored out of his mind helping out at Santori's and hadn't yet met a single appropriate woman who made his heart beat fastermuch less one he wanted to pick out baby names withwas merely a product of his own re-adjustment to civilian life. He'd come around. Soon. No doubt about it.
As long as he avoided going after the one woman he'd seen recently who not only made his heart beat fast but had also given him a near-sexual experience from across a crowded room. Because she was in no way appropriate. She was a stripper. One he'd be working with very soon now that he'd agreed to take a job doing security at a club called Leather and Lace.
Forcibly thrusting the vision of the sultry dancer out of his brain, he focused on the type of normal woman he'd someday meet who might inspire a similar reaction.
He'd have help locating her. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to find the "perfect" woman and they all just happened to know her. The next one of his sisters-in-law who asked him to come over for dinner and coincidentally asked her single best friend to come, too, would be staring at Nick's empty chair.
"Do you know how glad I am that your wife's knocked up?"
"Yeah, me too," Mark replied, wearing the same sappy look he'd had on his face since he'd started telling everyone Noelle was expecting. "But do I want to know why you're so happy?"
"Because it means she doesn't have time to try to set me up with her latest single friend/hair stylist/next-door-neighbor or just the next breathing woman who walks by."
Mark had the audacity to grin. "It's not funny."
"Yeah, it is. I've seen the ones they've thrown at you."
"You seen me throw them back, too, then."
Nodding, Mark sipped his beer. "Doesn't matter if she's a blonde, brunette, redhead or bald. Any single woman with a pulse gets shoved at me."
"And Catholic," Mark pointed out.
"Mama's picks, yeah. But none of them are my type." Deadpan, his brother asked, "Women?"
"F-you," he replied. "I mean, I do have a few preferences."
"Beyond that," Nick snapped.
Mark relented. "Okay, I'm kidding. What do you want?" That was the question of the hour, wasn't it? Nick had no idea what he wanted. It was supposed to be someone who'd make him want this. This sedate, small-town-in-a-big-city lifestyle.
"I don't know if I'm cut out for what all of you have." When Mark's brow rose, Nick added, "I wasn't criticizing. You all seem happy. The couples in this family don't seem as "
"Thanks," his brother replied dryly.
"No offense. But you're all the exception, not the rule." Mark murmured, "That's a lot of exceptions."
It was. Which meant Nick was out of luck. How many great, happy marriages could one family contain?
But damned if he wasn't going to give it a try. He'd been telling himself for the last three years of his active enlistment that once he was freeonce he was homehe was going to have the kind of life the rest of his family had. The dreams of that normal, happy lifestyle had sustained him through some of the wickedest fighting he'd ever seen. He would not give them up now. Not even if they suddenly seemed a little sedate.
"Face it, they won't rest until you're 'settled down."
"Like you?" he asked, raising a brow. His twin was a hardass Chicago detective who could hardly be described as
"settled down." The man was as tough as they came, despite his occasionally goofy sense of humor.
"Yeah. Like me."
Nick rolled his eyes. "You are in no way settled down." He glanced at the cuts on his twin's knuckles.
Mark smiled, a twinkle in his eyes. "Guy resisted."
"Does Noelle know?"
The smile faded. "No, and if you tell her I'll pound you."
"I'd like to see you try."
Leaning back in the booth and crossing his arms across his chest, Mark nodded. "I guess you might be able to hold your own now that the Marines toughened you up and filled you out."
It had long been a friendly argument between them that Nick had inherited their mother's lean, tall build like Luke and Joe. Mark and Tony resembled their barrel-chested father. But after many tough, physical years in the military, Nick was on." come down to the station and talk to my lieutenant?"
"Not interested in your job, bro. I've had enough of rules and regulations for a while." They'd talked about the possibility a few times since Nick had returned home, but he wasn't about to relent on that issue. He'd done his time on the battlefields of Iraq, he didn't want to add to them in Chicago.
"Yeah, okay," Mark said, glancing around the crowded restaurant. "I can see why this is so much more up your alley."
Nick followed his glance and smothered a sigh. Because Mark was right. Helping at the pizzeria was no problem in the short term, heck he'd helped run the place when he was in high school, putting in more time than any of his siblings. But did he really want to become a partner in the business with his brother Tony, as he used to talk about and as the family was hoping?
Seemed impossible. But Mark was the only one who would understand that. "I'm getting into protection," he admitted.
"You gonna mass-produce rubbers?" Mark sounded completely innocent, though his eyes sparkled with his usual good humor.
"I can't wait to tell your kid what a juvenile delinquent you were. Like when you put the Playboy magazine in Father Michael's desk drawer in sixth grade."
"Believe me, my kid will know Dad's on the job from the time he's old enough to even think about swiping candy bars. Now, what's with this protection business?"
"No kidding?" Mark said, sounding surprised.
"Joe did some renovation work on a nightclub uptown and got friendly with the owner. Turns out they need extra security, so he set up a meeting. I went in Sunday night to talk to them."
"Bet Meg loved big brother Joe working in a nightclub." Like the rest, their older brother Joe was happily married. Nick knew he'd never even look at another woman. watching the erotic performance by a dancer called the Crimson Rose. The sultry stranger had inhabited his dreams and more than a few of his fantasies ever since he'd seen her somehow, so above it all. He imagined men with less control might try to do more than fantasize about the woman.
"The performers attract a lot of unwanted attention," he said, not wanting to get into details. Not because he was embarrassed about his job, but because he didn't want to start talking about the rose-draped dancer and her effect on him.
Nick didn't need that kind of distraction in his life. A hot stripper definitely did not fit in with the nice Santori lifestyle he kept telling himself he wanted. Not one bit. Which meant working with her was going to be a trick.
But he'd handled bigger challenges. Besides, meeting hertalking to herwould take the bloom off that rose. Intense fantasies were meant for women who were untouchable, mysterious, unknown. It was, he'd come to believe while living in the Middle East, part of the allure of veiled women living in that culture. The unknown always built high expectations.
The Crimson Rose soon would not be an unknown. He'd see the face that had been hidden behind the mask and her secrets would be revealed. Which would make her much less intriguing.
Wanting his mind off her until it had to be when he started work, he changed the subject. "This place is hopping."
"So why aren't you out there taking orders from women who'd like to order a side of you with their thick crust?"
"Even the help gets an occasional night off."
He cast a bored glance around the room. A line of patrons stood near the counter, waiting for carry-out orders. Every table was full. Waitresses buzzed around in constant motion, all of them overseen by Mama. Nothing caught his attention until he spotted her. And then he couldn't look away.
She stopped his heart, the way the dancer had, though the women couldn't be more dissimilar.
The stranger stood near the door, leaning against the wall. Looking at no one, her eyes remained focused on some spot outside the windows. Her posture spoke of weary disinterest, as if she'd zoned out on the chattering of customers all around her. She was separate, alone, lost in her own world of thought.
Not fitting in.
That, as much as her appearance, kept Nick's attention focused directly on her. Because he, too, knew what it was like to not fit in among this loud world of family and friends and neighbors who'd known one another for years.
She was solitary, self-contained, which interested him.
And her looks simply stole his breath.
From where he sat, he had a perfect view of her profile. Her thick, dark brown hair hung from a haphazard ponytail, emphasizing her high cheekbones and delicate jaw. Her face appeared soft, her skin creamy and smooth. Though her lips were parted, she didn't appear to be smiling. He suspected she was sighing from her open mouth every once in a while, though out of unhappiness or of boredom, he couldn't say.
Dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, she also wore a large baker's type apron over her clothes. That made it impossible to check out her figure. But judging by the length of those legs, shrunk-wrapped in tight, faded denim, he imagined it was spectacular. With a lightweight backpack slung over one shoulder, she looked like she'd stopped off to grab a pizza on her way home from work, like everyone else in line.
Only, she was so incredibly sexy in her aloof indifference, she didn't look like any other person in line.
Across from him, Mark said something, but Nick paid no attention. He continued to stare, wishing she'd turn toward him so he could make out the color of her eyes. Finally, as though she'd read his mental order, the brunette shifted, tilted her head in a delicate stretch that emphasized her slender neck, and turned. Sweeping a lazy gaze across the room, she breathed a nearly audible sigh that confirmed she was bored.
Then her eyes met his and there they stopped.