Authors: Lucy Monroe
It was unfortunate, not pathetic. One day, he would help her make that distinction. “Have you ever wanted to visit him in person?”
“Naturally, you have not gone.”
“I would. Though not easily, I
travel anonymously, but I have no one to travel with.”
“So, it is not simply leaving your house that bothers you?”
She lifted her shoulders in a half shrug before turning back to her breakfast without answering.
He wasn’t done with the subject however. “You don’t like being recognized as Cassandra Baker, the renowned pianist and New Age composer.”
“Something like that.”
“But you wouldn’t answer your door to the locksmith.”
“My father used to say I was debilitatingly shy.”
From her tone, Neo guessed the other man had considered that a liability, most likely to his brilliantly talented daughter’s career plans.
“Were you always shy?”
“My mother said I was an outgoing toddler. That’s how they learned I was a musical prodigy. I was always trying to entertain them and discovered the piano at the age of three. I played music I had heard from memory.”
“That’s what my teachers said.”
“They started you with a teacher at age three?” He could not help the appalled shock in his tone.
“Mom came down sick and I guess my parents saw the lessons as a way to divert my attention from her so I would not demand too much of her time.”
“That would imply you spent significant time each day playing piano.”
“How much time are we talking here?”
“I don’t remember exactly.” Though something in her expression belied that claim.
“Take a guess.”
“A couple of hours every morning and evening before bedtime.”
“Entirely possible. And that does not count the time I spent practicing on my own.”
“You must be mistaken.” Children often miscalculated the length of time spent doing something, or so he had heard.
“I used to think I might have been, too. However, I found the records of my lessons in a box of papers after my father’s death and there it was in black and white.”
“Proof my parents did not want me around.”
“That is a harsh assessment.”
“How did you end up in an orphanage?” she asked challengingly.
“My parents both wanted something different from life than being a parent.”
“Harsh assessment, or reality?”
“I have often wished I hadn’t found those records. I preferred the gentler fantasy that I mistook the number of hours I spent working on my music before I was old enough to go to school.” She bit her lip and looked away, old sadness sitting on her like a mantle. “Cleaning out the house of my parents’ personal possessions was supposed to be cathartic.”
“Who told you so?”
“And was it?”
She laughed, another less than amused sound. “Define cathartic. It forced me to face my loss, to accept that they were gone and never coming back. Which was good, I suppose.” She met his gaze again, remembered pain stark in her amber eyes. “But it hurt. Horribly.”
“I am sorry.”
“Enhancing your security will not make them any more gone,” he felt compelled to point out.
“But making the changes is bringing back those traumatic feelings, is it not?”
She nodded, but clearly forced herself to brighten. “You’re pretty perceptive for a business tycoon.”
“Figuring out what makes people tick is half the battle in business.”
“And I bet you are good at it.”
She laughed, this time sounding much happier. “Egotistical?”
He smiled in response. He liked making her laugh. “Honest in my self-assessment. Like right now, I know I’ll get damn short if I’m late for my teleconference.”
“Can you call in from your cell phone in the car?”
“Yes, but until I have my computer in front of me with the information I need, I won’t feel good about my input.”
“I bet you have most of it memorized.” But she got up from the table, gathering her dishes.
“I don’t like making mistakes.”
“I’d lay another bet that is an understatement.” She put the dishes in the sink. “Just to show I respect your schedule, I’ll leave these for later.”
He ignored the jibe. He respected her schedule, he just wanted to route it for the day. “I gave up betting when a careless wager led to me taking piano lessons.”
“Should I be offended?” she asked.
“No. I don’t regret being forced to accept my gift. It brought me a new friend.”
She shook her head, but her lips were curved in a small smile. “Some birthday pressie.”
“I think he did mean the lessons to be something special for my thirty-fifth.”
“He really thought you wanted piano lessons?”
“I wanted to learn to play when we were younger, but I hadn’t thought of that pipe dream in years.”
“Not such a pipe dream anymore.”
“No, but even more than that, I’m a huge fan of yours. Though I didn’t know it.”
“You didn’t know it? This I’ve got to hear, but not while it will make you late.”
An hour later, still reeling from the knowledge Neo was a closet fan
now considered her a friend, Cass listened to her latest self-recording on her MP3 player and took notes on what was lacking in the composition. She hadn’t been exaggerating when she told Neo she had work to do, too, but her implication she could only do it at home might have been stretching the reality of the situation.
She didn’t want to spend all day, every day, at her piano bench, so she had started working on self-recordings early on. She loved the flexibility her tiny MP3 player gave her. She could listen to it while exercising, cooking or practicing her Kanji writing. Or sitting at a table in an empty conference room in the Stamos & Nikos Enterprises building in downtown Seattle.
She’d bought her first one on the recommendation of another musician she knew online and had upgraded with each new technological advancement.
A tap on her shoulder alerted Cass to someone else’s presence.
She pulled one of the speaker buds from her ear and looked up. “Yes?”
“Mr. Stamos wanted me to make sure you have everything you need to make you comfortable.” Miss Parks,
Neo’s personal assistant, lived up to her voice and attitude over the phone.
Blonde, in her forties, she wore her pale hair in a sleek chignon and dressed in a female power suit by Chanel, but it had to be from a previous year’s collection. Because this year the designer had gone whimsical, adding ruffles and lace that would look out of place on the businesswoman. Just as the polite query sounded out of character on her tongue.
Miss Parks clearly felt offering refreshments to her employer’s piano teacher was beneath her.
However the woman had absolutely nothing on Cass in the “annoyed nearly beyond endurance” stakes. While Cass sat in a strange conference room, in a huge office building filled with strangers, even more strangers were tearing
She didn’t even attempt to hide her bad temper when she gave the blonde a curt, “Water would be nice.”
Never mind tea. That might soothe her and she didn’t feel like being soothed.
Without another word to the snarky PA, Cass put her speaker bud back in her ear and returned to work. A bottle of water and a glass with a slice of lemon showed up at her elbow a few minutes later.
Bad mood or not, Cass remembered her manners and looked up to give the deliverer a polite thank-you, only to clash eyes with a man every bit as overwhelming presence-wise as Neo.
Even if she hadn’t recognized him from publicity photos, she would have known he couldn’t be anyone but Neo’s business partner, Zephyr Nikos.
clearly charismatic Greek smiled. “No problem.”
She yanked her headphones out of her ears. “Um…”
“I’m glad to get the chance to meet you in person.” Zephyr’s smile would have been lethal if she hadn’t been inoculated that morning with a kiss from Neo Stamos. “Neo isn’t your only fan around here.”
She put her hand out. “Thank you for buying the piano lessons, Mr. Nikos, and I’m glad you enjoy my music.”
“Zephyr, please. And don’t thank me yet, you’ve only given Neo a few lessons.” He leaned against the dark solid wood conference table. “The jury’s still out on what kind of student he’ll make, but my gut tells me that if he sticks with it for the full year, you’ll earn every one of the hundred thousand dollars I donated to charity on his behalf.”
Cass let her lips tip in a wry half smile. “I’m sitting here working from my MP3 player instead of my piano because he’s got a team of construction workers and security personnel
tearing apart my home. I’m under no illusions he’ll be an easy student to have.” Or friend for that matter.
“They’re replacing a few doors and windows, that is hardly tearing the place apart,” Neo said from behind Cass, his tone chiding.
She pushed her chair back and looked at him over her shoulder. “Are you done with your meeting?”
“I am.” He raised a single dark brow at Zephyr. “I thought you had a full schedule this morning, Zee.”
The other gorgeous Greek shrugged his broad shoulders. “I had a minute and I decided to meet the reclusive Cassandra Baker.”
“It’s hardly a public appearance,” Neo said, sounding borderline irritated. “She graciously agreed to spend the day with me while they do necessary security work on her home. She is not here for your entertainment.”
She hadn’t exactly been gracious, but she appreciated Neo’s minor prevarication on her behalf.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t have a baby grand moved into Conference Room B for an impromptu concert,” Zephyr mocked, clearly amused by Neo’s protective stance.
“If you had, I might have gotten more done,” Cassandra joked. “There are limits to what I can do working off my recordings.”
“You can afford to take some time off work,” Neo said with a perfectly straight face.
Zephyr laughed in clear amazement, his expression one of disbelief. “Coming from you, that’s standup comedian material.”
“I cancelled several events on my calendar today.”
“I know.” Zephyr gave Cass a strange look. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet this wonderfully talented
lady. I knew she was a master pianist, I didn’t know she was a miracle worker.”
“More like a whiner,” Cass said self-deprecatingly. “Neo would never have gotten me out of my house and those workmen in if he hadn’t dragged me himself.”
She didn’t mention his form of persuasion had included a kiss that had about melted her brain.
“You are not a whiner.” Neo had come to stand by Zephyr and his expression was more than a little stern. “You have agoraphobic issues that have to be addressed with the seriousness and caution they deserve.”
“That sounds like something you’d read in a textbook on the subject,” she said. And then realization dawned. “You’ve researched my condition.”
“I had one of my top people do it for me.”
“Wow. You take being my student way more seriously than anyone else has in the past.”
Neo shrugged, but Zephyr appeared anything but nonchalant at the admission. He was once again staring at his business partner with blatant incredulity.
Then his expression morphed and he turned a look of almost pity on Cass. “Watch out. When he gets the bit between his teeth, Neo has a tendency to take over.”
“You think I haven’t noticed this trait?” she asked with no little amusement.
Neo crossed his arms and frowned at Zephyr. “I think you’ve got better things to do than stand around gossiping,
“Are you going to try and deny you’ve already got a recovery plan in the works for Miss Baker and her agoraphobia?” he asked instead of taking the hint.
“My research has not reached that point yet.”
Cass’s heart pounded in her chest. That “yet” was
“Just because you talked me into upgrading the security on my home, do not for one minute think you are going to convince me to go through one of those antiphobia seminars. It’s not going to happen.”
She’d been there, done that and had the scars to prove it.
“You’ve tried such a thing?” Neo asked perceptively.
She nodded shortly.
“And it did not go well?” he added.
“I still refuse to answer the door to strangers, don’t I?”
“That’s just intelligent caution,” Zephyr said approvingly.
She smiled gratefully at him. Very few people had ever tried to make her feel more normal. The people in her life were mostly vested in getting her back on the stage and that meant making sure she understood just how different she was.
being one of the kindest terms they used.
Broken, foolish, weak,
were some others.
“I’ll want details from the attempts you have made to overcome this challenge in the past.”
“I assure you, I am not.”
“Neo doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.” Zephyr shook his head like he pitied the other man.
Which she noticed made Neo’s jaw clench and he turned a less-than-pleased look on his friend.
Zephyr put his hands out in the universal
gesture. “I’m only speaking the truth.”
Neo did not appear mollified. “I’m going to show you just how little a sense of humor I have in a minute.”
Zephyr pushed away from the table and headed to the door. “Ah, reduced to threats. My job here is done.” He looked back at Cass. “Nice to meet you, Miss Baker.”
He grinned. “Nice to meet you,
“It was a pleasure to meet you, too.”
“Have fun on your day off.” Zephyr winked at Neo.
Neo flipped him a rude hand gesture.
Cass gasped and started laughing as the conference room door closed behind the departing tycoon.
“I apologize. I shouldn’t have done that in front of you.”
Cass was still smiling when she shook her head at Neo. “If you can’t tell, I’m amused, not offended. I liked watching the interplay between you.”
“It shows a side to you I don’t think you exhibit elsewhere.”
“What if it does?”
“Tit for tat. You want to know and have already made efforts to discover stuff about me I don’t usually share with strangers, or anyone for that matter.”
“So, you think you should know similarly personal things about me?”
“You drive a hard bargain, Cassandra.”
“I must. I got you to take time off work, even if that wasn’t my intention.”
“Yes. And speaking of, the rest of my morning is clear.”
“You plan to entertain me?”
“That’s not necessary. I do have my MP3 player and a pad to take notes on,” she admitted with some shame for her crankiness with him earlier. “And this room is nice and quiet, no distractions…well, except your business partner.”
“He bought me my first CD of your music. In fact, he
bought all of them for me over time. I am embarrassed to admit I never checked for the artist so I could buy them myself, though I listen to your music daily.”
“That explains how you could be a fan without knowing it.”
She shook her head. “I love music, as you know. I can’t imagine not trying to find out who created and played music I enjoy.”
He shrugged, but it was obvious he meant it when he said he was embarrassed by his oversight.
She reached out and squeezed his forearm. “Hey, I don’t have a clue who designed and built my house, but I bet you know.”
“It was part of the security consult report.”
“I skimmed that bit.”
“Are you trying to make me feel less idiotic?”
“Definitely, because you aren’t even sort of stupid. Is it working?”
“So, you took the morning off.” That still boggled her mind, but she’d decided that morning he needed the break he was so determined she take.
She wasn’t going to backslide and let her fear of being in the way stop her from encouraging him to leave work behind for a little while.
He nodded. “I thought I might take advantage of your undivided attention and that we could go shopping for my piano? Since both are available.”
“I see.” She bit her lip, considering whether or not she could psyche herself into going shopping with the man.
If she wanted to get him out of the office, she’d have to.
It didn’t promise to be a pleasant morning for her, but if they stayed out of crowded malls, she should be able to manage her anxiety levels.
And he made her feel safe, like being with him she could do things that normally were beyond her comfort zone.
“We can retire to my penthouse and do the shopping online,” he explained.
“Really? You don’t mind? But honestly? You should always test out a piano before buying it.”
“Do you think if I had an employee buy the instrument that I would have gone to test it out before purchase?”
“Um, no? But since you have put yourself under the aegis of my expertise, I will have to insist on it. However, we can narrow down our external shopping trip through visiting Web sites and making a few phone calls.”
He looked pleased with her for some reason. “That sounds good.”
She stood up. “Lead the way.”
Before he had a chance to open the door, it swung inward and his PA stood there. “Mr. Stamos, I have Julian from Paris on the line in your office.”
“But, Mr. Stamos—”
“I told you, I am taking the morning off.”
That caused the blonde to give Cass a frown that turned into a death glare when she noticed the untouched bottle of water on the table.
Cass grabbed the bottle. “I’ll just take this with me.”
“I have water in my penthouse,” Neo said, sounding bemused.
“There’s no sense wasting it.” Miss Parks had been annoyed enough at having fetched it for Cass in the first place.
Though Zephyr had delivered it, Cass didn’t want any more black marks in the other woman’s book than she already had.
Neo put his hand out, indicating Cass should go ahead of him. “Whatever makes you happy.”
The PA’s already stony expression went positively sour.
“Do not keep Julian waiting, Miss Park.”
The older woman nodded and left without another word.
“You call your personal assistant Miss Park?” Cass asked.
“That is her name.”
“It surprises me that you use surnames with each other.”
“She’s worked for me for six years and that’s always been the way she’s preferred it.” Neo didn’t sound like he cared one way or another.
“Do all of your employees call you Mr. Stamos?”
Neo frowned. “Yes, I suppose. Why?”
“Does Zephyr’s personal assistant call him Mr. Nikos?”
“No. Again, why?”
“You keep people at a distance more than he does.”
“Just because Zephyr doesn’t think I make friends, doesn’t mean I don’t. I made friends with you, didn’t I?”
If he considered steamrolling her into making substantive changes on her house as making friends. But that wasn’t really being fair to him, either. “Yes.”
“You sound uncertain. I thought we’d already established we are becoming friends.”
“You’re a pretty forceful kind of guy, aren’t you?”
“You do not get to where I am being a pushover.”
“No, I don’t imagine that you do.”
“That does not mean I always have to have things my own way. I’m taking piano lessons, aren’t I?”
“Yes.” And he’d taken the morning off when he
took time off so that she would be comfortable. Steamroller, or not, Neo had the makings of a
friend. “Where is your penthouse?”
“At the top of this building. Zephyr and I share the top floor for our living quarters.”
“Considering the size of this building, your apartments must be huge.”
“Part of the penthouse floor is taken up with the pool and workout facility.”
“You have a pool?”
“Zephyr and I share it.”
“Wow. I’ve thought about having one installed in my backyard, but then I wouldn’t have much yard left and I’d only get to use it a few months out of the year.”
“Seattle’s climate isn’t conducive to year-round outdoor living,” he agreed.
“Not like Greece.”
“Living here has its compensations.”
“I’m glad you like it here.”
“Yes, I wouldn’t have a new friend otherwise.” He grinned, his expression nothing short of pleased. “Just so.”
“Still, I envy you the pool.”
He laughed warmly. “Finally, something my billionaire status makes you want to have.”
“You’ve got enough people wishing they were you.”
“Are you saying I don’t need another fan?”
“Oh, I’m a fan all right.” Especially of his kisses, but she was nowhere near outrageous enough to say so.
“I am sure.”
“I mean it. You’re a great guy.”
That startled another laugh from him, though she couldn’t imagine why. “You cannot know what a refreshing attitude yours is for me.”
“Thank you. I think?”
“Definitely. As for the pool, you are welcome to come use ours anytime you like. I will make sure you get a keycard for our top floor.”
He couldn’t know how tempting that offer was. She loved to swim, but public pools were more than mildly daunting for her. Or perhaps he did, considering the research he’d done on her condition.
Regardless, it was more than generous and not a gift she would dismiss on any level. “Thank you.”
“Not at all. What are friends for?”
She was smiling as she followed him to the private elevator that serviced his and Zephyr’s offices and penthouse floor.
Finding the piano turned out easier than Cass expected. She hit it lucky with her first phone call. She’d called her own supplier with little hope they’d have something in stock locally, but they had just taken a Steinway baby grand in as trade on a new, bigger Irmler parlor grand for another professional pianist who lived on Bainbridge Island.