Monday, May 2, 2011
Happily Ever After...Gino Meets His Match
When Gino Andreas entered the executive offices for Andreas Holdings, a hush fell over the gleaming corridors.
In her office at the end of the hall, Bethany Johnson watched the men he passed all but scrape and bow. Gino was thirty now, about to take his seat on the board of directors with his three half brothers, Darius, Nick and Cade. Everyone anticipated that within five years, the older Andreas brothers would retire early and enjoy their golden years on the French Rivera with their adoring wives.
And Gino would rule.
The women of Andreas Holdings weren’t quite so pragmatic. Even those climbing the corporate ladder, hoping to serve as presidents or vice presidents, had privately admitted to Bethany that their breath stuttered a bit when Gino walked by. Tall and slender like his oldest half-brother Darius, with Nick’s sense of fun and Cade’s shrewd dark eyes, Gino wasn’t just sex appeal in a suit. He was smart and funny. There wasn’t one unattached female in Andreas Holdings who wouldn’t give her next Christmas bonus for the opportunity to find out what he’d be like in bed.
Not because she didn’t think Gino was hot. For Pete’s sake, the guy exuded sex appeal. Add a little money and power to that, and some days she honestly thought she would drool. The thing of it was Bethany was broke. No one had told her living in New York City would be so expensive or that roommates could bolt the first time they fell in love and decided it was time to live with their fiancés. She had bigger, more important things on her mind than somebody’s hotness.
“Good morning, Ms. Johnson.”
Deep and sexy, Gino’s voice drifted to her and Bethany’s lungs shivered. If he could patent that voice, he’d be even richer than he already was.
“Good morning, Mr. Andreas.”
“Anything I need to know?”
“Just that your brothers are waiting for you in the conference room.”
Halfway to his office, he stopped, turned. “Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. They called an emergency meeting of the board an hour ago.”
Hands on his hips, he glanced skyward as if seeking help from above. “There is no emergency. They just want me to be late for my first board meeting so they can harass me.”
She laughed. “Probably Nick’s idea.”
Their easy camaraderie warmed her heart. She was only a floater – someone who filled in wherever administrative assistance was needed. Gino’s real personal secretary made oodles of cash. But when they’d offered her the job of standing in for Roberta while she took maternity leave, Bethany had seen it as a good sign that one of “the” Andreas brothers liked her. Her goal was to do such a good job for Gino that he would give her a good recommendation, so she’d be moved into one of the permanent assistant positions and actually be able to make her rent.
She just had to keep her lease for the next six months.
Gino left Bethany’s office and headed toward the big boardroom just off Darius’s executive suite. Though he knew he should probably be wondering what the hell his brothers would spring on him, he found himself shaking his head over Bethany’s hair.
A ponytail. In an office. It made him laugh.
Actually, it made him comfortable. Roberta, a tall gorgeous redhead whose husband would kill anybody who took more than a three-second glance at her, had been coolly efficient. He’d never had to worry about missing a meeting – even a trumped up meeting his brothers had decided to have for sport – because with her layers and layers of friends within the corporate maze that was Andreas Holdings, Roberta would have heard about it.
But Roberta didn’t make him laugh. She most certainly didn’t make him comfortable. And the truth was he was smarter and more efficient when he was comfortable.
So in some ways he was glad Roberta was off for the first six months he would serve on the board. He didn’t need somebody to prop him up, to help him, to make him look smarter. He was smart enough. He needed someone who helped him relax.
Whatever he had to do over the next six months to keep Bethany Johnson right where she was, he intended to do it.
“So you finally made it.”
Walking into the boardroom, Gino glanced at his three older brothers. Though the Andreas men had different mothers, they shared dark hair and dark eyes. Darius, the brother he called Dad because he and his wife Whitney had adopted him, was the tallest. Nick with unruly curly hair was the handsomest. Cade the shrewdest. It showed in the way his nearly black eyes narrowed every time he came against something he didn’t like.
Nick guided Gino to the chair at the foot of the table. “Thirty years. You’re the only brother who had to wait to get his seat on the board.”
“Yeah, because you guys changed the rules.”
Darius laughed. “After our father’s will gave you – as an infant – an equal share in the company, which came with a seat on the board, we recognized the flaw in not having guidelines for directors.” He pulled out Gino’s chair. “So we wrote some. That’s the fun of being boss. Find something you don’t like, you change it.”
More or less forced into his seat, Gino sat.
Cade strode over. Dressed in a suit and tie, he looked like the billionaire he was, but he didn’t really look like himself. A rancher first and foremost, he typically dressed in jeans and T-shirts. “And don’t think because you’re on the board, we’re going to listen to hair-brained schemes. You’re the newbee. You watch and learn.”
“I’ve been watching and learning for thirty years.”
All three laughed. Taking his seat at the head of the table, Darius said, “You haven’t seen anything of life yet.”
And that was the problem. He’d been raised in the lap of luxury, as Darius’s son, because their father and Gino’s mom had been killed in an accident. He’d never really encountered a problem, didn’t know what it was like to be hungry or cold. Didn’t know a damned thing about struggle.
Darius hit the gavel and brought the room to order, which basically meant Nick and Cade took their seats.
But a board meeting, even for a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate, turned out to be a very dry discussion of business. Not that he didn’t care. He did. One day the responsibility for Andrea Holdings, a huge, multi-national enterprise would be his.
But could he take the reins of a multi-national conglomerate without really understanding the things that most normal people knew? Cade, Nick and Darius hadn’t grown up wealthy. Though Stephone Andreas had acknowledged Darius, he’d basically been raised by a struggling single mom, as Nick and Cade had been. The things they’d learned through their struggles growing up gave them insights into life and people that Gino didn’t have. He didn’t know about the blood, sweat, tears and trouble that had gone into making Andreas Holdings great. He simply knew great. And he also knew that wouldn’t serve him well as a leader.
When Bethany arrived home, there was an eviction notice in her mail slot. She leaned against the row of post office boxes and slid down to the floor. She was a few days late! A few days! Surely the building manager couldn’t evict her yet.
But when she took her notice to his office in the basement, he grinned at her around his cigar.
“Yeah, I can evict you.” He took the cigar out of his mouth and blew smoke at her. “We’re not exactly the classiest building in the city and our renters aren’t the cream of the crop, so our lease is a little different than most. You should have read the fine print. If you’re as much as two days late I can start the process.”
“I’ll have the rent money on Friday.”
“Yeah, sure, babe. I get that. But without a roommate you’re going to have trouble every month until pretty soon you’ll be weeks behind and soon after that months.” He guided her to the door. “Only way I take this off the books is if you come to me with a new roommate and prove you can pay your rent.”
Suddenly she was in the hall and his door was slamming behind her.
She straightened her shoulders. Okay. Fine. He wanted her to have a roommate. She’d find a roommate.
When Gino stepped off the elevator the next morning and headed down the corridor, he had to admit he was eager to see Bethany. It was always a kick to see what she’d done with her long blond hair.
As he entered her office, he saw her standing at the filing cabinet, her back to him, her hair cascading to her waist. Long and shiny, poker straight and cut in a blunt line, it swung as she moved. Unfortunately, he suddenly pictured all that silky hair falling around him when they made love and he stopped dead in his tracks.
Whoa! Where had that come from? He couldn’t picture himself naked with an employee – well, actually he could, but it was wrong!
He cleared his throat. “Good morning.”
She turned from the filing cabinet. Her usually bright blue eyes were dull. Her sunny smile was nowhere to be seen. “Good morning, sir.”
“I thought we already talked this out. It’s bad enough you have to call me Mr. Andreas. Sir makes me feel like a knight in King Arthur’s court.” He stopped talking, as Roberta entered, carrying her four-week-old son. “Hey!”
“Hey, yourself,” she said, leaning in to buss a kiss across his cheek.
He grinned at the baby. “This must be Dwayne.”
“Our bundle of joy.”
As he took the infant from Roberta’s arms, he noticed that Bethany hadn’t stopped filing. Having grown up in a family with three women who squealed every time anybody announced she was pregnant and then fawned over the kid until he was twelve, he couldn’t believe Bethany wasn’t interested.
“Wanna see the baby?”
Bethany turned from the filing cabinet. “Yeah, he’s cute.”
He glanced fearfully at Roberta, knowing no mother on the face of the earth could tolerate that kind of disinterest. “He’s more than cute! He’s adorable.”
She smiled apologetically, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Yes. He is. I’m sorry. I’m just preoccupied this morning.”
Roberta reached for Dwayne. “I have to visit every department, but I’ll be back to say goodbye.”
With that she was off and Gino faced Bethany. “What’s up?”
She burst into tears and Gino’s heart slammed against his ribs. That was another thing about growing up surrounded by women…He hated tears.
“Okay. All right,” he said, not quite sure how to handle this. His first instinct was to enfold her into a comforting hug and tell her everything would be fine. But after that little fantasy vision where he’d seen all that gorgeous hair on his pillow, that didn’t seem like a good idea. “Let’s go into my office.”
He shepharded her to a chair then took the seat behind his desk. Passing her a box of tissues he said, “So what happened?” He sucked in a breath, not liking the feeling that passed through him when he added, “Boyfriend break up with you?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. My ex-roommate does. I’m being evicted because I can’t make my rent without a roommate.”
“Really? That’s it?” He sighed with relief, relaxed in his chair. “This is not a problem. I can lend you the money for your rent until you find someone else.”
Unfortunately that brought fresh tears. Through shuddering sniffles she said, “I can’t pay you back.”
“Okay, then I’ll give you the money.”
“No! I don’t want your charity. I don’t want anybody’s charity. I want a real answer.” She rose determinedly. “I put a roommate wanted poster in the cafeteria--” As quickly as she’d straightened, she deflated. “But I can’t take just anybody. I have to do credit checks and look for criminal records.” She sighed. “This could take weeks and I don’t have weeks. I need a roommate now.”
He pondered her situation for a few second, tapping his pencil against his desk and then the perfect answer came to him. “Okay. The way I see this you just need a little help until you find a roommate.”
She blew her nose. “I guess.”
“So why don’t I be your roommate for the next few weeks?”
She gaped at him. “You live in an apartment in a mansion on the beach—“
“And maybe it’s time for me to have a change of pace.”
Her tears stopped and fierce pride filled her pretty blue eyes. “I don’t exactly live in a dump, but my apartment isn’t a palace. You’d take one look and run and then I couldn’t take your money because I don’t take charity.”
He rose rounded his desk and leaned against the corner. “You’re making this harder than it has to be. I have money. You need money. To me it’s a matter of writing a check--”
The pride he’d seen in her eyes turned to fire. Too late, he realized he’d insulted her. Really insulted her. And his worry from the day before in the boardroom resurrected. How was he going to run a multi-billion-dollar company that employed hundreds of thousands of normal people if he’d never lived as a normal person?
“You know what? I’m not being a hundred percent honest.” His throat tightened a bit, stopping him in the middle of his admission. Was it wise to tell a floater his main insecurity as a leader?
But she glanced up at him with big blue eyes rimmed with tears and his own troubles seemed small and petty. “I’m about to get control of a company that employs hundreds of thousands of people who don’t live in mansions or have a cook or a driver. I’d like a few weeks of seeing what it feels like to be you.”
Her lips trembled then kicked up into a silly smile. “Really?”
“We’ll call it research.”
She pressed her lips together, as if pondering what he’d said.
“And you’d really live there?”
“For the experience?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Her smile grew. “Well, all right then.” She extended her hand to shake his. “While I hunt for a new roommate, the second bedroom is all yours.”
He took her hand. His palm brushed against the soft skin of her palm. Her fingernails skimmed his wrist. Electricity crackled up his arm.
He pulled his hand away, knowing exactly what was happening. He was attracted to her. He’d always felt a little tingle of it, but not so much he’d ever considered acting on it. But today, he’d had the little fantasy vision about her hair. Now, the electricity when they shook hands.
Was living together really wise?
He shook his head to clear it of stupidity. He was an Andreas and Andreas men were made of sterner stuff than to have to worry about falling victim to an attraction. Plus, once he paid her rent, he didn’t have to stay. If things got uncomfortable, he’d move a few of his things in, spend a night or two, then go back to his own apartment.
After work, Gino drove to Darius and Whitney’s beach estate. Knowing he needed to at least let his mom know he’d be away for a few days, he headed for her home office.
Whitney glanced up the second he entered the huge room filled with antiques. A sunny yellow sofa and chair sat in front of the mahogany desk. Her blue eyes shone with happiness.
As he walked in, she rose from her desk and met him in the middle of the room to enfold him in a hug. She still wore the red suit she’d put on for her meetings in Manhattan and her hair had been tucked into a smooth chignon, making her look like the successful lawyer she was, but she was and always would be his mom.
“Hey. I just thought I’d let you know--”
As he spoke, Darius entered the room. “What’s this? Holding some kind of family meeting without me?” He held a tray with glasses and a pitcher of iced tea. He also wore shorts and a sloppy T-shirt as if he’d been home long enough to want to entice his wife out of her office.
“No meeting,” Gino said quickly, letting his dad know he had no intention of interrupting their evening. “I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be staying at home for the next few days.”
His dad waggled his eyebrows as he set the tray on Whitney’s desk. “Really?”
“It’s not like that—“
Too late he realized he should have let them believe he was spending a romantic few days with a girlfriend. Now he’d have to explain himself. Or lie. And the Andreas family had one hard and fast rule. No one lied. Ever. Not about anything.
He sucked in a breath. “My assistant is having financial problems. Her roommate moved out and she can’t make her rent. So I told her I’d pay the other half of her rent until she finds a new roommate.”
Darius’s sharp black eyes narrowed. “And what does this have to do with you not being home for the next few days?”
“She won’t take charity.”
Whitney burst out laughing. “She’s making you live with her?”
“Until I can wheedle my way out of it.”
Taking a glass off the tray, Whitney said, “This is going to be interesting.”
“Or a disaster,” Darius countered. “You don’t make promises Andreas Holdings can’t keep while you’re getting all chum buddy with your assistant.”
That was the least of his worries. “I won’t.”
With his dad’s warning ringing in his ears, Gino packed a bag and headed for the city. Address for Bethany’s apartment punched into his GPS locator, he easily found the place. But a parking space was another matter. He drove around for forty minutes before something opened up and then he had to be crafty to actually snag it.
Duffle bag in hand, he walked into the building that was clean and neat but definitely old. Old. Old. Old. He searched the first floor for an elevator and quickly discovered it didn’t have one. So he climbed the four flights of stairs and walked back a long hall to Bethany’s apartment.
There was no doorbell, so he knocked.
The door immediately opened. Bethany’s smiling face greeted him. “Hey, roomie!”
“Hey.” He stepped in. Glanced around. It wasn’t the worst apartment he’d ever seen, but the appliances were so old he wondered if they still worked. Radiators provided heat. The accent rug between the tweed sofa and chair was threadbare.
He faced her with a smile. “It’s cute.”
She looked around worriedly. “Everything’s old. But it’s all mine.”
She said it with such pride that remorse for being spoiled scurried through him. He nearly set his duffle on the sofa, but he realized it would be much simpler to just take it to his room.
“So lead me to my room and I’ll get settled in.”
He followed her down a very short hall to a bedroom about the size of a postage stamp. A single bed had been rammed up against the wall. One dresser sat beside a floor-length wall mirror. There was, maybe, a five-by-five square in front of the bed…just enough space to open the door.
“Small. I know.”
He faced her with a smile. “I was going to say quaint.”
“You did say you wanted to experience life for normal people. Well, this is where normal people start out.”
“Which is why it’s perfect for me.” He motioned to the door on the left. “I’m guessing that’s my bathroom.”
She chewed her lower lip. “Actually, that’s your closet. We share a bathroom.” She angled her thumb across the hall. “It’s over there.”
“All righty then.” Nerves bubbled up in his gut. Seriously? He was going to share a bathroom?
But he realized that if he didn’t, if she were evicted and sleeping on the street, she wouldn’t be the sweet, funny girl who relaxed him every morning. The possibility also existed that she’d leave. He didn’t know where she was from, but it wasn’t New York. She didn’t speak or act like a New Yorker. She probably had parents somewhere who would spirit her home.
“I’ll just unpack and then we’ll go out to dinner.”
She immediately brightened. “No need. I’ve made macaroni.”
He almost choked. “Macaroni?”
“And cheese. My specialty. Consider it my welcome dinner.”
She left the room, closing the door behind her and Gino looked around in misery. He was lucky he wasn’t claustrophobic or this room would kill him. He unpacked his suit for the next day, socks, dress shirts, shoes, undies and made use of the closet and the dresser. Then he changed into jeans and a big T-shirt and headed out to the corner that served as a kitchen.
Honestly trying to make this work, he said, “This is nice. Homey.”
Leaning into the oven to grab her macaroni and cheese, she peered up at him. “Really?”
“Yeah. It’s very close. You know? Very cozy.”
Too late he realized his mistake. Cozy was one of those words that made women swoon.
But Bethany didn’t swoon. She hardly reacted. She pulled her macaroni out of the oven and placed it in the center of the four-by-two table, which had been set with mismatched dishes.
“The good dishes belonged to my roomie.” She smiled sheepishly. “She took them when she left.”
“These work,” he said, not really caring much about plates and flatware. A weird sensation had grabbed his gut. Every time he turned around that day, he’d been increasingly attracted to this woman and she not only didn’t notice, she didn’t return the attraction.
Not sure if he should be relieved or annoyed, he took a seat at the table. She took the other. She reached for his plate, scooped two spoons of macaroni on it, and handed it to him.
“Thanks.” He waited for her to serve herself, then took a cautious forkful of pasta. He hadn’t eaten macaroni since he was twelve and by then he was tired of it because as a child it had been a mainstay of his diet. He reluctantly shoved the fork into his mouth, but to his amazement flavor exploded on his tongue.
“Hey, this is good.”
“That’s the bacon grease.”
He almost choked out the bite he’d taken. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t worry. I just add a tablespoon or so of grease to flavor it.”
“Have you ever heard of cholesterol?”
She batted a hand. “The doctor at your company physical must have filled your head with garbage. You’re young. You don’t have to worry about clogging your arteries. Typically company physicals are for old coots.”
“I’ll share that with my brothers.”
Something inside him softened and he laughed too. Okay. So she wasn’t attracted to him. That was probably for the best. Plus, he could eat macaroni with a hint of bacon grease. As she’d said, he wasn’t old enough to worry about cholesterol, or his weight…
Wait a minute.
He glanced over at her. His eyes narrowed. For a woman who ate pasta flavored with grease, she was tiny. Petite. She should be four hundred pounds.
“How do you stay so thin?”
She laughed. “I don’t eat this well everyday.” She grimaced. “I mean, I can’t. Really. I’d be four hundred pounds. I use my food budget for fruit and vegetables. Whole grains.”
He snorted. “This from the woman who uses bacon grease as a flavor enhancer.”
She took a bite of macaroni. “Only for special occasions.”
He chuckled and watched her take a sip of iced tea. With her hair braided in two long pigtails and her blue eyes shining, she was adorable –
Damn. He couldn’t be noticing how cute she was every twenty seconds. Not only were they living together, but also they worked together. Plus, she didn’t seem to be attracted to him.
Annoyance that he could be so attracted to her while she hardly seemed to notice him tightened his muscles, churned his stomach a bit. Stifling a scowl, he forced his attention back to his macaroni. “So what do normal people do at night?”
“Well, we can take a walk on the street, see all the crazies. Or we can watch TV.”
“It’s been a while since I took in the crazies.”
“Great. Then we’ll take a walk.”
They walked until darkness began to brighten the neon lights of the businesses and shops on the street. Then they climbed the stairs to their fourth-floor apartment and she rummaged in her jeans pockets for her keys.
When they stepped into the kitchen/living room/hall way, he glanced around awkwardly. The only times he’d ever spent the night with a woman were when he intended to get into her bed. It was weird to say goodnight and walk to his room, weirder still to find himself in a bed about one-third the size of his bed at home. But as he drifted off to dreamland, he had to admit he felt an odd stirring of something he could have sworn was pride, self-satisfaction. Technically, everything he had at Darius and Whitney’s house was theirs. Tonight was the first night he was sleeping on a bed he’d paid for. In an apartment he’d rented. On his own. His own money.
The next morning, his alarm woke him at seven-thirty. He didn’t immediately get out of bed. Instead, he waited to be sure he didn’t hear the sound of the shower running in the bathroom across the hall, then he made his way across the hall. He stood under the spray in a stall that was about one-quarter of the shower in his bathroom at home and then moseyed back to his room.
Just as he stepped into boxers, there was a knock at his door. “Hey, roomie! You’re either out of there in two minutes or we’ll be late for work.”
He grabbed his watch from the dresser and frowned. “It’s only a quarter till eight.”
“And it takes us an hour to get to work on the train.”
“But I have my –“
“Car?” The music of her laughter came into his room. “If you want to see how the other half lives, you take the subway. If you want to just pretend to see how the other half lives, you drive.”
She had him.
He rolled his shoulders, forcing himself to relax. “All right. I’ll be out in two minutes.”
It was more like five, but Bethany didn’t seem perturbed. Her pretty yellow hair bouncing around her, she ran down the steps ahead of him. Just as he’d experienced the weird feelings of pride the night before, her joy tumbled through him now. They were late. She ran, but she also laughed.
She was so poor she could only afford half of a rundown apartment, but she laughed.
So he laughed. What the hell? So they were late?
But when they reached their stop and climbed the steps out of the subway, Bethany caught his arm. “Okay. Here’s the deal. I don’t think it’s good for anybody to know we’re living together.”
Good Lord. In his enthusiasm over running to the train and taking in the odd assortment of passengers, he’d forgotten all about that.
His intellectual reaction was to agree, but a funny feeling floated through his chest when she said, “So, here’s where we part company.”
She wasn’t just unattracted to him. She was ditching him.
“I’m going to go to the newsstand to get a coffee. I’ll see you in the office.”
With that she turned and headed up the street. But halfway to the newsstand, curiosity got the better of her and she turned and watched Gino. Wearing his expensive dark suit and dark sunglasses that somehow accented his dark curly hair, he was gorgeous. But now she knew he wasn’t just gorgeous in a suit and tie. He looked good in jeans too. The night before her breath had actually stopped a few times when they were sitting across the table, eating dinner.
She ducked under the overhang of the newsstand and efficiently poured her cup of coffee from an available carafe. But standing in line waiting to pay, her mind tumbled back to Gino. She’d made a huge mistake letting him live with her. Not only was he her boss, but also she was a tad more attracted to him than she’d let herself admit.
But since she couldn’t take it back without looking like the biggest cliché in the book – a woman with a crush on her rich boss – she decided some ground rules were in order.
She let him find his own way back to the apartment that night. Just because they were living together didn’t mean they had to ride together. By the time he opened the apartment door and entered the kitchen, she’d created her list of rules.
“I realize I took a lot for granted last night when I sort of forced dinner on you.” Wearing a pencil behind her ear and shorts that showed off her incredibly long legs, Gino’s roommate guided him to the chair in her living room.
As he sat, she handed him a piece of paper. “That’s a schedule I think might work for us.”
He glanced down then back up again. He’d been in meetings most of the day, but when he’d been in his office she’d been coolly efficient. Almost as if she were avoiding him. Then she’d ditched him again when it came time to go home.
She dropped to the sofa beside the chair and he glanced over at her, struggling to keep his eyes on her face, and not let them float down to her T-shirt or her long, long legs –
He stifled a groan. No wonder she’d avoided him all day and suddenly had a list of rules. His attraction was so spontaneous, so natural, that he couldn’t always control it. She’d obviously noticed.
“I’ll take the shower first, since I don’t mind getting up at seven.”
He peered at her schedule, back at her. “Okay.”
“And you don’t have to take the subway with me.”
He remembered their laughter that morning. The fun they’d had. And how nice it was to start the day being silly. But she didn’t want him around. A blue flame of annoyance leaped inside him.
“You got the flavor of it this morning.” She laughed. “So I’m giving you an A on that part of your lessons in living like a normal person and letting you move on.”
He caught her gaze. “What if I don’t want to move on?”
“Oh, please. Who’d rather take the subway than drive?”
Somebody who enjoyed her company. That was who.
He scrubbed his hand along the back of his neck. He’d never felt this kind of compulsion around a woman. He’d also never had a woman put him off like this. Not that he was bragging, but most women were happy to spend time with him.
“And you don’t have to eat with me. If we’re both here and hungry, good. If not, we’re adults who can manage dinner alone.”
He rose from the chair. He wouldn’t embarrass himself by telling her he’d been looking forward to eating with her again – maybe even buying her dinner. “I do actually have a dinner thing with my parents tonight.” Too late he realized that he’d broken Andreas rule number one. No lying. He cleared his throat. “It’s not really a thing, thing. I just have dinner with them most nights and debrief about work.”
She popped up from the sofa and cheerfully said, “Good!”
Annoyance pounded through him, but he had his pride. “Okay. So I’ll see you later tonight.” He headed for the door, but stopped. “Or not. I might not get in until late. So don’t wait up.” He waved the schedule at her. “And seeing as how we now have this, I might not see you until work tomorrow.”
Only with great effort did he keep himself from slamming the door. Worse, because of traffic, the drive to Montauk took so long he missed dinner. Really? Was the day just going to continue to dive downhill?
But once he stepped into his parents’ house, the world suddenly brightened. Cook happily warmed up a dish of leftovers and his mom and dad took seats at the table in the sunroom with him.
As he dug into Yankee pot roast, his dad casually said, “So what’s up? Thought you were spending time with your roomie?”
And the day went back to sucking. He hid a scowl behind a forkful of potatoes.
“Trouble in paradise?”
Whitney slapped his arm. “Stop it, Darius. They’re not roomie roomies. He’s doing her a favor.” She smiled. “So what happened?”
Knowing he wasn’t getting out of this without answering, Gino said, “She decided that just because we’re roomies that doesn’t mean we have to do everything together.”
Darius leaned back in his chair. “Well, technically, you don’t.”
“I know, but she didn’t have to be so blunt about it.”
Whitney very carefully said, “Did you do something wrong?”
Since there was no way he’d admit that he might have accidentally tipped Bethany off that he was attracted to her, Gino said, “No.” Then realized he’d lied again. That was twice in one night. She was killing him.
He sighed. Took back the lie. “I think she’s uncomfortable living with me because we’re both young, single … attractive people.”
Darius said, “Ah.”
“And I might have sort of…inadvertently…maybe…looked at her a little too long or something and made her feel I was … maybe … too attracted to her for her to be comfortable.”
“So you’re here,” Whitney said, “to show her that you’re not a threat.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Exactly.”
The conversation turned to business from there and after a few minutes, Whitney left to catch up on some reading. The men played a round of video golf and Gino considered just going to his apartment in the east wing of the mansion, but in the last second he couldn’t do it. He’d told Bethany that he wanted to see how the other half lived – because he did – but if he folded like a deck of cards the first time a problem came up, then he’d either be knee-deep in his third lie or he’d be a coward. He was neither a liar nor a coward.
He said goodbye to his parents in the foyer of the beautiful home he’d taken for granted for thirty years and walked out the door.
After the door closed, Darius burst out laughing. “He’s fallen in love in like three days.”
Whitney stepped close and wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist. “And he’s about as clueless about it as you were.”
He nipped her nose. “So what do we do about it?”
“Nothing. We hope he’s smart enough to figure it out himself.”
Darius groaned. “We’re doomed. We’ll never have grandkids.”
Gino arrived home to a quiet apartment and would have headed to his room, but the curtain on the living room window wafted in the breeze coming in from the open window. When he walked over to close it, he saw Britney sitting on the fire escape platform.
She glanced over. “Hey.”
“Everything all right?”
“Yeah.” She inclined her head. “I just like it out here. I can see the moon.” She smiled at him, held out her hand. “Come out.”
He hesitated because he still wore his suit from work, but the dreamy smile on her face tempted him. What could possibly be out there that would make her so happy?
He crawled out. But, the space was so small that he pushed her up against the black iron railing. He tried to crawl back, but that put him halfway inside the window again. So he scooted to the wall and she shifted to accommodate him and before he knew it she was seated between his spread thighs. His arms automatically fell around her, resting on her flat tummy.
He squeezed his eyes shut as rightness settled over him.
She pointed at the sky. “See? The moon.”
He laughed. “Um. I see the moon all the time.”
“And probably take it for granted.”
At the tone of her voice, his eyes narrowed. Why did she always take him to task about everything? “Me and fifty million other people.”
“When I was growing up, I thought the moon was my mother.”
She turned in his arms, caught his gaze. “Yes.”
With his own parental history, he knew to tread carefully. “Didn’t your real mom get mad?”
She snorted a laugh and turned away again. “She left me in foster care when I was three.”
He froze, not quite sure what to say, but his arms automatically tightened around her. No wonder she was so proud of what she had.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was one of the lucky ones. I stayed with my original foster parents for six years and then the next set for another six years until they retired and moved south. I thought about asking them to take me with them but I realized if they wanted me they would have asked. After that I was sent to a series of foster homes, but they were all fairly decent.”
His heart broke into a million little pieces. While he’d spent his childhood wondering about his parents, appreciating Whitney and Darius, but always wondering, Bethany had spent her childhood feeling unwanted. And, at fifteen, changing homes again when the people she’d known as her caregivers retired from the job.
“I never suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse. But I never felt connected. So,” she said, pointing at the moon, “I’d talk to the moon. Because every year, year after year, the moon was always there.”
“But it couldn’t talk back.” He wasn’t entirely sure why he said it, what difference it made, what business it was of his, but he knew, in his gut, as surely as he knew he would never take Darius or Whitney for granted again, that that had mattered to her.
“No. It couldn’t talk back, but eventually I found friends.”
“One of whom left you in an apartment you now can’t afford.”
She surprised him by laughing. “Hey, it’s not every day a woman finds the love of her life.”
She glanced back at him, and her pretty smile all but stopped his heart. No. It wasn’t everyday that anybody found of love of his or her life and it scared him to think he might be finding his now – and she didn’t want him.
“The point is, thanks to loans and lots of waitressing jobs, I made it. I’m here.” She paused, took a long slow breath. Her chin tipped up as she again focused on the moon. “I saved tips for years, knowing that one day when I finally had my degree I could come to New York.”
“It is the center of the universe to some people.”
She laughed, turned and caught his gaze again. “I didn’t care about it being the center of the universe. I just had this sense, in my gut, that my future was here. My destiny.”
Staring into her eyes, with the full moon watching from high above the skyline, he felt a sudden punch of destiny himself. His voice was unexpectedly scratchy when he said, “And what was that destiny?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I had this sense,” she patted her tummy, “in here, that I was supposed to come to New York. That my future was here so here I am.”
He wanted to kiss her more than he wanted his next breath of air. He waited for her to turn away, but she didn’t. She just kept staring at him as if she was only now figuring out what had been nagging at him ever since they moved in together.
There was a reason for this. A reason fate had found her roommate a boyfriend. A reason her landlord had threatened to evict her. A reason she came to him for help. A reason he helped her.
They were supposed to be together.
He dipped his head just a bit and she twisted her face upward another bit and their lips met. Yeah, she knew.
The next morning, Bethany awoke early and squeezed her eyes shut when she heard the shower running. She knew she’d given Gino the wrong impression the night before. Not that she wasn’t attracted to him. She was. He’d kissed her in a way nobody had ever kissed her before. As if she were special, beautiful. For fifty cents, she’d kick her pride to the curb and see where this relationship would take her. But she couldn’t. Not only did she need this job, but a person didn’t need binoculars to see how far this relationship would go. Nowhere. He was rich. She was poor. Even if they fell in love, she’d never fit into his world.
She waited until he got out of the shower before she even slid out of bed. She used the bathroom quickly and had herself dressed before he came out of his room.
He stopped, froze in the hallway as if he hadn’t expected to see her. “Hey.”
“I…um…” She sucked in a breath. “About last night. We really shouldn’t have done that.”
He grinned. “Didn’t feel like that to me.”
“I know. But you know my story. I need a roommate right now more than I need a …” She winced. “Boyfriend seems like such a stupid term, doesn’t it?”
No. Damn it. It didn’t seem like a stupid term to him. But he was getting the big picture. Two different worlds. Two different views of life. Two different people. They didn’t mesh and maybe it was time he stopped wishing for something that couldn’t be.
He grabbed his briefcase. “Okay. Great. Fine.” He strode past her and pushed out into the hall. He didn’t even mind the four-floor walk down. He relished being able to stomp that long.
They avoided each other all day and he considered not going to her apartment that night. But he remembered some of the things she’d said the night before and the emotion that had resonated through her voice. No one had ever given her a break. No one. Sure, she’d never been abused. But she’d also never been cared for. And though he wasn’t allowed to love her, he surely to God wasn’t going to be yet another person in the long string who’d let her down.
What was supposed to be only a two-day adventure, a way to get her to keep his money, suddenly became two weeks. Knowing he couldn’t be angry with her for a twist of fate, he’d gone back to his original mission. In exchange for the rent money, he wanted to experience the life of a normal person. Since spending time together with her as a teacher gave them both a way to get their minds off their attraction, he allowed her to teach him to grocery shop. She showed him how to use coupons, how to buy day-old bread and toast it for sandwiches or use it for French toast. He’d eaten macaroni, soup from a can, taken out garbage.
Their morning routine became a sort of game where she showered first, then dried her hair in her bedroom, while he showered and shaved. He dried his hair in his bedroom while she put on makeup. Then she stepped into clothes while he brushed his teeth. And she brushed her teeth while he gathered their things leave.
One morning, when they’d lived together an entire month, the water wouldn’t get warm, so Britney couldn’t shower. She filled a pot with water, heated it on the stove and gave herself a sponge bath. Because she was late, Gino walked in on her while she was brushing her teeth.
“Sorry. There’s no water. Just give me a minute to finish and the bathroom will be all yours.”
Gino barely heard her. She wore a white tank top and panties and no bra. He’d seen women in various stages of undress from the time he was old enough to remember his younger sister, Elizabeth, running around naked after her bath. He’d had lovers. He saw women in bikinis all day every day at the beach house on Montauk.
But he’d never seen Bethany. And weird things began to roll through his head. First, she was not only his employee but they had a deal, so this was wrong. But she was also his friend. A true friend. A good friend. Someone he could talk to without fear. Somebody he wouldn’t hesitate to share a secret with.
But he was also attracted to her. Always had been. Always would be. How could he have been so stupid as to think he wouldn’t want to see her smooth skin – that he wouldn’t want to make love to her?
After a few seconds of him just staring at her, she finally sighed. “What?”
He swallowed. Maybe it was time for this experiment to end. “I was just thinking that I…”
He swallowed again. Because they’d spent the past month like bosom buddies, not people who were attracted, she was totally comfortable standing before him scantily clad.
But the blood that bubbled up in his veins, shooting hormones straight to places they really shouldn’t go, told him quite clearly he didn’t think of her as a roomie anymore.
He turned to leave, but just as quickly spun around again, slid his hand around the back of her neck, yanked her to him and kissed her.
All the air stuttered out of Bethany’s lungs. Warmth pooled in her middle. She’d never wanted anybody to kiss her the way she wanted Gino to kiss her. Constantly. Dangerously. Their mouths mated in a delicious dance that told her he was every bit as attracted to her as she was to him, but no matter how hard she tried to wish around it, she didn’t belong in his world.
She pulled away and immediately glanced down because, damned it, tears were welling up behind her eyelids.
He lifted her chin. “Hey.”
She sucked in a breath. “Look, I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that I don’t like you.” She held the gaze of his gorgeous dark eyes and nearly changed her mind. About everything. Couldn’t she once, just once, take a risk?
No. Risk got kids kicked out of homes. Risk lost apartments. Risk caused pain.
“But we both know this isn’t going anywhere.” She pressed her lips together to stop their trembling before she finished. “I don’t want to get hurt.”
“I won’t hurt you.”
She smiled wearily. “You won’t want to hurt me. But you will.”
That night Gino didn’t go to the apartment. He drove to his home, went to his suite of rooms, watched his own television, and felt like a cheat.
He waited until everyone had eaten before he ambled down to the kitchen for supper. Even as he sweet talked Cook into reheating his food, he felt like a fraud.
“So is your arrangement with your assistant over?”
He spun away from the eight-burner stove and saw his dad, smiling smugly.
“Hey!” Whitney walked into the kitchen through the swinging door. “Gino! Experiment over?”
He cleared his throat to answer, but Cook handed him a plate of lasagna and a basket of crusty bread. “Eat these as you talk,” she said, shooing him and his parents into the sunroom.
Setting his supper on the table, he said, “I think I botched things royally this morning.”
His dad’s eyes narrowed. “Botched? Did you forget to give her a check?”
He sighed. “No. I kissed her.”
Whitney angled her elbow on the table and her chin on her closed fist. “Really?”
“Don’t start picking out china patterns. She’s mad at me. Kissing was breaking our deal.”
Darius looked affronted. “She doesn’t like you?”
“That’s the whole hell of it. She does. I think she really does. But she grew up poor.” He cleared his throat. Bethany had never told him to keep any of this a secret, so he didn’t feel uncomfortable talking about it. “She was a foster kid.”
Whitney caught his gaze. “She’s worried that she doesn’t fit.”
Darius rose. “So we’ll make her fit.”
Whitney caught his hand and pulled him down again. “We can’t fit a square peg into a round hole.”
Shocked by his mother’s words, Gino hissed out a breath.
“But,” Whitney said, continuing before he could reply, “you could.”
“I could what?”
“Change. You’re already living in her apartment.”
Darius smiled as if catching on. “I didn’t think you’d last five days let alone five weeks.” He grinned. “But liking her kept you there.” He pointed at Gino’s sloppy T-shirt. “It also caused you to adjust. You need to make this permanent.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“We’re telling you that you need to show her you’re willing to live with her for as long as it takes for her to get comfortable with us.”
Darius laughed. “How much do you like her?”
“I think I love her.”
“Then you’ll do what you have to do.”
He finished his supper and headed back to the city with his parents’ advice ringing in his ears. About halfway there, he picked up his phone and made a few calls.
When he finished, a soft rain began to fall. By the time he reached the apartment building the streets were shiny. Tires rolling through puddles made crisp splashing sounds.
He raced into the building and jogged up the steps. When he opened the apartment door, he found Bethany at the stove. The scent of chocolate filled the air.
“Are you making cocoa?”
She wouldn’t look at him. “Fudge.”
Comfort food. Thank God for sisters. He took a few shaky steps into the room. In the car his plan of action had seemed brilliant. Suddenly, face-to-face, he wasn’t so sure of himself. Still, he’d taken his only options and he had to run with them. “You missed me.”
She shrugged. “Didn’t think you were coming back. I was worried about next month’s rent.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry. That’s all taken care of.”
She whirled to face him. “You paid my rent?”
He ambled into the room. “Not really. I bought your apartment.”
“I bought this apartment and the one next to it. I’m willing to make some adjustments while you adjust to me. But if we’re going to live here for the next few years, I think we should be comfortable.”
“Out of everything I packed into that sentence, you pick a pronoun to quibble over?”
He walked over, lifted her chin. “I want to live with you. Really live with you.”
Her eyes widened, but just as quickly her face fell with misery. “This isn’t a game to me.”
“Hey, with the price I paid for these two apartments it’s not a game to me either.” He sucked in a breath. “I love you.”
Her head snapped up. Her eyes met his. She tried to say a million things but the only thing that came out was, “This quickly?”
“My father tells me he and his brothers fell in love pretty quickly themselves. I guess Andreas men just know their minds when it comes to women.”
He smiled. “And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to prove it to you.” His smile grew into a grin. “Turns out that’s another Andreas family trait. We’re persistent.”
She picked at a string on his T-shirt. “I guess I could let you stay.”
He kissed her. Lightly. Tenderly. They were sealing a precarious deal. He was asking for the heart that had already been broken so many takes she was reluctant to give it again. “The plan is to live here while they create a new master suite in the other apartment. Then we’ll stay in the master suite and eat out while they create a kitchen and living room in this one.”
She smiled. “Sounds good.”
“You know you’re going to have to meet my family.”
“I already know your brothers.”
“I have a mom, a sister and a brother too.”
Her eyes grew dreamy. “Really?”
She said the word reverently and his heart twisted. He wanted to give her everything. Not just the things life hadn’t given her, but everything within his power. “Your family.”
The tears in her eyes spilled over. “My family.” Then she kissed him.
Copyright 2011 Susan Meier
For more about the Andreas Family, read the story of Gino's parents, Darius and Whitney, in THE BABY PROJECT. Nick and Maggie Andreas reunite in SECOND CHANCE BABY. And Cade Andreas is brought up short by pretty Suzanne Caldwell in A BABY ON THE RANCH. All from Harlequin Romance.
For more on the "babies" look for FALLING FOR THE PLAYBOY, Michael Andreas's story and THE COWGIRL AND THE RANCHER, Mitzi's story.