Authors: Alexis Morgan
Always Be True: Tino
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Patricia L. Pritchard
Love, Always and Forever: Mikhail
by Alexis Morgan copyright Â© 2016 by Patricia L. Pritchard
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Love, Always and Forever: Mikhail
by Alexis Morgan. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Carrie Divine/Seductive Designs
Cover photograph: Â© Stefano Cavoretto/Shutterstock
“Wait for itâ¦”
Tino Gianelli mumbled the words under his breath as he stood poised and ready to leap into action should it become necessary. Even money said that would be any second now. The petite blonde had caught his attention right after he'd arrived two hours ago. He didn't know who she was, but he did know the woman possessed way more energy than any one person ought to have. She was here, there, and everywhere. And right now, she was too busy talking to one of the other volunteers to realize she was about to back into an open five-gallon bucket of paint.
Sure enough, as soon as she finished answering one question, someone else called out to her from the other side of the gym. When she turned to reply, only Tino's quick reflexes and superior strength saved the day. He picked her up by the waist and hauled her to safety a few feet away before setting her back down. As soon as he was sure she wouldn't fall, he reluctantly released his hold on her.
Wow, she was even shorter than he'd thought. At a shade under six one himself, he had at least eleven inches over her in height, maybe closer to twelve. He pointed toward the bucket. “Sorry if I startled you, but you were inches from disaster.”
At least she didn't immediately rip into him for manhandling her with no warning. Instead, she stared down at the bright orange plastic bucket he was pointing to and then back up at him. Her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth instantly lit with a bright smile framed by a killer set of dimples. “Well, that would've been embarrassing, not to mention a waste of good paint. Thanks for swooping in to save the dayâand me.”
He grinned down at her. “You're welcome.”
She held out her hand. “I'm Natalie Kennigan, project coordinator.”
He liked her firm grip on his hand, but he liked her happy laugh even more. Evidently Tino wasn't the only one who felt that way, because several others in the area paused what they were doing long enough to glance in their direction. Ignoring them, he kept his entire focus on Natalie. It had been a long time since he'd been around an attractive woman who radiated such warmth, and he couldn't help but soak up as much as he could.
“Tino Gianelli, volunteer and part-time hero.”
She acknowledged his introduction with another quick smile. “This must be your first time volunteering here, Mr. Gianelli. I would've remembered if we'd met before.”
Yeah, well, she was pretty damn unforgettable herself, but he kept that fact to himself. “Yes, it's my first time here, and please call me Tino.”
“How did you hear about our project?”
Tino looked around the gym. “My mother saw an article in the paper and mentioned it. I had some time on my hands and thought I might be able to help.”
That was mostly true. He'd left the military a few weeks back and had yet to decide what to do next. Evidently he'd been underfoot a bit too much at home, because as soon as his mother read about the project needing volunteers with experience in the building trades, she'd shoved the paper under his nose. After tapping on the article with her forefinger, she'd informed him that if he wasn't going to get a steady job or go to school, he could at least make himself useful to somebody. He resented the implication that he was no longer pulling his weight. While he didn't actually mind doing a little physical labor, he'd spent the past ten years serving their country. Wasn't that enough? Obviously not.
Natalie was too busy studying the newly patched holes in the wall to notice the downturn in his mood. She ran her fingers along the tape he'd just applied to cover up the seams in the drywall. “Well, we appreciate all the help we can get. Especially when said help knows what he's doing. I'm guessing that's not the first repair like this you've done.”
That was true enough, even if he'd spent most of the last decade with a rifle in his hand instead of a trowel. She didn't need to hear about that, though.
“Patching drywall is just one of my many talents. I'm also a fair hand at carpentry, simple plumbing, and electrical repairs, not to mention painting.” He reached out to touch the damp smear of soft green color on her cheek with his fingertip and held it up for her to see. “You look good in this color, but I suspect you meant for this to end up on the wall.”
Her fair complexion flushed rosy pink, but her smile didn't fade in the least as she accepted the rag he pulled out of his hip pocket. As she scrubbed at her cheek, she told him, “It has been mentioned that what I lack in skill I make up for with enthusiasm, which is why they keep me away from the power tools. The details about why that is are truly tragic, so please don't ask.”
He held up his hands as a promise not to pry. “I'll just have to let my imagination run wild then. For what it's worth, right now I'm picturing a battle between you and a wall. It involves jackhammers and chain saws.”
Her laughter rang out again. “Close enough. All I can say is that it was epic.”
Then she gave his toolbox a glance that could only be described as envious. “Are all those toys yours? Looks like you came prepared for anything.”
For anything except meeting someone like her. “I wasn't sure what kind of work I'd be doing, and I'd rather use my own tools.”
“I'm glad you came prepared. God knows, there are all kinds of jobs around here that need doing. Enough to keep an army of volunteers busy for months.” She glanced around the gym, maybe checking on the progress being made. “Speaking of which, I'd better get back to work myself.”
Tino should've let her walk away. He had his own assigned task to finish, but he couldn't resist spending a few more minutes in her company. “I was about to cut out some more damaged drywall. Want to try out my reciprocating saw?”
Her blue eyes lit up with interest. “Are you sure?”
“Why not? I've already marked off the section that needs to come out. All you need to do is cut along the lines. And if things go off the rails a bit, I can always make the patch a little bigger to hide the evidence.”
For a second, he thought she might hug him before she finally said, “I promise to be careful.”
He put on his safety glasses and dug a second pair out of the toolbox. “Here, put these on.”
After giving her a quick tutorial on how the saw worked, he positioned Natalie in front of the damaged area. When she had the tip of the saw aimed at the right spot, he stood directly behind her, ready to coach as necessary. For both their sakes, he needed to concentrate on the job at hand, but he remained all too aware of the sexy woman standing right in front of him. It wouldn't pay to get distracted by the faint scent of her perfume or the halo of wild curls that had escaped from one of those scrunchie things meant to hold her hair back.
“Okay, Natalie, let her rip.”
She hit the On button and jumped a bit when the saw tore into the drywall. He steadied her arms with his hands, but then left it up to her to continue on her own. All in all, she did a pretty credible job, taking her time and biting her lower lip as she guided the blade along the lines he'd marked.
After finishing the last cut, Natalie turned off the saw and stepped back from the wall to critique her work. “It's a little crooked.”
He brushed away some of the dust. “Not enough to matter. You did a fine job, especially for your first time with a power saw. Besides, no one will be able to tell once it's taped and mudded.”
His words clearly pleased her as she surrendered the saw and safety glasses to him. “Thanks for letting me do that, Tino. I'd hang around to help with the patch, but it's almost eleven thirty, and everyone stops to eat lunch at noon. I'm supposed to help serve today, so I'd better go get cleaned up.”
Then she frowned. “You will join us for lunch, won't you?”
Actually, he'd planned on finishing this last patch before heading over to his brother's place. However, eating lunch with a bunch of strangers suddenly sounded a whole lot better than drinking beer and watching a ballgame with Jack.
“Sure, I can stay.”
“Great! I hope you like pizza and salad.” Natalie picked up a small backpack and took off across the gym at her usual speed. Halfway across the room, she stopped and turned back to face him. “If there's room, save me a spot at your table.”
Okay, then. So maybe this whole attraction thing wasn't a one-way street. “I will. See you then.”
She shot him another one of her bright smiles and disappeared through a door on the other side of the room.
Natalie forced herself to cross the rest of the gym without looking back a second time, even though she dearly wanted to know if Tino Gianelli was watching as she walked away. She suspectedâ¦no, she
He was the first interestingânot to mention attractiveâman she'd met since ending her engagement to Benton Humboldt. She liked Tino's dark, wavy hair and teasing eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate. It probably wouldn't amount to anything, but a girl could always hope. Besides, flirting with a handsome man over pizza and Caesar salad was a harmless way to dip her toes back in the dating pool again.
“Hey, Miss Natalie, how's it going?”
She smiled at Clarence, the janitor who kept things running here at the center. Despite spending more than forty hours there during the week, he showed up every Saturday to help with the ongoing effort to restore the building to its former glory. She looped her arm through his. “We should get at least half of the gym painted today. One of the new volunteers has almost finished repairing the last two walls. I'm hoping to convince him to come back again. He seems to really know what he's doing.”
“That's good, girl. You're going to have this place shining soon.”
“I hope so. I know having all our stuff underfoot makes your job harder.”
He smiled. “Now, you don't go worrying about that. I don't mind one bit, and it's only temporary, anyway.”
That was true, but it seemed to take forever to make any real progress. She had to remind herself that the faded paint and outdated furnishings were slowly disappearing.
“There's so much more we could be doing for the people in this area once we get the building back up to code and the new computer lab finished.”
Clarence patted her arm. “I love the way you look at this old gal and see all the possibilities. Most people only saw how run-down she'd gotten and wanted to tear her down to bring in a bunch of fancy stores or something else just as useless. Folks around here need a place to gather. You know, to come together as a community. Outsiders don't understand that and should just stay out of our business.”
He wasn't saying anything he hadn't told her half a dozen times before. Once again, Natalie didn't point out that she had been an outsider the first time she'd visited the building or that it was outsider money pulling his beloved community center back from the brink. Besides, she agreed with him. The people who lived in the immediate area should have the biggest say in how things got done.
They were about to pass the door to the ladies' room. “I'd better stop in here and clean up a bit before I serve lunch. I'll save you a couple of those brownies you like so much.”
“You spoil me, missy.” He smiled down at her and winked. “Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Let me know if you need me to set up any more tables or anything.”
She headed into the restroom. One look in the mirror had her wanting to bang her head on the wall. “Well, aren't you just lovely?”
Not only did she still have the remnants of the paint streak smeared across her cheek, but her hair was an unruly mess. She looked as if she'd just rolled out of bed and hadn't even bothered to brush her hair before leaving home. Sigh. And here she thought Tino's smile had been flirtatious. Now she suspected he'd been having a hard time holding back his laughter. All things considered, she couldn't even bring herself to blame him.
After soaking a paper towel with water and soap, she scrubbed the rest of the paint off her face. It was tempting to put on a bit of makeup, but she settled for just a touch of lipstick. Next, she tackled her hair, dragging a brush through it before quickly braiding it. As usual, a few strands still escaped to frame her face with soft curls. She'd spent years trying without success to tame her hair. It was as good as it was going to get.
Regardless, she had better things to do than primp in front of a mirror all day. It was almost time to serve lunch. They had plenty of volunteers to help with that task, so it wasn't imperative that she show up. However, passing out pizza was the one chance she had to personally thank everyone who had shown up to help today. The foundation might be footing the bill for the project, but the volunteers made it happen. She liked letting each of them know that their efforts were appreciated.
She headed down the hall and grabbed an apron. The kitchen was already bustling with activity. She automatically sought out Rosalie Earle in the crowd. The older woman ran the kitchen like a benevolent drill sergeant, marshaling her forces to operate with amazing efficiency. The kitchen had been one of the first areas to be renovated in the building. Instead of the bunch of mismatched appliances that had been hopelessly out of date, the place was now filled with gleaming stainless steel counters and a commercial-grade refrigerator, cooktop, and dishwasher. She was rather proud of what they'd accomplished in what would be the heart of the community center.
She wove her way through the others in the kitchen to reach Rosalie. “I'm here. Put me to work.”
Rosalie held up a finger to acknowledge that she'd heard her. Natalie hadn't realized she was talking on the phone and stepped back to afford the other woman some privacy. A few seconds later, Rosalie ended her call.
“Sorry about that, but I've been reaching out to other restaurants in the area where we might be able to order food for future work parties. I think it's important to spread our purchases around the neighborhood.”