If this is the chance I’ve been waiting for, then why does it feel like I’m in over my head? I mean, like I’m five feet tall in seven feet of water and haven’t the foggiest idea how to swim. In short, I’m sinking fast.
“So, do we got a deal?”
I stare at Nick Pantalone’s beefy hand but hesitate before taking it. At this point, anyone with a smidge of conscience would just admit to being out of her league and walk away before she could do any actual damage to the place. But as I look around Nick Pantalone’s newly expanded coffee shop, I know this is my last chance to get anything close to a passing grade in my interior design course.
My final semester is about putting what I’ve supposedly learned into practice. It’s a joint project for my partner, Jazz, and me. Sort of like that show The Apprentice? Only there’s just Jazz and me. As project manager (and don’t ask me why I have to be the head cheese—Jazz gets better grades), it’s my job to find our project, assign tasks, and oversee every detail to its completion.
Renovating the coffee shop seems like the perfect idea, really. Nick desperately needs to expand after a newspaper article last summer proclaimed his shop “the best-kept secret in Manhattan.” Now the little place is bursting at the seams as hordes of customers breeze right by the Starbucks across the street in favor of Nick’s—the new trend. You know how we New Yorkers love to find the “latest thing.” Who knows how long the upward swing will last for Nick? But I doubt he’ll ever return to the obscurity he enjoyed once upon a time.
I mean, it’s been six months and he’s had to hire four new employees. Not to mention hiring Joe, his good-looking Italian nephew, to manage the place. And when I say “good-looking,” I’m not talking about one step up from passable. I’m talking over the fence, out of the park, to the moon good-looking.
But this isn’t about Joe.
I consider ours—Nick’s and mine—to be a symbiotic relationship. Nick needs to expand and redecorate, and I need a passing grade. I truly have no lofty goals about any of this. Give me any letter grade higher than a D and I’ll be fine. My mother doesn’t have to see my grade to know I’ve passed. I won’t lie about it, most likely, but I’m not exactly going to volunteer the information either.
“Well?” Nick growls, casting a pointed glance at his proffered hand, waiting for me to cinch the deal.
My breath is uneven as I slide my clammy hand into his. He nods and the wrinkly folds of his face push together with a grin. “That’s better. Now what’ll you have, kid? Anything you want is on the house.”
“I shouldn’t.” The truth is, since I started the two-year design program (that I’m finishing in eighteen months by taking summer classes), I’ve put on about twenty pounds. Call it my frustration with my probable failure—my first ever. I cook and eat. It’s cathartic. But I haven’t had lunch and, let’s face it, nobody makes meatball subs like Nick. I grin. “But I will.”
The bell above the door dings and I turn. My insides go hot and cold all at once. Joe Pantalone. He’s the man of my dreams—but he’s way out of my league. Even if I weren’t a redheaded Irish girl from Long Island, he’d be too much for me.
“Good to see you, Laini.” He flashes that million-dollar smile, making me feel like the only woman on earth who could possibly win his heart. Guys like that don’t play fair. They make you think you have a chance when, really, well . . . you just don’t.
Joe’s a hugger, so I try not to make anything of it every time he pulls my five-foot frame into arms that I swear could wrap around me twice. Well, maybe once and a half—since the weight gain.
I wish I could convince my heart not to get my hopes up when he greets me with his cozy hug, but who am I trying to kid? If he’d ask, I’d be his. But he won’t. A guy like that doesn’t have to settle for a thirty-year-old, freckle-faced redhead with way too many extra pounds on her petite frame. He can have anyone he wants.
Still, without a fight, I melt into his embrace, thoroughly enjoying the manly scent of soap and maybe just a hint of some sort of cologne that I’m not hip enough to identify. (Tabby and Dancy would have nailed it at first whiff.)
He lets me go and I stand weakly at the counter as Nick jerks his head toward me. “’Ey, Joey. You’re lookin’ at the new in-ter-ior designer for Nick’s. What do you think?”
Wow, I’m not sure what I expected from Joe, but certainly not a frown. Maybe the first one I’ve ever seen on his face as he looks from Nick to me. “You graduated?”
My cheeks go hot, and I know from experience that I have blotches of embarrassment all over my face and neck. Some people blush prettily (gorgeous, dark-skinned Italian women, for instance). I don’t. I get all splotchy. So I know I look hideous. “Not yet. I’m doing this for my final grade.”
Joe turns to Nick. “Remodeling and redecorating are pretty big projects, Uncle Nick. No offense to Laini, but don’t you think we should hire someone with some real experience?”
Please, floor. I beg you. Open up and swallow me whole. Seriously. Right this second would be good for me.
“Uh—Nick. Maybe Joe’s right. I wouldn’t want to mess anything up, and you know my grades aren’t very good. As a matter of fact”—I hold up my thumb and forefinger and measure an inch—“I’m this close to flunking out. I probably don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” I don’t even give him a chance to speak. “Actually, I withdraw myself from the project. I changed my mind.”
With the agility of a man half his age and size, Nick whips through the swinging gate that reminds me of something from an Old West saloon and heads me off before I can sprint for the door. “’Ey, now. What is this baloney? Didn’t we just shake on it?”
“Well, yes. But that was before the voice of reason walked in the door. I won’t hold you to it, Nick.”
His head swings from side to side in a vehement shake. “Where I come from, a handshake’s as good as a signed contract.” His voice is filled with so much indignation, I’m afraid he might have a stroke. “You goin’ back on your word, little girl?”
“Come on, Uncle Nick,” Joe groans. “Don’t talk to Laini like that.”
“You stay out of this, Joey. You’re the one who started it anyway.” He turns back to me, his stern frown making me feel shorter than I already am. “Well?”
“Okay, Nick,” I say, carefully avoiding Joe’s gaze. “I’ll bring Jazz in tomorrow for a look at the place and we’ll have some ideas to present by the end of next week.” I glance around the room like I really know what I’m looking at. “The project is going to take some time, so we should get started on hiring an architect and a contractor. Then we’ll need to figure out what permits we’ll need.”
Nick shakes his head, cutting me off. “Don’t tell it to me. I won’t be here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m headed to L.A. tomorrow.”
“You just got home!” I mean, less than two weeks ago.
He gives me a shrug like it’s none of my business. “I never meant to come back after Christmas, only I had to take care of some financial paperwork and finish turning things over to Joey, here. I’m sick of being away from my Nelda.”
Nelda is Nick’s wife and his true lady love. She’s been in California for months taking care of their daughter, who has cancer. The outlook is better than originally hoped for, but Nelda won’t leave the grandkids and Nick is lovesick without her. So off he goes. I knew it was coming, but somehow I didn’t expect it so soon.
“So, I’ll be working for Joe on this?” I can’t hold back the dread in my voice, even though I know it’s impolite. If Joe isn’t in favor of my working on the project at all, how on earth am I going to come in every day and do what needs to be done while he stands over me disapproving of every suggestion?
“This place is amazing, Dancy!” I stare at my friend’s newly redecorated condo, loving the Victorian decor. This is the first time I’ve been here since the redo was finished, and I have to say, I’m impressed. And maybe a little jealous. “I’m so glad you didn’t try to modernize the place.”
“Mother is fit to be tied. She can’t believe I had the audacity to go back in time.”
I laugh. “Well, I heartily approve.”
You can’t help but envy Dancy a little. Her parents not only gave her their ridiculously expensive condo, but footed the bill for redecorating. I didn’t expect to be consulted, but still . . .
Even Dancy’s life in general seems perfect. A swoony new boyfriend with a British accent who just happens to be her favorite author writing under the pseudonym Cate Able. I truly expect her and Jack to be engaged any day now.
Dancy is throwing her first dinner for the girls tonight. And I’m here just a little early to do the cooking even though Dancy offered to have the meal catered. As if! Cooking makes me happy. It’s what I do. Tabby and Dancy buy things for us from their ample cash flow. I, on the other hand, contribute to the friendship by supplying us all with ample calories—much to the chagrin of our mothers and Freddie, Tabby’s trainer. But they love it. So I’m happy.
I sort of wish my two friends had come back to the apartment we all shared until Tabby got married last month and Dancy moved into the condo, but I understand Dancy’s desire to entertain around her own table. I think we might have to do a rotation or something, though. I miss seeing my chums in the apartment.
“So where’s Brandon?” I ask as I step into the gorgeous, dream kitchen.
“Off skiing with some friends.”
Brandon is Dancy’s little brother. A musical genius, sixteen years old, in high school and accepted for the weekend program at Juilliard. He’s lived with Dancy ever since his mom took off and his dad and Dancy’s mother retired to Florida recently.
This kitchen takes my breath away. Truly. I’ve been dying to get my hands on the stainless-steel, digital, do-everything-for-you appliances. The floor and three of the countertops are ceramic tile. The others are a fabulous gray granite. My goodness, if I had a kitchen like this one, I’d just pull in a cot and live here. (Is that odd?)
“So, Chef Laini,” Dancy says with a grin, revealing gorgeous white teeth. She’s an Italian beauty—someone Joe would be attracted to, most likely, except she’s taken. “What’s on tonight’s menu?”
I lift my shopping bag, which contains the fixings for our favorite meal together. “Shrimp Alfredo with linguini. Salad with petite shrimp and blue cheese crumbles, and lovely grilled asparagus spears.”
“Mmm.” She cocks a silky eyebrow. “And for dessert?”
“Raspberry swirl cheesecake with a dollop of whipped cream.”
Her eyes roll back and she lets out a breathy sigh. “Sounds divine.”
“Don’t assign divinity to me,” I say with a laugh. “I bought the cheesecake at Nick’s.”
“Well, you can’t beat Nick’s anyway. Anything I can do to help?”
I shake my head. “Just keep me company while I work. I miss you guys like crazy.”
She gives me a look akin to pity and I wish I hadn’t mentioned it. “Your time will come, Laini.”
I hate it when people say that to me! Dancy should know better, considering a mere two months ago she was in the same boat. I look at her as evenly as I can, determined not to play into the pity. I find it’s always easier to pretend it’s not an issue.
“Hey, I’m not complaining. My rent is paid up for another month. I have the money I make baking goodies for Nick’s to tide me over, and I have all the peace and quiet I could ever want.” Much, much more than I want. But I’d die before admitting that to my dear friend.
I finish unloading the groceries while Dancy chatters on about the man in her life, as though he hung the moon and stars. Jack Quinn this and Jack Quinn that. “He’s actually sewn up a deal for me at Lane Publishing. My book comes out in about a year. Isn’t that great?”
I stop what I’m doing right then and there and grab her in a hug. “That’s fantastic, Dancy! I can’t wait to read it.”
“That’s not all,” she says with a wide grin.
I gasp. “Did he propose?”
A frown puckers the skin above her nose. “Not yet.”
“Oh.” Oops. “What’s the great news, then?”
“Jack landed a book deal with his real name.”
“You mean he’s truly hanging up the Cate Able hat?”
“Completely.” She gives a proud smile. “He’s good enough to write under Jack Quinn. And they’ll be promoting his new book with the full disclosure that Cate Able was nothing more than a pen name for Jack Quinn. He’s also going to keep writing thrillers.”
“But not the same series?”
“Well, no. I’m still mad at him for killing off my favorite character of all time. But I see why he needed to start over completely with his own name.”
Dancy grabs a slice of cucumber from my cutting board and plops down on the barstool as she nibbles, elbows resting on the counter. “So. Your turn. Tell me how it went at Nick’s today.”
Weird how I’m both happy and hesitant at the same time. Happy for the opportunity, hesitant because I’m experiencing a sense of impending doom about the whole thing. Plus, Joe isn’t thrilled.
I share all of this with my friend. Normally, we’d wait for Tabby before diving into heart-to-heart stuff, but our soap-actress friend just got married, so she’s probably having trouble tearing herself away from her husband, David, and her step-twins, Jenn and Jeffy.
“Well, you’ll just have to prove Joe wrong.”
“I guess.” I hear the doubt in my own voice and it doesn’t sound pretty.
“Who’s in charge of the colors?” Dancy’s gaze is averted to the gray countertop.
She seems relieved, which sets off my warning bells.
“Well, you know. I just wondered.”
Tabby and Dancy know I have some slight trouble with colors. But it’s not that bad. I mean, I can do bright colors okay. Besides, I heard an eye doctor say once that women can’t actually be color blind—or it’s only a percent of a percent chance or something like that. So, while I might have issues distinguishing certain close colors, I’m certainly not afflicted.
“Hey, I could do the colors if I had to!” I say, grabbing a Roma tomato and starting to slice. “For instance, don’t you think this shade of gray would be terrific for a base color on the back wall at Nick’s?”
“Um, sure.” Dancy’s hesitation doesn’t thrill me at all. I look up from the cutting board.
“Well, it’s nothing, really.” She swallows hard, like she does when she’s trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings.
“Come on, Dancy. Spit it out. What?”
“The countertop is green.”
I stare down at the granite, which is clearly gray. I jerk my chin and stick out my tongue. “Maybe you’re the one who’s color blind.”
Her chin dimples as she tries to keep from laughing. Hopping from the stool, she comes around and gives my shoulders a squeeze.
“Don’t worry about it. You have great decorating ideas. Just leave the colors to someone else and you’ll get a passing grade.”
I know she’s trying to be encouraging. But my goodness. I’m not going to have Jazz, the color-coordinated genius, stand over my shoulder after graduation—provided I do, in fact, graduate.
No one is going to hire a color-blind interior designer. And that’s all there is to it.
I turn back to my preparations for dinner. “At least I can cook,” I say flatly.
Dancy grins. “Better than anyone I know!”
Great. So I won’t starve. Are tomatoes orange? Please tell me I haven’t had that wrong all my life? Apples are red, bananas are yellow. Yes?
And Joe Pantalone’s eyes are the color of a mocha latte—without whipped cream.