CHAPTER THREE

To her complete and utter amazement, he didn’t insist on supervising her work. Instead, he left her with a friendly “Don’t forget to mark down check 3521.” Probably planning to double-check her work later, Patience decided. She took more care than usual to make sure the ledgers were perfect.

After lunch, Stuart went to the hospital to spend time with Ana while she stayed behind to wage war with the brownstone windows. She thought about visiting as well, but decided to wait until evening so Stuart would see how seriously she took her job.

And, okay, maybe part of her wanted to avoid him. Being civil would be a lot easier if they didn’t see each other. The energy shift when they shook hands still had her thrown. Ever since, there’d been this inexplicable fluttering in her stomach that no amount of window cleaning could shake. A reminder that she wasn’t dealing with an ordinary man, but rather someone a class above the creeps and losers who’d crossed her path over the years. Talk about two different worlds, she thought with an unbidden shiver.

All the more reason to avoid him as much as possible.
And so, armed with cleaner and crumpled newspaper, she polished glass until the smell of vinegar clung to her nostrils and there wasn’t a streak to be found. As she stretched out the small of her back, she checked the clock on the parlor mantel. Five o’clock. Time to feed the beast. She was surprised Nigel wasn’t upstairs with her, meowing up a storm. He wasn’t in the hallway, either.

“You better not be hiding somewhere thinking about pouncing on me,” she called out as she trotted down the stairs. “I can tell you right now scaring me won’t get you on my good side.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Stuart replied. He looked impossibly at home, standing at the counter with a cat food can in his hand and Nigel weaving in and around his legs.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, only to realize how abrupt she sounded. They were supposed to be acting civil after all. “I mean, I thought you were visiting Ana.” That sounded much nicer.

“I got home a few minutes ago and Nigel met me at the door. Nearly broke my ankle demanding supper.”

“No way!” She purposely exaggerated her disbelief. “Good thing you weren’t on the stairs.” Her smark couldn’t have faded even if she wanted it to. Go Nigel. Kitty earned himself extra tuna.
To his credit, Stuart had the decency to look apologetic. “Point made. I was wrong.”

“Told you so.” Since they were being civil, she kept the rest of her gloating to herself. Instead, she bent down to retrieve Nigel’s bowl, making sure she gave the cat an extra scratch under the chin when he ran over to see her. “How is Ana?” she asked.

His expression changed in a flash, growing somber. “They’ve got her on pain medicine so she mostly sleeps, and the couple times she did wake up, she was confused. The nurses told me that’s pretty common, especially at her age.” He breathed hard through his nostrils. A nonverbal but…

Patience felt herself softening toward the man even more. Seeing Ana so weak had upset her, too, and she had been around to see how active Ana had been. Goodness only knows how shocked Stuart must have felt having missed the last eight months. “I’m sure she’ll be back to her feisty self in no time,” she said, trying to reassure him. And herself, too, maybe.

“That’s what the nurses said.”

“But…?” There was a hesitancy in his response that once again left the word hanging in the air.

“Did you know one-fourth of senior citizens who break a hip die within six months?”

“Not Ana.” No way was he going down that road. “She’d kill you if she heard you. Besides, she broke an ankle, not a hip, so your statistic doesn’t apply.”

“You’re right. It doesn’t.” A smile graced his features. Forced maybe, but it erased the sadness from his face. Patience was glad. He looked much better with his dimples showing. Not that he didn’t look good when serious, but his appeal definitely increased when his eyes sparkled.

“And Ana would kill me,” he added, and they shared another smile before Stuart looked away to finish feeding Nigel. Patience waited until he’d scraped the sides of the cat food can before placing the bowl back in its place. “I was planning to visit Ana tonight,” she told him.

“Me too. Right after dinner.”

Shoot! She’d completely forgotten about dinner. Normally, by this point in the day, she’d have started cooking, but she’d been so engrossed in cleaning the windows—and trying not to think about Stuart—that everything else slipped her mind. “I… um…” Combing the bangs from her eyes, she caught a whiff of vinegar and winced at the odor. “I hope you don’t mind simple. I forgot to get the meat out to thaw.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll grab something on the way. I’ve been dying for an Al’s Roast Beef.”

“No way.”

“What, you don’t like Al’s?”

“No, I love it.” She was surprised he did. Al’s was a little hole-in-the-wall near the subway overpass. The kind of place you weren’t one-hundred-percent sure passed the health inspection, although it did have the most amazing burgers and roast beef sandwiches. She would have pegged Stuart as preferring something more upscale and elegant, like the wine bar up the street. “Can’t beat their barbecue special.”

“Would you like to join me?”

Join him? The hair on the back of her neck started to rise, much the way it did when he’d suggested they start over. She didn’t trust this warmer, gentler Stuart. Especially since he said he still didn’t trust her.

What was he up to?

“We both need to eat,” he replied, picking up on her hesitation. “We’re both going to the hospital. Why not go together?”

Why not? She could give a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact she should be avoiding him, not giving him an opportunity to dig for information.

“Plus, I owe you an apology for being wrong about Nigel.”

“You do owe me that,” Patience replied.

“So, is that a yes?” His expectant smile was so charming it caused her stomach to do a tiny somersault.

As sure a sign as any that she should say no. Playing with fire, the voice in her head reminded her.

Except that smile was too darn hard to refuse. “Sure,” she replied. “Why not?”
*
She regretted her response as soon as they arrived at Al’s. Actually, she regretted it as soon as the words left her mouth and Stuart flashed a knee-buckling smile, but arriving at the restaurant sealed the deal—restaurant being a loose description. Beacon Hill types considered the banged-up booths and ketchup stains “atmosphere.” Patience considered it dirty. The place reminded her too much of the old days.

“We could do takeout if you’d rather,” Stuart said, correctly interpreting her expression. “Go eat by the river.”

Patience shook her head. “No. Here will be fine.” A picnic by the river sounded too nice, and, frankly, the situation was strange enough without the atmosphere feeling like a date.

This kinder, gentler Stuart made her nervous. They weren’t friends—not by a long shot—and she wasn’t really sure she bought his apology excuse. So why were they out to dinner together?

After placing their orders, they took seats in a booth toward the rear of the restaurant. One of the cleaner tables, if that was saying anything. Immediately, Patience took out a package of hand wipes and began cleaning the crumbs from the surface, earning a chuckle from Stuart.

“You do realize you’re off the clock, right?” he asked.

“You want to eat on a dirty table?” she shot back. She was beginning to dislike his laugh. Rich and thick, the sound slipped down her spine like warm chocolate syrup, making her insides quiver every time she heard it. Doubling down on her cleaning efforts, she did her best to wash both the crumbs and the sensation away. “I don’t even want to think about what the kitchen looks like,” she continued.

There was a splash of dried cola near the napkin dispenser. She went at it with vigor. “Piper would have a nutty if she saw this place.”

“Who’s Piper?”

Drat. She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud. This really was a mistake. Not five minutes in and she’d opened the door to personal questions. Fortunately, Piper was the one personal subject she could talk about forever. “She’s my sister.”

“Let me guess, she’s into cleaning, too?”

“No, cooking.” Her chest grew full. “She’s studying to be a chef. In Paris.” She made a point of emphasizing the location.

“Is that so?”

Based on the spark in Stuart’s eye, Patience decided it was admiration and not disbelief coloring his voice, and her pride expanded some more. “She was accepted last fall. It’s always been her dream to become a famous chef.”

“You must be proud.”

“Proud doesn’t begin to cover it. I think she’s going to be the next Top Chef, she’s that talented. Ever since she was a kid, she had a knack for taking ingredients you’d never thought would go together and turning them into something delicious. Once, I came home and found her making jalapeño pancakes.”

“Were they any good?”

“Believe it or not, they were. Alhough she got flour everywhere. Took me all night to clean the film from the countertop.” A waste of time since the roaches came scrounging anyway. The thought only made her smile fade a little. As always, her pride in Piper’s talent overruled the bad.

Their conversation was interrupted by a group of college students settling into the booth behind them.

Their laughter barely disguised the popping of beer cans.

“I forgot this place was BYOB,” Stuart remarked. “We could have brought a bottle of Merlot to go with our meal.”

“I’m not sure this is a Merlot kind of place,” Patience replied.

“Good point. Beer then.”

She tried and failed to stop her grimace.

“You don’t like beer?”

“I don’t like the smell.” He wouldn’t either if he’d spent years breathing sour, stale air.

Stuart was clearly curious, but thankfully he didn’t push. At least not right then. Instead, he stretched his arms along the back of the booth, the position pulling his shirt taut across his torso and emphasizing the contours beneath the cotton. Patience wondered if he realized he was the most superior-looking man in the place.

“So, your sister’s dream is to become a famous chef,” he said. “What’s yours?”

To make sure Piper’s dream came true. Patience busied herself with pulling napkins from the dispenser.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, come on. Surely you didn’t always want to be a housekeeper?”

He was fishing. Looking for clues about this so-called agenda he thought she had regarding his aunt.

What would he think if she told him her childhood hadn’t allowed for dreams or aspirations? Or that there was a time when even being a housekeeper seemed out of her reach? Would he trust her more or less? Patience could guess the answer.

“I thought we called a truce,” she said, dodging the question.

“Hey, I was just making conversation. I didn’t realize I’d asked you to reveal a state secret.”

He had a point. Maybe she was overreacting just a little. It certainly wasn’t his fault he’d stumbled too close to a bad topic. “Teacher,” she said softly. “When I was little, I wanted to be a teacher.”

“There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Damn him for having a charming smile as he spoke. “What changed your mind?”

“I grew up,” she replied. The words came out sharper than she intended, causing a stunned expression.

“And my mother died, leaving me to raise Piper.” She was probably telling him way too much, but she figured revealing some facts was smarter than acting prickly. “Hard to go to school and raise your kid sister.” Not that there was money for school to begin with, but he didn’t need to know that.

“I’m sorry. How old were you?”

“Eighteen.”

“That must have been tough.”

“We managed. How about you?” She rushed to change the subject before he could ask anything further. “Did you always want to be a lawyer?”

He laughed again. “Of course not. No little boy wants to be lawyer. I wanted to be a professional baseball player.”

“What happened?”

“I grew up,” he said, repeating her answer. In his case, instead of sounding prickly, the words came out sad, despite his clearly trying to sound otherwise. “Turns out you have to have athletic ability to be a professional athlete—or a child athlete, for that matter.”

Looking at him, she found his protest a bit hard to believe. “You look pretty athletic to me,” she said. His arched brow made her blush. “I mean, I’m sure you weren’t as bad as you make it sound.”

“I had bad eyes, allergies and childhood asthma. Trust me, no one was ever going to confuse me with Babe Ruth. Or John Ruth for that matter.”

“Who’s John Ruth?”

“Exactly.” He grinned, and she got the joke. He was worse than a guy who didn’t exist.

“So,” he continued, “with the Hall of Fame out of the picture, I found myself steered toward the family business.”

“I thought your family business was mining?” Ana was always talking about Duchenko silver.

“Not since the turn of the century. Grandpa Theodore turned it into law. Thankfully. Can you see me coughing and squinting my way through a silver mine?”

No, she thought with a laugh. He definitely belonged to suits and luxury surroundings. His choice of words did make her curious, however. “You said steered. You didn’t choose?”

“Sometimes you find yourself on a path without realizing it,” he replied with a shrug.

Patience could sure relate to that, although at its worst, his path couldn’t hold a candle to the one she’d landed on. “Do you at least like it?”

“For the most part. There are days when I’d rather be in the mine.”

“No offense,” she told him, “but I’ll take the bad day of a rich lawyer over the bad day of a poor maid anytime.”

“Don’t be so sure,” he said. “You’ve never had to draft a prenuptial agreement for your step-grandmother.”

At that moment, the girl at the counter called out their order, and he slid from the booth, leaving Patience to wonder about his answer. Writing some document hardly seemed a big ordeal.

Stuart returned a few minutes later with a tray laden with food. The smell of fresh beef made her stomach rumble. Grimy location or not, Al’s did have good burgers.

She waited until they’d divided the burgers and French fries before picking up the conversation. “How is writing a prenuptial so awful?” she asked him. “It’s not like unclogging a toilet or something.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you met Grandma Gloria.”

“Harsh.”

“Not harsh enough,” he said, biting into his burger.

So Patience wasn’t the only person Stuart had issues with. Maybe he didn’t like outsiders in general. Or was it only women? “She had to have some redeeming quality. I mean if your grandfather loved her…”

“Grandpa Theodore wanted her. Big difference.”

“She must have wanted him too,” Patience replied. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to defend this

Gloria person, unless it was because exonerating Gloria might improve her own standing in his mind.

“She wanted Duchenko money.” There was no mistaking the venom in his voice. “And she went after it like a heat-seeking missile. Didn’t matter who she got the money from, or who she had to hurt in the process.”

Like who? The way his face twisted with bitterness made her think he was leaving something out of the story. It certainly explained why he had issues with her befriending Ana.

“This Gloria woman sounds lovely.”

“Oh, she was a real peach. Did I mention she turned thirty-four on her last birthday?” he added abruptly.

“Thirty-four?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Hasn’t your grandfather been dead for…”

“Ten years,” he supplied. My grandfather died ten years ago.”

Making Gloria…ew. Patience wrinkled her nose at the image.

“Exactly. And now I’m stuck dealing with her for the rest of eternity.”

Patience took a long sip of her cola. His comments had opened the door to a lot of questions, about many of which she had no business being curious, and yet seeing his frown, she couldn’t help herself. “Ana doesn’t talk much about her family,” she said. “Other than you, that is.

“Unfortunately, there wasn’t much love lost between Ana and Grandpa Theodore. From what I understand, they stopped speaking to each other around forty or fifty years ago. People were shocked when she traveled to his funeral. She told them it was only out of respect for me.”

“Wow.” To not speak to your sibling for decades? She couldn’t imagine going more than two or three days without talking to Piper. “That must have been some fight.”

“True. I asked Ana once, but all she said was Grandpa Theodore stole her happiness.”

“How?” Ana seemed like one of the happiest people she knew.

“Beats me. I remember my father grumbling once that he wished my grandfather would make things right this one time, so whatever happened was his fault. Unfortunately, unless Ana decides to open up, we might never know.”

“Your poor dad. Sounds like he was stuck in the middle.”

“For a little while anyway. He uh…” His eyes dropped to his half-eaten meal. “He and my mom died in a car accident when I was fourteen.”

“Oh.” Patience kicked herself for bringing up the subject. “I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago.”

Time didn’t mean anything. There was nothing worse than having the ground yanked out from under you, leaving you with no idea where you belonged, what would happen next, or who would catch you if you fell. The teenage Stuart would have held in the pain, put on a strong face. She could tell by the way he held himself now, closed and protected.

Just like her. No one should be forced to grow up before they’re ready.

Again, it was as if she’d spoken her thoughts out loud, because Stuart looked up, his blue eyes filled with a mixture of curiosity and gratitude. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say you grew up earlier than I did.”

His words twisted around her heart. If only he knew… For a crazy second, she longed to tell him everything, thinking that he, having been in her shoes, might understand. Reality quickly squashed her fantasy. He’d never understand. The two of them came from two different worlds. Rich versus poor. Clean versus dirty. Sitting here, sharing childhood losses, it was easy for that fact to slip her mind.

“It’s not really a contest I wanted to win,” she heard herself answer.

“I don’t suppose anyone ever does.” Picking up his soda, he saluted her with the paper cup. “To happier subjects.”

That was it? No questions? No probing? Patience studied his face, looking for evidence that the other shoe was about to drop. She saw nothing but sincerity in his smoky eyes.

“To happier subjects,” she repeated. She’d gotten off easy this time.

Or had she? Stuart smiled over the rim of his glass, causing her insides to flip end over end. All of a sudden, Patience didn’t feel she’d gotten off at all. More like she was falling into something very dangerous.

*

“Ana seemed a little more with it tonight,” Patience remarked a few hours later. They were walking along Charles Street on their way home from the hospital.

“Yes, she did,” Stuart replied. The change from this afternoon made him hopeful. Interesting, how his aunt’s improvement seemed tied to Patience’s arrival. Much as he hated to admit it, the housekeeper and his aunt had a real rapport. Patience was so, well, patient, with the older woman. Gentle, too. Getting Ana water. Making her comfortable. Everything about Patience’s behavior tonight screamed authenticity. If her kindness was an act, Patience deserved an award.

Then again, he’d seen award-worthy performances before, hadn’t he? He’d purposely brought up Gloria over dinner to gauge Patience’s reaction, thinking the topic of fortune hunters might at least cause her to reveal some kind of body language. Instead, he got sympathy, felt a connection…

“You’re frowning.” Patience remarked.

“Sorry, I was thinking how little Ana ate this evening.”

“She never eats much. You know that.”

Yes, thought Stuart, but he needed something to dodge her question.

They walked a few feet in silence. The night was balmy and clear. Combined with the warm breeze, it created an almost romantic feel to the air around them. Stuart stole a glance in Patience’s direction. She had her arms folded across her chest, and her eyes were focused on the pavement. Even so, he could still sense the undulating of her hips. It was, he realized, unconscious and natural. Otherwise, he suspected she’d attempt to downplay the sensuality the way she did her figure and her looks. Hell, maybe she was trying and failing. She certainly wasn’t having much luck minimizing the other two.

That plastic hair band was failing, too. Strands of hair had broken free, and covered her eyes. One of them needed to brush the bangs away so he could see their sparkle again.

He rubbed the back of his neck instead.

Patience must have mistaken the action for him being warm. “You can definitely tell it’s going to be the first day of summer,” she remarked.

“Longest day of the year. Did you know that after tomorrow, every day gets a few seconds shorter? Before you know it, we’ll be losing two and a half minutes a day. Sorry,” he quickly added. “I did a graph for a high school science fair. The fact kind of stuck with me.”

“In other words, you were blind, asthmatic, unathletic and a science nerd. No wonder you gave up on baseball.”

He felt his cheeks grow warm. “For the record, I’d outgrown the asthma by then.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Hey, we can’t all be homecoming queens.”

If he didn’t know better, he’d swear she hugged her body a little tighter. “I didn’t go to many school dances,” she said.

Another piece to what was becoming a very confusing puzzle. One moment she was sexy and sharp-witted; the next, her eyes reminded him of a kitten—soft and innocent. What the heck was her story? He was no closer to knowing if Patience had an agenda than he was this morning. They might say you get more flies with honey, but all he got was more questions.

Along with a dangerously mounting attraction.

*

Cool air greeted them upon entering the brownstone. Stuart shut the front door and turned on the hallway light. Nigel, who had been sitting on a table by the front window greeted them with a loud meow before running toward the kitchen.

“For crying out loud,” Patience called after him. “It’s only been a few hours.”

At the other end of the hall, the meows grew louder and more indignant—if such a thing was possible. She rolled her eyes, earning a chuckle from Stuart. He said, “You think he’s bad, you should have met the other Nigels.”

There were more? “You mean he’s not the first.”

“Actually, he’s the third. Nigel the Second lived here while I was in law school.”

“Wow, Ana must really like the name Nigel.” Either that or the woman wasn’t very good at pet names.

“I asked her once why she gave them all the same name,’ Stuart added. “She told me it was because they all have Nigel personalities.”

“If that’s true, remind me to avoid guys named Nigel.”

Their chuckles faded to silence. Patience toed the pattern on the entryway carpet. What now? There was an awkward expectancy in the air, as if both of them knew they should do or say something. The problem was, neither knew what.

At least Nigel had stopped his meowing.

“Thank you for dinner,’ she said finally.

“You’re welcome.” He smiled. “Maybe we’ve got this being civil thing down.”

“Maybe. I have to admit, you’re not bad company when you aren’t accusing me of things.”

“Never fear, tomorrow’s another day,” he replied. Patience would have laughed, but there was too much truth to his comment. This temporary truce of theirs could break at any time.

“By the way,” he added, you’re not such bad company yourself. When you aren’t dodging questions.”

“Like you said, tomorrow’s another day.” She turned to leave only to have her left foot tangle with something warm and furry. Nigel. She maneuvered herself awkwardly, trying to avoid stepping on the darn cat. Her ankle twisted, and she pitched sideways, toward the stairway. That caused her right knee to buckle, and before she knew it, she was falling in a heap.

Stuart caught her before her bottom touched the floor. “Stupid cat,” she muttered.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Nigel on the other hand might have used up another one of his nine lives.” She looked around, but the creature was nowhere to be found.

“He ran upstairs,” Stuart replied, helping her to her feet.

“With his tail between his legs, I hope. If you didn’t believe me before about Nigel causing Ana’s fall, you have to believe me now.”

“The evidence is definitely in your favor. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Positive. My butt didn’t even hit the ground.”

“Good. Hate to see you bruise something you might need,” he said with a smile.

That’s when she realized he still held her. His arm remained wrapped around her waist, pulling her close, so that their hips were flush. The odd angle gave Patience little choice but to rest her hand on his upper arm,

They might as well have been embracing.

He smelled of soap and laundry detergent. No aftershave—a testimony to his innate maleness that he didn’t need anything more. Awareness—no, something stronger than awareness—washed over her, settling deep in the pit of her stomach.

Fingers brushed her bangs away from her temple. Barely a whisper of a touch, it shot straight to her toes. Slowly, she lifted her gaze. “I’ve been wanting to do that all night,” he said in a voice softer than his touch.

“I—I’m growing out my bangs. That’s why they keep falling in my face.” Why did she think he wasn’t talking about her bangs?

Maybe because his attention had shifted to her mouth. Staring, studying. Patience caught her lip between her teeth to stop it from trembling. All either of them needed to do was to move their head the tiniest bit and they would be close enough to kiss.

“I should check on Nigel…” She twisted from his grasp, combing her fingers through her hair in a lousy attempt to mask her abruptness. She needed to…she didn’t know what she needed to do. The blood pounding in her ears made it hard to think.

She needed space. That’s what. Turning on her heel, she headed upstairs, forcing herself to take one step at a time. She lasted until the second flight, when Stuart was out of sight, before doubling the pace.

Smooth going, Patience, she thought when she finally closed her bedroom door. Why don’t you break out in a cold sweat while you’re at it?

What on earth was wrong with her anyway? She’d dealt with literally dozens of unwanted advances over the years. Losers, pushy drunks, punks who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves And she freaks out because Stuart touched her hair? The guy didn’t even try anything.

Oh, but you wanted him to, didn’t you? That’s why she’d bolted. In spite of everything that had gone on between them in the past twenty-four hours, she actually wanted Stuart Duchenko to kiss her.

Heaven help her, but she still did.

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