Her wallet was missing.
Arianna was going to be sick. Stomach churning, she slumped against the brick wall and took a shaky breath. Then she checked her bag a third time.
Lipstick. Hand sanitizer. Passport. No wallet.
How? She distinctly remembered double-checking her bag after paying for breakfast, and her wallet had been there, nestled against the silk lining.
Times Square. There’d been that woman who accosted her and needed help reading the subway map, and another man who jostled her while she was trying to break free. One of them must have reached in while she wasn’t paying attention…
Stupid, stupid, stupid. This was what happened when you tried to run away from your problems: you got more. Arianna closed her eyes to keep the tears from burning their way free. A few weeks, a month at most—that was all she’d needed.
For what had to be the one-hundredth time, she cursed her own foolishness. If she had listened to her instincts, she never would have had to run away in the first place. She wouldn’t have to decide between a loveless marriage and a royal scandal.
Now, thanks to the pickpocket, she was going to have to make the choice sooner rather than later. Without money, she couldn’t stay in America. She had no money for food, not to mention that the owner of that terrible hotel where she was staying expected her to pay her bill at the end of the week or, as he so sweetly said, he would toss her pretty rear end on the street.
Her child deserved better.
Amazing how one tiny pink line could change your life. When she first missed her period, she blamed stress. After all she and Manolo had just broken up. Besides, they had only been together—like that—two times. Two misguided attempts at deepening feelings that weren’t there.
When the second month came and went, however, she couldn’t blame stress anymore. The world stopped turning the moment she saw that extra pink line. She didn’t know what do to, so she ran. Disappeared, so she could decide which of her no-win choices was the lesser of two evils.
Just then, a cold November wind blew down the street, the chill swirling around her shins before creeping up her skirt. Nature’s way of reminding her how serious her predicament really was. Tucking her collar about her throat, Arianna lifted her chin with royal stoicism. No sense dragging her feet. With luck, a decision about what to do would come to her while she was on a plane back to Corinthia.
A few feet ahead, a deliveryman exited one of the businesses, maneuvering his cart over the threshold with a clank loud enough to be heard over Manhattan traffic. The place was called the Fox Club, according to the letters emblazed on the side of the maroon awning. Goodness only knew what kind of club the place was, but no matter. It was open and, hopefully, had a telephone she could borrow.
Except it wasn’t a club. It was a time portal. How else to describe what lay on the other side of the door?
The room looked like it belonged in an old-fashioned American detective movie, like the ones they sometimes played on television late at night. High-backed booths covered in rich burgundy leather, wood so dark it was almost black. Iridescent glass chandeliers that bathed the room with a smoky white light. The hair on Arianna’s arms started to rise. Sleek and sensual, the entire space pulsed with expectancy. A simmering promise of something for all who walked in.
To her left, a large bar lined the wall. More dark wood, only this time the dark was accented with brass rails and shelves filled with glassware. A stocky black man, dressed to fit the setting, stood by the register. His pomade-slicked head was bent over a clipboard, on which he was making notes. The man didn’t look up when she approached
Arianna cleared her throat. His attention still on the clipboard, the man reached under the bar and produced a sheet of paper that he thrust toward her. “Fill this out. I’ll tell the owner you’re here.”
“You’re here about the job, right?”
He hooked a thumb at a sign that had been discreetly tucked in the corner of one of the windows. Through the glass, she could make out the backward outline that read Help Wanted.
Arianna paused. It was a silly idea. Her, working in a restaurant. She’d never worked a day in her life. Not a proper job anyway.
On the other hand, if she could find a job, she would earn money, and money meant she could postpone going home.
She would have time to think.
Make the right choice.
Ignoring the voice telling her she was making yet another reckless decision, she set her bag on the bar and, before she could change her mind, announced, “Yes. Yes, I would like the job.”
“I appreciate the enthusiasm,” a voice replied. A low, smooth voice that definitely did not belong to the bartender.
Arianna looked up and caught her breath. If the club looked like something out of a movie, this man was the movie star. He approached her end of the bar with an elegance that was almost surreal in its smoothness, his double-breasted suit shifting and swaying in a cadence only a custom-made garment could achieve.
His cheekbones were sharp enough to cut glass while his eyes were the color of Mediterranean slate. Only a slightly crooked nose prevented his face from complete perfection. Interestingly, the flaw fit him perfectly. As did his surroundings.
“Max Brown,” he said.
Arianna started to nod, the way she always did when someone presented themself, then remembered where she was and quickly stuck out her hand. “Arianna.”
“Nice to meet you, Arianna.” His grip was solid and sure. “Is there a last name?”
“Santoro.” Arianna cringed as her real name popped out.
Fortunately, he showed no signs of recognition. “Pleasure to meet you, Arianna Santoro. You’re interested in the waitressing job, are you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Glad to hear it. Have you filled out an application?”
“Not yet,” the bartender said.
“I only just walked in,” Arianna explained.
His smile was as charming as could be. “That’s all right. Why don’t we have a seat, and we can fill in the spaces as we go along.” He motioned toward one of the booths lining the wall. “We don’t need much. Just the usual stuff. Name, address, social security number. Oh, and your firstborn child, of course.”
Arianna’s stomach lurched.
“Relax, I was only kidding about the firstborn part,” he said, touching her elbow. “Are you all right?”
“I’m f-fine.” She supposed it was nerves making her stomach lurch. What was she going to say when he asked for details about her identity? Squeezing the bar rail, she focused on breathing through her nose, hoping the lump would work its way back down. Having something in her stomach might help, too; it was past lunchtime after all. “Could I get some chamomile tea and dry toast?” she asked the bartender.
“You’re ordering food on a job interview?” The man shook his head.
Max continued to keep his hand on her elbow. “Might not be a bad idea, Darius,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind a fresh cup of coffee.”
“You want me to go grind the beans for you, too?”
“And grow the chamomile.”
The bartender muttered something about his job description, but obliged nonetheless. As soon as he disappeared behind a swinging door, Arianna felt the grip on her elbow tighten.
“Why don’t we take a seat,” Max said as he gently pulled her away from the bar rail, “and you can tell me about yourself. Starting with why you want to work for the Fox Club.”
If only he knew… “Why does anyone want a job?” she asked as she felt herself being propelled to the booths on the other side of the room.
“Generally, because they need money. Is that why you’re looking for work? Because you need money?”
“Of course. Why else?”
He looked her up and down. “No reason.”
No sooner had she settled onto the leather bench then Darius returned with a serving tray. “The toast will be ready in a minute,” he said, his face a scowl as he set a small ceramic teapot in front of her. “You need anything else?”
The question was directed to Max, who immediately smiled. Apparently, he found the bartender’s abruptness amusing. “I’m good. You want to sit in on this?”
“No, hiring people is your thing. I’m perfectly happy with my supply order, thank you very much. Liquor bottles don’t make special requests.” Shooting a scowl in Arianna’s direction, he turned and headed back to the bar.
“Don’t mind him,” Max said, shrugging off his jacket. The cloth of his white shirt strained against his biceps as he rolled up the sleeves. “He isn’t nearly as put upon as he likes people to think.”
“If you say so.” She tried to glance over her shoulder, but the bench was too high to see over.
“Trust me, underneath that brusque exterior beats a very soft heart. Ah, this smells good.” Coffee cup raised to his lips, he closed his eyes and inhaled. “We import the beans directly from South America. Our own custom blend.”
“Really.” She hoped she sounded enthusiastic. Usually, she liked coffee, but lately the aroma made her queasy.
“A bad cup can ruin the whole dining experience. Last thing we want are customers leaving with literally a bad taste in their mouth. Not if we want them to come back. “
“No, I suppose you don’t.” She thought about the five-star meals she’d enjoyed over her lifetime. The coffee, like every aspect of the meal, was always impeccable. It never dawned on her to expect otherwise. “You’ve clearly paid a lot of attention to details.”
“I should hope so. Details are what make or break a restaurant.”
Then she suspected the Fox Club was “made” because Max Brown seemed to have thought of everything. Like their booth, for example. Not only did the high seat backs ensure privacy, but they’d been designed for two, essentially making them intimate little nooks.
The atmosphere seemed even closer with someone as exceedingly…solid as Max Brown. Suddenly warm, Arianna slipped off her coat. Underneath her turtleneck sweater, her skin tingled as heat spread across it.
Oblivious to her discomfort, her companion had put down his drink and was chivalrously pouring tea into her mug. “So, getting back to my original question, what makes you think you should work at the Fox Club? I mean, besides the fact you need a job.”
“I, um…” She reached for a napkin and dabbed at the dampness forming on her upper lip. Where on earth was her toast? The strongest of odors was emanating from her cup, a combination of grass and another plant she couldn’t place. Had chamomile tea always smelled this noxious? Her stomach lurched again.
Swallowing back the acid, she started over. “I don’t… I mean, there isn’t one specific reason. I…”
“You’re new to the city, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she breathed, grateful to have an excuse. “Very. I arrived a few…” She caught the word days before it could slip out. “Weeks ago. How did you know?”
“Because anyone who’s lived in New York for any length of time knows the Fox Club. At least if they’re in the restaurant business they do.” He paused for another sip of coffee. “So, you’re new to the city, and you need a job.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The Dunphy Hotel.” Actually, dirty and dated, the Dunphy barely qualified as habitable, let alone a hotel. It was also the last place anyone would think to look for a princess, which was why she had picked it.
“Interesting selection,” Max remarked.
“I’m on a budget.”
“I see.” Something in his tone made her stomach roll again. This time, a layer of anxiety accompanied the nausea. It wasn’t possible that he recognized her, was it? Her fingers absently combed the ends of her hair. She’d been monitoring the headlines since she arrived, and thus far, there had been no mention of her or her running away. Then again, Father would no doubt take great pains to keep her running away private. Even if news had made the press, she’d done her best to alter her appearance. Following advice she gleaned from American crime shows, she cut several inches off her hair and dyed the natural blond color a deep black. Since the Corinthian royal family didn’t garner that much attention—the paparazzi preferring their British counterparts—she figured even the most ardent of royalty junkies would be hard-pressed to recognize her.
The gray eyes assessing her from the across the table, however, made her wonder. The open scrutiny would make her nervous, whether she was hiding or not. He seemed to be examining every inch of her.
She forced herself to meet his gaze, while pressing a hand to her abdomen. The churning was getting worse. She could feel the acid creeping up her esophagus again.
He was talking to her. “Experience in what?” she asked, pressing her lips into a tight smile.
“Waiting tables. Now that the holiday season is getting underway, we’re going to be busier than usual. A lot of groups book tables this time of year so we need someone who is used to juggling multiple large parties. Have you done large parties before?”
Swallowing back the queasiness, Arianna nodded. “Several.” It wasn’t a complete lie. She’d been standing in as her father’s hostess since her mother died a decade ago and had assisted in planning more than her fair share of state dinners. Surely, memorizing dinner orders and bringing them to the table couldn’t be more difficult than memorizing dignitaries’ dossiers and defusing potential international incidents.
“Where did you wait tables?”
“Oh, right. Italy,” she replied, falling back on the cover story she’d rehearsed in case someone asked about her accent. Out of all of Corinthia’s continental neighbors, the Mediterranean country was the closest in terms of language and culture.
“Any particular location or did you serve the entire country?” While his coffee cup masked much of his mouth, she could still see the hint of a smile.
Naturally he expected more specific details. To buy a few seconds to think, she took a drink, only to gag as soon as the liquid passed her lips. The stuff tasted as botanical as it smelled. Worse, actually. She shoved the cup to the middle of the table.
“Miss Santoro?” Max asked.
No good. Her tea, her breakfast and everything else in her stomach jumped to the back of her throat. Clamping a hand to her mouth, she sprinted from the table.
“Second door on your left,” Max called out as she rushed away. Not that it mattered all that much with the restaurant empty. So long as she made it to one of the restrooms, they’d be fine.
“What the…?” Darius had just come around the bar carrying a plate of toast. “Usually it takes two or three dates before the woman runs away from you. What happened?”
“Very funny,” Max replied. From behind him he heard the soft thud of a restroom door closing. She had made it somewhere at least. “Do me a favor and get a glass of ice water. She’s probably going to need a cold drink when she comes out.” Poor woman was as green as her tea.
Definitely not your typical job interview. Or applicant, for that matter. Not too many out-of-work waitresses that he knew walked around wearing cashmere. He might not know women’s fashion labels by name, but he recognized expensive when he saw it. Besides, she moved like money. That posture screamed “private school.”
A cashmere coat, and she was staying at a rat hole like the Dunphy? New to the country or not, the two did not go together. Women as beautiful as her stayed in five-star suites and not alone. They didn’t apply for temporary waitress positions.
“You notice the haircut?” Darius asked, returning with the water.
Yeah, Max had noticed. Right after he noticed the coat. A total home job, and not a very good one at that. “She’s trying to hide from someone.”
“If she’s thinking that hair will help her blend in, she’s crazy.”
It wasn’t just her haircut that attracted attention. It was the whole package. “If she wore it up, it’d look okay.” Even if it didn’t, most people would be too distracted by the rest of her to notice.
“Don’t tell me you’re considering her.”
“Something tells me she’s in a tough spot.”
“Great. Another one of your lost puppies.” If his friend rolled his eyes any further, they would see the inside of his head. “Didn’t you learn anything from what happened with Shirley? You can’t save the whole world, you know.”
“I never said I wanted to save the whole world.” The few desperate souls who crossed his path, is all. And just because some, like his former piano player, chose not to be saved, was no reason to stop. It was definitely not a reason in this case.
He lowered his voice in case Arianna happened to come back. “She’s staying at the Dunphy.”
“Exactly.” If that wasn’t enough of a red flag, there was desperation in her eyes. An anxious shadow that said things weren’t as she pretended. Max knew that shadow well. He had seen it in his mother’s eyes all her life. Okay, so maybe Arianna wasn’t running away from an abusive bastard like his father. But she was running away from something. And there was no way in hell he was turning a desperate woman out in the street. His mother’s eyes haunted him enough; he didn’t have to add a second pair.
“Besides,” he said, shaking off the ghosts, “you’ve got to admit, she would look amazing in the uniform.”
“Maybe, but can she wait tables? All you did this morning was jaw my ear off about how hard it is to find decent help. Do you really want to take the risk? Christmastime is crazy.”
“I thought it was the time for goodwill toward men.”
“Very funny.” A soft cough cut off whatever else Darius was going to say. Arianna had returned to the table. Despite shaking and being white as a sheet, she still managed to look gorgeous and self-possessed. Max felt the stirring of attraction deep in his belly.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
Her nod was as wobbly as her legs. “Fine. That is, I was feeling light-headed, but I’m much better now.”
She was a horrible liar. Better would mean color in her cheeks.
“Thank you,” she said, noticing the water.
“No problem. Figured you wouldn’t be looking for the tea.” His coffee had long since grown cold, but he drank it anyway. Wasn’t the first time—wouldn’t be the last. “So,” he said, from over the rim, “you were telling me about where you used to work.”
Her eyes immediately dropped to her glass. “Right. Where I worked. The thing is…”
“It was a long time ago?” he suggested.
“Exactly.” She grabbed the excuse like a lifeline, gratitude in her voice. “I’m not sure they would remember me.”
Max sat back and took a good look at her, trying to think like the businessman he was. Ten to one, the only experience she had waitressing involved leaving a tip. Darius was right: he had no business offering her a job.
But then he saw how hard she was struggling to keep her composure and his conscience beat down his common sense.
“That’s all right,” he said, “I’ll take your word for it. Do you think you will feel well enough to start tomorrow night?”
Her eyes widened. “ I have the job?”
In a flash, Max understood how every private eye in every mystery movie fell prey to the femme fatale. The way her face lit up was absolutely criminal. He smoothed his tie and did his best to hide his reaction. “You did say you wanted it, didn’t you?”
“I did. I mean, I do.” She leaned forward, the subtle scent of high-end perfume accompanying her. “Thank you so much,” she said, clasping his hands. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Definitely criminal. Reluctantly, he disentangled himself from her grasp and stood up. “Darius will go over everything you need to know, including where to get your uniform. Welcome to the Fox Club family, Miss Santoro.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Darius shaking his head. Honestly, sometimes his friend was too much the glass-half-empty kind of guy. They were helping a gorgeous woman out of a tight spot, is all. What was the worst that could happen?
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