Authors: Alexis Morgan
“So, Granddaughter, what are you spending my money on now?” He turned his chair to face her a little more directly. “I trust you aren't wasting it on any of those talentless artists your mother is so fond of these days.”
Natalie waited to answer until she was settled into the chair on the other side of the glass-topped table. “Sorry, Grandpa, but I might be. Friday, we're all going to the opening night at a gallery that's displaying the work of her latest find. Mom specifically told me to bring the checkbook.”
Cyrus pointed a knobby finger at her. “Don't let her bully you into buying a damn thing unless you actually like the paintings.”
They'd had similar conversations in the past. “I won't, but we both know Mom does have a real eye for up-and-coming talent. She thinks I might like this person's work for my own home. Who knows? I could end up spending my money instead of yours.”
That didn't make him much happier, but a lot of his grumpiness was for show. He might make a lot of noise when it came to his daughter's interest in the arts, but he'd also spent a great deal of money over the years supporting her efforts.
He frowned even more. “If you think the paintings are a good investment, you can buy me one, too. I'm sure I can find a spot on a wall in some dark corner to hang it.”
She didn't bother to hide her smile. “I will.”
Esther arrived with the tea and scones. She set a cup and saucer beside each of them along with a small glass of water for Cyrus. “Here you go. And, Boss Man, I put your pills on your plate. Don't forget to take them.”
Cyrus gave his housekeeper a dark look. “Stop bossing me around. You might recall that I pay your salary.”
Natalie laughed when Esther shot back, “And bossing you around is how I earn it. Holler if you need anything else.”
After she disappeared back into the house, Cyrus shook his head. “Some days I don't know why I put up with that woman. She always has to have the last word.”
“You do it because she's one of the few people in your life who doesn't take any guff from you. If Esther were the type you could walk all over, you would've fired her years ago.”
He didn't bother to deny it. “While we're on the subject, as trustee of my estate, you should know that I've provided for her. Stubborn woman refused the last raise I tried to give her. She told me to add whatever extra I was going to pay her to your budget at the foundation. How crazy is that?”
His tone belied his words. After glancing over his shoulder to make sure Esther wasn't anywhere within hearing, he gave Natalie a wicked grin. “I've been setting aside money in a special investment account where she's the named beneficiary since the day I hired her. It has done quite well over the years.”
No surprise there. Cyrus Waines had a real gift for making money. He'd come from nothing and was now one of the wealthiest men on the West Coast, which was saying something.
“Yep, the day I die, Esther will become a multimillionaire. My only regret is that I won't be around to see how much that will piss her off.” His smile faded a bit. “Natalie, I know her. She'll want to give most of it away or something else equally foolish. You won't be able to stop her completely, but keep an eye on her for me.”
His blunt talk about dying always stabbed Natalie right in the heart, but he'd never been one to dance around the edges of tough subjects. “She's family, Grandpa. I'll make sure she's taken care of.”
“That's my girl. Now, let's have some of the tea before it gets cold.”
For the next few minutes, the two of them soaked up some sun as they devoured the scones. They were delicious, but that came as no surprise. Baking was another of Esther's many talents. When they'd finished off the last crumb, her grandfather poured them each some more tea. “So, young lady, how is the work coming along on the community center?”
“It's right on schedule. As long as the volunteers keep showing up regularly, we might even finish earlier than expected.”
Cyrus looked pleased. “That's good. It's always hard to predict how things will go when you're not paying people to do the work. Then there's the problem of getting volunteers who know what they're doing.”
She considered telling him about Tino but decided against it. She still didn't know if he'd show up again. Maybe she'd ask him when she saw him on Thursday.
“That smile on your face is kind of interesting. Makes me wonder what you're thinking about or if I should even ask.”
What the heck, why not share? “A new guy showed up to work on Saturday who definitely knew what he was doing. I'm hoping he'll keep coming back.”
There was no reason not to tell him the rest. “He showed me how to use one of those fancy reciprocating saws. I cut out some damaged drywall.”
Her grandfather's eyebrows shot up. “How did that go?”
“Just fine,” she said with no little pride. “Of course, all I had to do was follow the lines he'd drawn on the wall. Still, he said I did a good job.”
“Did he now?” Cyrus sipped his tea. “Does this brave man have a name?”
“He does.” Natalie hid a smile behind her teacup. When her grandfather glared at her for her non-answer, she added, “His name is Tino.”
She shook her finger at her grandfather. “Nope, I'm not going to tell you his full name. We both know you'll either start digging into his background yourself or pay someone to do it like you do every time I start seeing someone new.”
He'd done that with the men she'd dated in the past, and she hadn't appreciated it one bit. He'd claimed it was to make sure they weren't simply after her money, but it made her feel as if he didn't trust her judgment. On the other hand, maybe he was right to do so. After all, he'd been the only member of the family who hadn't approved of her engagement to Benton.
“Well, that's interesting.”
What was? Then she realized Cyrus was looking at her as if she'd just tossed him a special treat, his smile more than a little wolfish. Before she figured out what it was, he said, “I just asked what his name was. You're the one who brought up the subject of dating him.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. Yep, she might as well have painted a target on herselfâand maybe Tino, too. “Don't tell Mom, but Tino and I are going out for dinner and a movie on Thursday evening.”
“And you don't want your mother to know becauseâ¦?”
“You know how she can be, Grandpa, especially if she doesn't approve of my choice in men.”
His eyes narrowed. “What makes you think she won't approve of this fellow?”
“Because he isn't Benton.” Natalie let her disgust show. “She and Dad still think I'm making a mistake by not asking Benton to forgive me for breaking up with him. They think he'd be glad to take me back if I asked nicely enough. Yeah, like that's ever going to happen.”
“What is it about that guy that they like so much? I swear, I doze off about thirty seconds after he starts talking.” Her grandfather gave a rough laugh. “Actually, he doesn't talk. Benton pontificates.”
She shouldn't laugh, but she couldn't help herself. He was right about that. “Benton is nice enough, but he's just not the guy for me. For one thing, he doesn't understand why I'm putting all this effort and money into the community center. Our values don't mesh at all, and I wish my folks would accept that and let me move on with my life.”
“If they give you any grief about it, let me know. I'll straighten them out on the subject. But right now, I want to hear more about this Tino.” He held up a shaky hand. “And I'm not asking for his last name or anything that would let me do a background check on him. I'm just curious what you found so interesting about him. You're usually more cautious about hooking up with men.”
That last part startled another laugh out of her. “Hooking up with men? Where on earth did you learn that expression?”
He huffed at her. “I watch television. Call it whatever you want, Natalie, but you know I'm right. When was the last time you agreed to go out with a man you'd known less than twenty-four hours?”
Darn it, he was right. They both knew she didn't make impulsive decisions very often. “Would it make you happier if I went out with every guy I met?”
“Not at all. Like I said, I have to wonder what makes him so special.” Maybe Cyrus realized he was treading on a delicate subject, because he tried to lighten the conversation by adding, “Is he incredibly handsome like me?”
“No one is as handsome as you, Grandpa, but he comes close. Dark eyes, dark hair, and a nice smile. He's a bit too tall, though.” He'd still have several inches in height over her even if she wore her highest heels.
“All of that's superficial, little lady. We both know you're not that shallow.”
Again, he was right. “To start with, he brought his own tools to the community center and put in a full day's work. Can you even imagine Benton owning a hammer much less a reciprocating saw? The work we're doing there is important, not just to me, but to the surrounding area. Even knowing that, Benton has never spent a single hour there helping out. I know it's not his thing, but he could've made some effort.”
She pictured Tino in her mind as they'd shared pizza and pie. “But I think what really swayed me was that he listened when I talked. Really listened, you know, as if what I said really mattered to him. Rosalie liked him, too, and she's a tough one to fool for very long. In that way, she reminds me of you.”
“Now you're trying to butter me up.” Although he looked pleased with her assessment.
“So anyway, until I know if this relationship is going to go anywhere, I'd rather not involve the folks.”
Cyrus reached across the small table to pat her on the hand. “Which I'm guessing is why you didn't mention taking him to that art gallery thing on Friday.”
Natalie grinned at him. “Actually, when Mom tried to convince me to ask Benton to be my plus-one, I threatened to bring you instead. That shut her right up.”
His answering laugh was a bit wheezy, but he clearly enjoyed her tactics. “I bet it did. You do know I would have gone if you needed me to.”
“I know, but luckily Mom didn't realize I was bluffing. I would've caved before I asked you to dust off your tuxedo.”
“Thanks for that much.” He set his teacup aside. “I'll keep your secret, but I'll want a full report on how the date goes when I see you next week. If you find you really like this guy, I'll want to meet him. For now, I need to take a nap, and you've got better things to do than entertain an old man.”
She came around to his side of the table to give him a careful hug, hating how frail he felt. “I know you don't believe me, but our visits are always the high point of my week. I love you, Grandpa.”
“I love you, too, but you need to find a man your own age to fill that role in your life. I won't be around forever, and I'd like to see you settled and happy before I go.”
“I'll work on that.” She kissed his papery cheek. “I'll let Esther know you're ready to come inside. Be nice to her and scratch Digger's ears for me the next time he comes to visit.”
“That dog's a pain in the backside.”
“So are you, Grandpa, but that's why I like you so much.”
He was still laughing when she disappeared inside the house.
Tino checked the time and wanted to curse. If he didn't get moving, he was going to be late. “I'm out of here.”
As soon as he made a move toward the door, his brother and nephew jumped in front of him to block his way. When he attempted to slide past them, they matched him step for step until he gave up and stood his ground.
“What do you clowns want now?”
Jack crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head to the side as he gave Tino the once-over. “So, what do you think, Ricky? Is he pretty enough?”
The teenager circled around Tino, pausing long enough to brush some invisible piece of lint off the shoulder of his sports coat. “Considering what we had to work with, I say he looks as good as he's going to.”
The kid laughed and ducked out of reach before Tino could retaliate. This was what he got for letting it slip that he was a bit nervous about tonight's date. “Like I said, I'm out of here. You two can show yourselves out. Now.”
Jack planted those big feet of his and didn't move. “Ricky, wait outside for me. I need to have a talk with Tino. I'll be out in a minute.”
The teenager glared at his new dad. “Aw, come on, Jack. Why do I have to leave? Are you going to tell him to practice safe sex or something? It's not like I don't know about that stuff. Besides, I'm guessing Tino is smart enough to figure it out for himself.”
Tino choked back a laugh. “Thanks for that, kidâ¦I think.”
The really funny part was the fact that his brother looked as if he was about to have a stroke. Most parents got to watch their children grow from zygote to teenager gradually, which gave them time to get used to each new stage in a kid's life. Jack and his wife had skipped all those early steps by adopting a full-blown teenager, attitude and all, to start their family. All of them were crazy about Ricky; that didn't mean it was always easy to know the best way to deal with him.
Jack drew a deep breath, looking as if he was praying for patience. “Please go wait in the car, kid. I'll be out in a minute.”
Ricky gave in, but not without another parting shot. “Tino, whatever advice he gives you, take it with a grain of salt. The man has the social skills of a gorilla.”
Then he took off running and laughing like a hyena. Tino would've said he didn't envy Jack and the challenges he faced as a new husband and father, but that would've been a lie. “So whatever bullshit you have to say, make it quick. I really do need to get going.”
Jack's expression took on a hard edge as he stared at Tino, giving him a long look from head to toe and back up again. “I'm thinking the fact that Natalie comes from big money is messing with your mind, but screw that. She agreed to go out with you, so you must have done something right. Rather than take her to some fancy place and that art film you picked out, go where you'll be comfortable. You know, someplace where you can be yourself.”
Just what Tino neededâa reason to second-guess the plans he'd made. “Damn it, Jack, when did you turn out to be such a mother hen? From what I heard about your first date with Caitlyn, you took her to that expensive seafood restaurant Mom recommended and then out to a club to go dancing. How is what I've got planned any different than that?”
“It just is.” Jack was nothing if not stubborn. “For one thing, I actually like dancing, and you hate subtitles. That should tell you something.”
Maybe it did, but Tino wasn't going to admit it. “I want to show her a good time. Now, you'd better get back out to your SUV before the kid takes off with it. Besides, it's a school night. Doesn't he have homework to do or something?”
“He already finished it. That was part of the deal if he got to come with me.”
Jack finally started toward the door, and Tino followed right behind him. “How's he doing in school?”
Ricky had been living on the streets when Jack found him, so the kid had had some catching up to do. Jack's chest puffed up with pride. “On his mid-term grades, he got a B-plus in English and an A in everything else.”
Tino's own feelings on the subject echoed Jack's. “I should probably tell you that I bet the kid he couldn't earn an A average for the semester just so he'd have to prove me wrong. Sounds like I'm going to have to pay off on it.”
His brother rounded on him again. “And what did I say about bribing the kid? He's supposed to want to earn good grades on his own. Self-motivation is an important life skill. Dad always told us that.”
Tino was precariously balanced on the slippery edge of the high ground and knew it. “It wasn't a bribe. It was a bet.”
Jack snorted. “I want to be there when you explain the difference between the two to Caitlyn. Or, better yet, Mom.”
It was hard to know which of those prospects was the scarier thought. Before getting in the car, he made one last attempt to save his own hide. “I don't suppose you might consider keeping this just between the three of usâyou, me, and the kid.”
“As if, little brother. Have fun tonight.” Jack cruised on past him. “And in the wise words of your nephew, safe sex and all of that.”
“As I recall, he also said I'm smart enough to figure it out for myself.”
Which was why he'd stuck a couple of packets in the inside pocket of his sports coat. He didn't expect to need them, not tonight anyway, but a man could always hope.
Natalie smiled at the maÃ®tre d' who hurried to greet her as Tino ushered her into the restaurant.
“Miss Kennigan, so glad to see you again.” He looked past her. “I apologize, but I didn't see that your family had reservations for this evening. I'll have your usual table prepared immediately.”
Although she didn't frequent the restaurant all that often, her parents did. “No need to apologize, Henri, and no need to give us their table. I'm not here with my parents.”
Tino moved up beside her. “Actually, the reservation is under my nameâTino Gianelli. Table for two at seven thirty.”
It was obvious that Henri had years upon years of handling awkward situations. He didn't miss a beat when he turned his smile in Tino's direction. “Yes, of course, Mr. Gianelli. If you will wait here briefly, I will check to see if your table is ready.”
He bowed slightly and disappeared back into the restaurant, obviously scurrying to find a better spot to put them. Her parents always got the same table by the back window, which offered a lovely view of Puget Sound. It was too much to hope that Tino hadn't picked up on what was happening, but he was staring in the direction Henri had gone.
“So your folks have a regular table here.”
It wasn't really a question, but she answered anyway. “Yeah, they do. My father proposed to my mother here back when they were in college. It's been âtheir place' ever since.”
“Would you rather go somewhere else?”
She would've been happy with any restaurant he'd chosen. However, she suspected he'd figured out exactly who she was and had tried to pick the kind of place she was used to frequenting. “Seriously, this is fine. The food here is wonderful and the desserts even better, so make sure you save room.”
Henri was already back. “This way, please.”
He led them past the main dining room and into one of the smaller ones located in the back of the restaurant. Thankfully, it wasn't the one where her family usually sat. She was grateful for that much.
“What a lovely view, Henri. I don't believe I've ever been in this part of the restaurant before.”
Her compliment clearly pleased him. “I'm glad you like it. I save it for my most special customers.”
Yeah, right. She didn't call him on the small lie, though. He held her chair for her while Tino seated himself on the opposite side of the table.
“Your waiter will be with you shortly.” He turned his attention to Tino. “Shall I have the wine steward assist you with making a choice from our list this evening?”
“That won't be necessary.” Tino gave the wine list a cursory glance and then smiled at Natalie before continuing. “If you'll trust my judgment, I thought we might start with one I recently discovered and really like.”
“That sounds perfect to me.”
He glanced up at Henri and requested a selection from a well-known local winery, one that happened to be one of her favorites. “Great choice, Tino. I've enjoyed several of their wines, but I haven't tried that specific one. I can't wait to try it.”
Henri beamed his approval. “You have excellent taste, Mr. Gianelli. It will be along shortly. And might I recommend the halibut tonight? The chef has created a new sauce that is fabulous, and that particular wine will be a perfect match for it.”
They turned their attention to the menus as soon as he walked away. It would be interesting to see what Tino ordered. Evidently it didn't take him long to make up his mind, because he quickly closed the menu and set it aside. She continued to study hers although she'd already decided to try the halibut. As long as she pretended to find the menu fascinating, she didn't have to come up with a topic of conversation.
It wasn't as if she knew Tino well enough to know what his interests were, and it was doubtful he knew any more about her. Well, other than what he might have found online if he'd bothered to look. Most of that was just hype about the various charity events she'd attended for the sake of the foundation. Fortunately, the waiter appeared at the side of their table ready to take their orders, which provided a handy distraction.
She closed the menu and set it aside. “I'll have the roasted beet salad to begin with and then the halibut Henri recommended. It sounds delicious.”
After surrendering his menu, Tino said, “I'll have the halibut, too, but with the Caesar salad.”
The waiter made a few quick notes. “Would either of you like an appetizer?”
“I saw they have crab cakes. Want to split an order, Natalie?”
Another one of her favorites. “I'd love to.”
When they were alone again, she glanced out the window, desperately trying to think of something to say. “The view is gorgeous from here. I love watching all the boats out on Puget Sound.”
Tino turned his attention in that direction. “I do, too. Have you done much sailing?”
“My folks never owned a boat, but I've been out a few times with some family friends. I enjoyed it for the length of an afternoon, but that's about it. I'm just as happy to ride on the ferries, especially the one that goes out to Friday Harbor. When I was in college, I'd ride it out and back while I studied for finals. How about you?”
“My dad used to take me and my brothers fishing out on the Sound with an old army buddy of his. That was back when we were still in high school. Since the three of us enlisted in the military, we've rarely been in the same hemisphere much less the same time zone.”
As he continued to stare out the window, she took the opportunity to study the man sitting across from her. It was easy to picture Tino in a uniform. Something about those broad shoulders and the way he carried himself, not to mention the way his eyes periodically scanned their surroundings as if watching for something. She found herself wanting to glance back over her shoulder to see what was there. What was he expecting to see?
“Were you all in the army?”
“Dad was in for twenty years, and my older brother, Jack, was in Special Forces until he screwed up his knee on his last mission. Our younger brother is a marine.”
He shook his head in what was obviously mock disgust. “I don't know what he was thinking by enlisting in the Marine Corps, but we've forgiven himâwell, almost. Jack is of the opinion that the idiot didn't read the sign on the door and walked through the wrong one. No doubt those jarheads took one look at our baby brother and had him signed, sealed, and delivered before Mikhail knew what had hit him. It's sad, really.”
She laughed. “Sounds like the three of you are really close. I'm an only child. Being the sole focus of both my parents' attention made it hard to get away with anything. It must have been a blessing to have a pair of brothers to take some of the heat.”
“Yeah, it was. They're both a royal pain in the ass, for sure, but I wouldn't trade my brothers for anything. Just don't tell them that. I'd never hear the end of it.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
Their appetizer arrived, which changed the focus of their conversation from family to food, a much safer topic as far as she was concerned.
“So while you were stationed overseas, did you find a particular cuisine that you especially liked?”
“You mean besides what they served in the mess? I was especially fond of a couple of the MREs they gave us when we were out on patrol. You've probably heard about those. They're the meals served in a foil pouch. As it turns out, blowing dust and sand added just the right touch of spice to packaged beef stew.”
She stared down at the crab cake and set her fork back down. “Okay, now I'm feeling guilty about eating this.”
The faint laugh lines around Tino's eyes deepened. “Sorry, don't let my rotten sense of humor ruin a good dinner for you. Besides, I'm just jerking your chain a bit. Some of the MREs really are pretty good, and army cooks do a heck of a job even under tough circumstances.”
He set his own fork down. “But to answer your question for real this time, I was stationed in Italy for a short time. Every city had its own cuisine, and it was all good.”
Finally, a bit of common ground. “I love it, too! My folks took me there right after I graduated from high school. I visited a lot of interesting places, but the wonderful food is what I remember the most.”
Tino topped off his wineglass and then hers. “Do you enjoy traveling?”
“Some. I spent a semester abroad in England and liked that, but I guess I'm really more of a homebody.” She finished the last bite of her crab cake. “How about you? Did you get to see the sights when you were deployed?”