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Authors: Alexis Morgan

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BOOK: Always Be True
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Natalie tilted her head a little to one side and studied him. “So we're going to have a relationship?”

“That depends.” He indulged himself with another bite of pie and the fun of leaving her hanging a little longer.

“On what?”

“On whether or not you want to go to dinner and a movie with me. Say, next Friday night.”

This time it was Natalie who used her friend's dessert to buy herself a little time. Finally, she nodded. “I've already got another…obligation for Friday. But if you can make it Thursday night instead, you've got a deal.”

Did that obligation involve another man? It wasn't as if he had any right to ask. “That works for me. Any preference where we go?”

Natalie's blue eyes glittered, and her dimples played peek-a-boo as she finished the last bite of her pie. “Surprise me.”

A soldier, even an ex-soldier, knew what to do when given a mission. He considered the lay of the land, the objective to be achieved, the weapons he could bring to bear, and finally, the opponent he planned to engage. Oh, yeah, this was going to be fun.

“A surprise it is, then. I'll pick you up at seven.”

Chapter 2

After finishing the drywall, Tino had hung around to install shelving in a storeroom off the gym. On the way out to his car, he'd stopped to watch a few kids from the neighborhood shoot hoops outside of the center. He couldn't help but notice that the pole supporting the basket listed to the right and the net hung in tatters, even if neither of those things detracted from the intense competition between the rival teams. When the ball bounced off the backboard and came flying his way, he caught it with one hand, then made the shot from the sideline.

A couple of the players applauded while the ones on the other team made sure everyone knew the points didn't count. The good-natured bickering left Tino grinning as he walked away. How many times over the years had he and his brothers squabbled over the rules like that? Too many to count. Then there had been all those pickup games on military bases scattered all over the world. Maybe the next time he got together with Jack and Ricky, he would see if they were up for a game.

When he got home, he was ready for a hot shower and a quick meal to restore his energy. It had been a productive day, but he was looking forward to some downtime.

His mother stepped out onto the front porch just as he got out of his car. “I didn't expect you home so early. I thought you were going over to Jack's for dinner.”

“There was a change in plans.” He popped the trunk to retrieve his toolbox. “The work at the community center took longer than I expected. I called Jack and let him know that I wouldn't make it.”

“Sounds like they kept you plenty busy.”

“They did.” And because he knew his mother would be curious, he added, “They had me patching walls and putting up a bunch of shelves. I'm glad I brought more than just a hammer and a couple of screwdrivers with me.”

She looked pleased. “Have you eaten?”

“Not since lunch. I thought I'd take a quick shower and then scrounge up something.”

Not that there was much to eat in the three-car garage he now called home. His late father had turned it into an apartment for Tino and his two brothers back when they were seventeen years old. After graduating from high school, all three of them had enlisted in the military and used the annex as a place to crash whenever they came home on leave. It wasn't fancy, but it would do until he figured out what he wanted to do next.

“You go get cleaned up and then come back over to the house. I'm sure I can put together a better meal for you than what you've planned. A bowl of cold cereal isn't enough after the day you put in.”

She knew him so well. “Thanks, Mom. Give me about twenty minutes.”

“No rush. I'll keep it hot for you.”

—

Tino ended up eating out on the back patio, taking advantage of the last bit of daylight. His mom came out to keep him company. As far as he could tell, she was adjusting to her new life as a widow as well as could be expected, but she got lonely rattling around in the house by herself. It was one reason he'd decided to move back into the annex rather than getting an apartment somewhere close by. Jack had done the same thing when he'd come home to take over the family business.

“So, do you think you'll go back again next weekend?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Probably. God knows they could use the help, especially someone who knows how to swing a hammer. A lot will depend on how much Jack needs me on the project he's starting on Monday, that one where we're finishing the client's daylight basement. Evidently the guy started the work himself but needs us to pick up where he left off. We're hoping to be done on Friday, but it could run over into Saturday. Regardless, Jack promised the homeowners that it would be done by next weekend. Apparently they've got company coming into town and will need us out from underfoot.”

His mother had something on her mind. Marlene had never been one to pull her punches. “I know Jack appreciates your help. Have you given any more thought to working full-time for the company? It's as much yours as it is his.”

Tino owed her the respect of at least considering the idea. When her husband, Joe—Tino's adoptive father—died, he'd left the family business equally to his three sons. Jack had been the only one in a position to take over at the time, and he now had a wife and son to support. Neither Tino nor their younger brother, Mikhail, had made any claims on the net income the business generated. For now, whenever Tino helped out on a job, Jack paid him by the hour. The same went for the few hours a week he spent doing the books for the company. Tino wouldn't have taken even that much if his brother hadn't insisted.

Tino and Marlene both knew that it wasn't enough to keep him busy or to give his new life as a civilian any real purpose.

She gave him one of those looks that made it clear she could see right through to the heart of him. “Jack has more work than he can do on his own now. If you don't step up to work full-time, he'll need to hire someone.”

Again, something Tino already knew. Eventually he might want that, but right now he was happy to simply drift, taking each day as it came. The few occasions when he helped Jack or did the billing only filled his hours with busywork, but it was nothing he could envision doing for the rest of his life.

When he didn't respond, his mother looked a bit worried—or maybe exasperated. “Well, it's something to think about.”

“I will.”

Maybe, but more likely not.

At least she changed the subject. “What did you think of the people you met today?”

Now that was an interesting question. “They were all friendly and glad to have someone who could be assigned a job and left to his own devices to get it done. They even provided lunch for all the volunteers.”

“Does it seem like the people in charge of the project know what they're doing?”

A tougher question to answer. “I met the project manager. I don't know how much experience she has, but it's obvious all the workers really like her.”

Including him, but that wasn't because of her organizational skills. “For sure, she doesn't hesitate to get right in there and work with everyone else.”

The memory of Natalie biting that sexy lower lip as she guided his saw along the lines he'd drawn had him smiling. Depending on how their date went on Thursday, maybe Saturday he'd let her try out his cordless drill.

His mother jarred him out of his happy daydream. “You didn't mention her name.”

No, he hadn't, but there was no reason to keep it a secret, even if he didn't tell his mom that he already had a date with her. “Natalie Kennigan.”

The look on his mother's face had Tino sitting up straighter. “What? Does that name mean something to you? Have you met her?”

Because he did not want to be dating one of his mother's many acquaintances. She was very active in her church's outreach programs and had become friends with people of all different ages in the process.

“I've never met her in person, but the local high school got a big technology grant from the same foundation. From what I've read in the paper, Natalie Kennigan is more than a project manager for the Waines Foundation. She took over running the whole thing when Cyrus Waines retired. He's her grandfather.”

Tino's good mood disappeared. Suddenly, that obligation Natalie mentioned took on a whole different meaning in his mind. No doubt it was some fancy shindig and involved hanging out with a bunch of people who made more in a year than he had in his entire military career. What was she doing accepting a date with the likes of him? And where the hell was he going to take her that wouldn't feel like slumming for her? Maybe he should come up with an excuse to cancel, but that would be taking the coward's way out.

“Is something wrong?”

He managed a reassuring smile. “No, everything is fine. I'm just trying to get my head around the idea that the woman I met has that kind of clout.”

“Why? What was she like?”

“She was right in the thick of things all day. She helped paint the walls in the gym, served pizza at lunch, and even helped with the cleanup when it was time for everyone to call it a day. No one seemed surprised by what she was doing, so it wasn't like one of those photo ops you hear so much about.”

“Well, that's nice to hear. Too many people think they can fix things just by throwing money at it. It takes boots on the ground to get the job done and have it mean anything.”

Tino realized that it had gotten dark while they were talking. “I hate to desert you, Mom, but it's been a long day. I'm going to hit the gym and then turn in.”

“I'll probably already be at church when you get up in the morning. Will you be around to eat dinner with me? I could cook a roast with all the fixings.”

“I would never turn down one of your dinners.” He stood up and stretched. “But if you don't feel like cooking, I'd be happy to take my best girl out to eat. You can even pick the restaurant.”

Marlene gave him a quick hug. “I don't mind cooking, but I wouldn't mind trying that new barbecue restaurant your brother is always going on about.”

“Then it's a date. Maybe I should call Jack and see if he, Caitlyn, and the kid want to meet us there.”

“That would be nice. It's been awhile since we've all gotten together.”

“I'll let you know what he says.”

“Sounds good.” She opened the back door but then turned back. “And for the record, son, I don't mind being your date at a family dinner, but maybe you should be looking for a nice woman your own age to fill that role in your life.”

“Yes, Mother, I'll get right on that.”

He managed not to roll his eyes, but just barely. She'd been saying the same thing to him and his brothers since they were all in their early twenties. Now that Jack was happily married, she'd stepped up her efforts on Tino and Mikhail.

She knew him well enough to know that he hadn't really meant he'd start looking. “I'm serious, Tino. All Joe and I ever wanted was for all three of our boys to be happy.”

“I know that, Mom, but right now I have enough on my plate without trying to have a serious relationship with someone.”

He ignored the image of Natalie's bright smile that flashed through his mind.

“As far as I can tell, you don't have anything on your plate these days.” Marlene held up her hand to cut off his protest. “I know it takes awhile to adjust to civilian life after nearly ten years in the army, but it's not like you to not have a plan in mind for what comes next. I'll support whatever decision you make, but I hate seeing you floundering like this.”

Tino's temper slipped loose. “I've only been home a few weeks, Mom. Before that, I spent most of my time serving in hell, so why don't you cut me some slack?”

He stalked off into the darkness before he said something else he'd regret. At least he didn't slam the door behind him as he took refuge in the annex. Maybe that workout he'd mentioned would take the edge off. For sure, it was tempting to chuck a few of the weights against the wall, but they'd only just repaired the damage his older brother had caused doing that exact thing.

After a few reps, he dropped the free weights back down on the rack and dug his cellphone out of his pocket. It would probably mean more if he apologized to his mother in person or at least with an actual phone call. Instead, he sent her a text that was short, if not sweet.
Sorry. I'm an idiot. I love you.

His phone pinged within seconds. It was a testament to how well his mother knew him that she'd been waiting for his message. Her response had him smiling.
I love you, too. And BTW, nobody gets to call my son an idiot, not even him.

He grinned. No one had ever defended him or his brothers more fiercely than she did.
Message received. Good night, Mom.

Feeling better, he wrapped his hands and started punching the heavy bag as he lost himself in the familiar rhythm. He'd keep pounding until he'd burned up the last bit of his energy and all of his frustration. Tomorrow would be soon enough to decide what to do about Natalie Kennigan and those irresistible dimples of hers.

—

Natalie set her dinner of fruit, cheese, and crackers within easy reach and checked the temperature of the water before climbing into the tub. Perfect. Exactly the right amount of heat to soothe her aching muscles, especially when she turned on the jets to set the water swirling around her. After tossing in a double handful of her favorite bath salts, she leaned back against the curved edge and closed her eyes.

It had been a long day, but a good one. They'd made a lot more progress at the site than she'd expected. The sign-up sheet for next Saturday was pretty close to full, so she wouldn't have to spend time during the week trying to drum up more volunteers. Tino's name hadn't been on the list, but she hadn't wanted to push too hard. It could be that he already had plans for that day.

Maybe she shouldn't have been so quick to accept his invitation to dinner and a movie, but she didn't regret her decision. She loved her work at the foundation but needed something more in her life. Something fun. No, make that
someone
fun in her life.

She couldn't remember when she'd laughed as much as she had with Tino Gianelli, especially considering how little time she'd actually spent in his company. Those killer brown eyes of his didn't hurt either. He wore his dark hair on the short side, probably a habit left over from his time in the military. Even so, there was just a hint of wave in it. Nothing like her own corkscrew curls, though.

He was taller than most of the guys she'd dated, not that she had anything against tall men, per se. But at half an inch over five feet tall, she got tired of looking up at everyone. All things considered, she was willing to make an exception in Tino's case. There was just something about him she liked. Maybe it was the way he hadn't treated her like an empty-headed piece of arm candy like her ex-fiancé had sometimes done. Of course, she'd have to see if that was true when they were out on an actual date instead of a few stolen moments in the midst of a work party.

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