Excerpt: I Do, But Here's the Catch

 

Chapter One

 

“You never met this man?”

“Mama, I told you, it’s a blind date.” Charli Rossi pawed through her jewelry box, a relic from her childhood, like almost everything else in the tiny bedroom under the eaves that she’d once shared with her two sisters.

She still remembered how proud and grown-up she’d felt at age ten when Grandma and Grandpa Rossi had given her the fancy box for Christmas. Now, twenty years later, the glossy ivory and gold paint had long since yellowed and chipped. The floral decals had mostly worn away.

“I can’t wear any of this junk!” Charli emptied the jewelry box onto her narrow twin bed. “Mama, can I borrow your pearl studs? Please!”

“What’s wrong with what you have?” Mama lifted a pair of blue enameled button earrings from the pink chenille bedspread and held them up to Charli’s ears.

“Oh, Mama, I can’t wear those!”

“Why not? Robby gave you these for your sweet sixteen,” she said, referring to one of Charli’s five brothers. “They suit you.”

Charli glanced at her image in the dressing-table mirror, which had been in need of resilvering for as long as she could remember. Yes, she thought glumly, the dowdy earrings did indeed suit her. As did the dress she’d chosen, a matronly cornflower-blue shirtwaist printed with tiny white blossoms. The hem fell to an awkward level a couple of inches below her knees, too long to be youthful, too short to be, well, youthful. The low-heeled beige pumps didn’t help.

Raven Muldoon, one of her three closest friends, always wore calf-length or longer skirts and they always looked wonderful on her, casual yet somehow sophisticated. Amanda Coppersmith often wore short skirts with her elegant suits, exposing her knees and shapely legs. And Sunny Bleecker… well, Sunny had an eclectic style all her own when she wasn’t wearing her hideous bright-pink waitress uniform.

Facing her drab reflection, Charli had to admit that the most flattering outfit she owned was the black tuxedo-like pantsuit she wore during high school concerts while conducting the ninety-eight students in the school’s elite symphonic band.

Her hair was dark brown and hung stick-straight just past her shoulder blades. This evening she’d parted it in the middle and pulled back the sides with simple tortoiseshell barrettes.

As for her face, she now wished she’d left well enough—or homely enough—alone. She’d experimented with a little blusher and a dab of rose-colored lipstick, and she wasn’t used to seeing that much color on her olive complexion. Nor could she get used to the sight of her lashes glopped up with mascara. Just one more thing to feel awkward about tonight, to worry about.

She checked her watch. Too late to change clothes, even if she owned something more stylish, which she didn’t. Too late to scrub off the makeup. “And your pearl choker, too,” she told Mama, not waiting for permission but racing out of her room to her parents’ room across the hall.

Mama was right behind her. “Take my pink cardigan. I’d lend you my good white one, but you can’t wear white until after Memorial Day. And Easter isn’t even for two more weeks.”

Charli groaned inwardly. “I’m wearing the beige linen jacket Amanda helped me pick out.”

“The blazer? That’s too businesslike. He’ll think you’re a cold fish.”

And if I wear your cardigan, Charli thought, he’ll think I’m his mother. Or someone’s maiden aunt, which is precisely what she was. To be depressingly accurate, she was now a maiden great-aunt, courtesy of her married nephew, John, who’d become the father of twins last year. Charli fumbled with the clasp on the choker.

“You’ve got yourself all worked up,” Mama declared. “Let this strange man you don’t even know worry about impressing you!”

Charli inserted the pearl post earrings as she sprinted downstairs to await the doorbell. The last thing she wanted was her blind date having to wait for her on the plastic-wrapped living room sofa, enduring Papa’s interrogation. Halfway down the stairs she abruptly reversed direction—she’d forgotten her jacket.

“Well, knock me over, why don’t you?” Mama complained.

“You don’t have to follow me!” Charli snapped, veering around her to pound back up the steps.

“Don’t talk to your mother like that!” Papa hollered from the kitchen. “Betty, leave the girl alone. She hasn’t had a date in three years and four months!”

Well, thank you so much for keeping the neighbors up-to-date. Where was the jacket? It was supposed to be on the back of her dressing-table chair—she knew she’d left it on the back of her dressing-table chair! She did a three-sixty in her room, rifled through her closet.

“Where’s my jacket! Mama, did you move my jacket?”

“I didn’t do anything with your jacket!” Mama screeched from downstairs. “Wear my cardigan. And take my pink straw handbag—it’s on the shelf in my closet. There’s the doorbell. I’ll let him in.”

Oh, God! Charli had counted on meeting him at the door and slipping out quickly.

Sounds of conversation drifted from downstairs. Charli heard Mama’s high, grating voice, even louder than usual as she ushered her daughter’s date into the house.

Where’s that jacket! Charli dashed into the cramped, faux-wood-paneled bathroom and checked the robe hooks, from which dangled Papa’s faded green terry robe, Mama’s striped housedress, and Grandma’s support hose. No jacket. Perspiration gathered under her arms as she ran back to her room for another search. Could she get away without it? No. It was mid-April and still pretty nippy at night.

As she tore her room apart she heard Papa’s coarse Brooklynese, along with a deeper, well-modulated, refined-sounding voice she’d never heard before. Papa must have said something Mama didn’t like, because she started squawking at him like an angry hen. Grandma’s Italian-accented voice joined the mix, snarling at her son and daughter-in-law to mind their manners in front of Carlotta’s fella.

Carlotta’s fella! Oh, God, please tell me she didn’t say that!

Charli sank heavily onto her creaky little bed. She dropped her head into her hands. Why even try? She should have known back in high school, when she and her three best friends had shared the sacred handclasp that established the Wedding Ring matchmaking pact, that their efforts were doomed to failure, at least as far as she was concerned.

True, it had worked for Raven, even when she’d muddied the waters by falling in love with the brother of the man the other three had chosen for her. It had ended happily, though. Raven and Hunter had returned from their honeymoon that very day. The Wedding Ring’s first success. But Charli wasn’t Raven. She didn’t have Raven’s self-confidence, or outgoing personality, or looks. Charli didn’t have anything to hold a man’s interest.

Downstairs, the sounds of squabbling had ceased. Charli’s nape prickled. If her parents weren’t fighting, that most likely meant someone was engaged in conversation with “Carlotta’s fella.”

With a defeated sigh, she rose and shambled into her parents’ room, where she extracted Mama’s pink cardigan from the high chest of drawers. She descended the stairs, wishing this accursed date were already behind her.

“What line of work are you in?” she heard Papa ask.

The smooth, cultured voice answered, “I’m an attorney. I’ve been with Farman, Van Cleave, and Holm for five years now.”

“No kiddin’. You down there on Wall Street?”

“Yes.”

“No kiddin’.”

At the bottom of the stairs Charli took a deep breath. She composed her features and crossed the small entrance foyer to the living room, reserved strictly for company. It had always been reserved strictly for company, even during Charli’s childhood when this small house on Long Island’s South Shore had been crammed to the rafters with ten people.

Papa was doing his lord-of-the-manor imitation, holding forth from a chintz-covered wing chair. Grandma Rossi—the rotund, black-clad doyenne of the family—was perched on the other wing chair, her sensible shoes not quite touching the carpet, her iron-gray hair scraped back into its usual bun. Charli’s gaze homed in on the gentleman sitting on one end of the shrink-wrapped sofa.

What struck her immediately was his maturity. He appeared to be around forty. The last time she’d gone out with a man—yes, more than three years earlier—both she and her date had been twenty-six. That had been Tim McMurty, a divorced plumbing contractor and the son of one of Papa’s fishing buddies. Tim hadn’t called her again. She’d heard he’d remarried.

Charli stepped into the living room. Her date noticed her. After the first, fleeting instant, he concealed his disappointment like a gentleman, rising with a flat, polite smile, his hand extended. Charli wanted to slink back upstairs, pull her quilt over her head, and hibernate for a month.

“You must be Charli,” he said. “I’m Grant Sterling.” He was around six feet tall, with neatly trimmed light brown hair and a direct hazel gaze that she suspected didn’t miss much. He wore a heathery-gray silk blazer over a white linen shirt and gray slacks. No necktie—the shirt was open at the throat.

She forced herself to return his smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Mama bustled in carrying a tray laden with a Pepperidge Farm cookie assortment and her best china dessert plates. “Coffee will be ready in a minute.”

“Mama, we can’t stay for coffee,” Charli said, scooting into the entrance hall and snatching her brown shoulder bag off the console table.

“I told you to take my pink straw handbag! That brown thing looks like luggage!” Mama set the tray on the coffee table. “You have time for a cookie. Sit. We’ll talk, get to know one another.”

“We have reservations,” Charli blurted, and looked quickly at Grant, wondering if it was true. She had no idea where he was taking her.

He turned to Mama. “That’s right, Mrs. Rossi. If we’re even five minutes late for our eight-o’clock dinner reservations, we lose them. And with that construction they’re doing on the Cross Island Parkway, it could take us a while to get into the city.”

“You’re going to the city?” asked Papa, who hadn’t been to Manhattan since the Mets’ last World Series ticker-tape parade in ’86. “There’s plenty of nice restaurants out here on the Island.”

“You have time for one cookie,” Mama insisted. “Sit.”

Grandma spoke up. “Betty, they don’t have time. Lasciali andare! Let them go!”

“One cookie!”

Grant made a show of checking his watch. With a rueful shrug he said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to take a rain check. Thanks anyway, Mrs. Rossi.” He thrust out his hand to Papa, who heaved his bulk out of the wing chair. “It was a pleasure, sir.”

“Likewise.” Papa shook Grant’s hand, clearly impressed by his manners. “When are you gonna have her home?”

Grandma tossed her arms skyward. “Carlotta’s a grown woman, Joey. She’ll be home when she’s home.”

He stabbed his chest with a blunt finger. “I’m her father!”

“She’s thirty years old!” Mama screeched, while Grandma winced at her daughter-in-law’s indiscretion. “She doesn’t have to be home by eleven.”

Charli thought Grant would be happy to have her home by nine, but all she said as she backed toward the front door was, “Don’t wait up.”

Outside it was nearly dark, and cool enough that Charli was forced to put on Mama’s stodgy pink cardigan. Grant opened the passenger door of the silver Infiniti sedan parked at the curb, and she slid onto the chilly, leather-upholstered seat. Neither of them said anything as he got in behind the wheel and pulled out, headed for the highway. Charli fought the impulse to apologize. This couldn’t have been what Grant had anticipated when he’d agreed to this blind date.

What had Raven told him about her? And what on earth had made Raven think that a worldly, sophisticated man like Grant Sterling would be interested in someone like Charli?

Finally she broke the silence. “Thanks for helping me get us out of there. My parents can be a little, um, overinvolved.”

“No problem. One of the hazards of living with your folks, I suppose.”

Something in his tone needled her. “They need someone to take care of them,” she said. “Mama and Papa are both in their seventies. And Nonna, my grandma, she’s ninety-three.”

Grant glanced at her as he pulled onto the highway entrance ramp. “So they were in their forties when they had you?”

She nodded. “I’m the youngest of eight children.”

“Don’t any of your siblings help out?”

“Not really. They all live nearby, but they’re all married with families of their own. They’re too busy, so—” she shrugged “—it’s up to me. I don’t mind.” Charli didn’t tell him the rest, that in her family’s strict view, “nice” unmarried daughters didn’t leave home to set up their own households. It simply wasn’t done. She felt compelled to add, “It’s not as if taking care of them is my whole life.”

“Raven said you’re a teacher?”

“I teach instrumental music at Courtland Park High School. My alma mater.”

Grant emitted a grunt of interest, feigned, no doubt. She sensed he was casting about for a politely enthusiastic comment, and that irked her. Her work gave her enormous satisfaction. It was the one arena in which she consistently felt confident, productive, and appreciated. She might not be some hotshot Wall Street lawyer like Grant Sterling, but that didn’t mean her career didn’t deserve respect.

But she couldn’t think of a way to convey her pride that didn’t sound defensive and unladylike, and the moment passed. It was just as well. What he must already think of her!

They didn’t talk much during the remainder of the ride into Manhattan. Grant didn’t even try to find a space on the street but pulled into a pricey parking garage a half block from the restaurant he’d chosen. Charli’s eyes grew round when she saw where he’d brought her.

“You don’t like Japanese?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had it.”

He showed no surprise.

“Well, I had a chicken teriyaki salad once. In this little bistro near the school.” Charli had never set foot in an actual Japanese restaurant.

“It’s strictly sushi here,” Grant said. “No grilled dishes. Bad choice?”

He must have thought she was the most unsophisticated woman he’d ever met. Everyone ate sushi nowadays. It had been standard fare in New York for decades. Raven and Amanda dined at one of the local sushi restaurants all the time. Amanda had actually taken a class to learn how to make it. Even Sunny, whose tastes ran to burgers and fries, had tried it a few times.

With a patience bordering on condescension, he said, “We can go somewhere else.”

Charli’s throat felt tight. Heat stung her cheeks. “No. You made reservations. And—And I’ve been meaning to try sushi.”

Grant’s patience began to slip. “It’s no problem. We’ll go somewhere else.” He hauled his cell phone out of his breast pocket and thumbed a button. “Do you like steak?”

“I said I’d like to eat here, Grant.” Charli pulled open the door of the restaurant and looked at him expectantly. After a moment he slipped the phone back into his pocket and held the door for her.

The interior of the restaurant was elegant and exotic, marked by soft lighting and clean lines. Lilting Asian music played softly in the background. Blond wood predominated, along with Japanese prints and silk hangings. The aromas were subtle, alien, not unpleasant. A kimono-clad hostess showed them to their table, which was set low to the floor in a booth separated from others by paper shoji screens.

Grant slipped off his loafers and placed them at the edge of the booth, leaving his feet clad in thin, charcoal-gray socks.

Charli looked at the low table in dismay. “We’re supposed to sit on the floor?”

“When in Tokyo…”

There were regular tables, too, the kind with chairs.

Grant could have asked for one of them, for her sake, but he didn’t, and she couldn’t bring herself to speak up.

He waited while she removed her pumps. Charli wished the left heel of her panty hose didn’t have a small hole sealed by a dollop of clear nail polish. She experienced a funny jolt seeing her shoes set neatly next to Grant’s. The little tableau looked deceptively intimate.

Grant offered his hand as she lowered herself onto the straw tatami mat that covered the floor. First she tried keeping her legs together, tucking them to one side, but that was awkward and uncomfortable. Clumsily she shifted into a cross-legged position, pulling her skirt around her knees.

With fluid grace he settled opposite her as a waitress arrived to present menus and take their drink order. She set down a small bamboo dish containing two rolled white washcloths.

“Have you ever tried sake?” Grant asked Charli.

“No, but I’ve always wanted to.” This was, in fact, true, although she doubted he believed her.

Grant ordered the sake and the waitress left them.

Charli smiled lamely, racking her brain for something to say. “So you’re one of Raven’s hypnotherapy clients? Oh.” She covered her mouth, wishing she’d kept it shut.

Her chagrin seemed to amuse him. “Am I supposed to be embarrassed about trying hypnosis to help improve my golf swing?” He handed her a startlingly hot washcloth and unrolled the other for his own use.

“Well, I guess not.” She followed his lead, wiping her hands with the cloth and depositing it back on the little dish. “I just thought, you know, it’s a kind of therapy. Maybe you didn’t want anyone to know.”

“God help me if that’s my most intriguing secret. Let’s see.” He opened the menu. “The young lady has never eaten raw fish.”

Did he have to put it like that? She’d been trying not to think of it as raw fish.

Call it sushi. Everyone eats sushi.

Against her will, her eyes strayed to the little display card on the table, showing photographs of the restaurant’s various offerings, one of which was clearly octopus. A raw little tentacle with suckers and everything. She wondered if it clung to the plate when you tried to eat it.

“I offered you steak,” he said.

Charli jerked her gaze from the card. She hated the look on his face, outwardly benign but with a touch of smugness that rankled the heck out of her.

On impulse she asked, “Were you raised in Japan?”

His eyebrows drew together. “No.”

“Then chances are you remember your first taste of raw fish.”

He studied her a moment. “Point taken. There’s a first time for everything. Ah, here’s our sake.”

As Grant poured the liquid from a small ceramic flask into a tiny matching cup, he explained that while most people think of sake as a wine, it’s actually a kind of beer, being fermented from rice, a grain.

Charli lifted the cup and took an experimental sip, mildly surprised to find the drink warm and smooth, sliding easily down her throat with the barest alcoholic bite. She smiled. “I like it.”

The corners of Grant’s eyes crinkled as he topped off her cup. “A little Dutch courage for the ordeal to come.”

He really was quite attractive, Charli thought, when he smiled like that. It softened the stern lines of his face and hinted at something almost gentle within him. His eyes were that changeable hazel hue that never looked the same twice. They were dark now, in the muted lighting, almost the same pewter shade as his sport coat.

Charli found her gaze drawn to the modest amount of skin exposed by the open collar of his shirt. There was something uncompromisingly masculine about the sinewy neck and Adam’s apple, the hollow of his throat and the light dusting of hair just visible in the V of white linen. She was careful not to stare too openly.

Grant seemed content to sit quietly, sipping his sake. He didn’t fill the air with ceaseless chatter, and for that Charli was grateful. He regarded her with polite interest, and she couldn’t help but wonder what he saw. A frumpy old-maid schoolteacher who lived with her parents? Or was it possible there was something about her that he found appealing? Her features were ordinary but not offensive, with the exception of her nose, just big enough to dominate the rest of her face. She knew it had to be the first thing people noticed.

Her body was nothing to crow about, either. She’d often wished she had Amanda’s figure, tall and model slim. Though her measurements were more or less average, Charli was on the short side, five-three, which probably explained why she looked dumpy no matter what she wore.

She turned her attention to the menu with its mysterious references to sashimi and maki and— What on earth was a hand roll? “Any suggestions?” she asked.

“I’ll order for us both.” Grant signaled the waitress. “I’ll get an assortment. You can try everything.”

Great. Visions of octopus tentacles flashed through her mind.

When the lacquered platter of sushi arrived, blessedly devoid of tentacles, Charli had to admit it looked awfully pretty: pastel-hued strips of fish arranged on little beds of sticky rice, alongside piles of shaved pickled ginger and green wasabi mustard. There were also round slices of maki, fish rolled up with rice and dark seaweed, some studded with sesame seeds, others with red caviar. She recognized cucumber and avocado in some of the maki and was surprised to discover that a portion of it featured, not raw fish at all, but cooked shrimp and crab.

Grant refused to let her restrict herself to the cooked variety, however. With his chopsticks he lifted a piece of sushi, dipped it in the tiny bowl of soy sauce, and held it near her mouth.

She stared at the slender tidbit of dark pink fish on its nest of white rice. “Um, what is it?”

“Tuna. It’s very mild. Try it.”

He wielded the chopsticks so proficiently. Charli had never gotten the hang of them herself. Nevertheless, she started to take them from him. He shooed her hand away and moved the food closer to her lips. She looked at him. He watched her closely, a curious glint in his eye.

Charli met his stare. If this high-handed man expected to be entertained by the sight of his sheltered bumpkin of a date struggling to choke down uncooked flesh, she refused to put on a show for him.

Charli’s senses went on red alert as she leaned slightly forward and closed her mouth over the piece of sushi. If the sight of their shoes side by side had been disturbingly intimate, the act of eating directly from his chopsticks was practically sexual. Mustering her courage, she bit the sushi in half and began to chew.

To her surprise, the fish was indeed mildly flavored, almost overpowered by the salty soy sauce. More surprisingly, it was exceedingly tender. For some reason she’d expected a chewy blob that would fight her all the way. After a few moments she relaxed and gave herself over to the experience.

Grant’s perceptive gaze never left her face. He watched her chew, and swallow, and look expectantly at the piece of sushi still clamped between his chopsticks. There was that gentle smile again as he offered it to her.

After she’d downed that bit, too, he said, “I take it the verdict is positive?”

“So far.” Sipping her sake, she peered intently at the pretty arrangement. “What should I try next?”

“Well, since you’ve discovered a fondness for tuna, why don’t you have a go at the tekka maki?” He pointed out one of the rolled-up pieces.

Charli fumbled with her chopsticks, finally lifting it, only to have it slip from her grasp and plop into the bowl of soy sauce. Finally she managed to bring it to her mouth. She started to bite into it, and Grant said, “No, eat the whole thing at once.”

It was more than her usual mouthful, but she complied, shoving the entire thing in and feeling her face heat as she envisioned how bovine she must look chewing that big wad of food. It was, however, absolutely delicious—surprisingly delicious.

Who knew?

Only millions of people around the world, Charli had to admit, while she’d taken the safe route all these years and avoided even trying the Japanese delicacy.

Taking the safe route was something she had a lot of experience with, but lately she’d been forced to question whether it had served her well. It had been Grandma Rossi, Charli’s lifelong confidante, who had finally spurred her to action on the romantic front, encouraging her to cooperate with the Wedding Ring and let her closest friends introduce her to a potential future husband.

Always you think about duty, never about yourself, Nonna had told Charli during Raven and Hunter’s wedding. You’re a good girl, Carlotta, but sometimes you gotta think about yourself. Even when it’s a lot less scary to think about duty.

Charli washed down the tekka maki with another sip of sake. The drink was deliciously warming and she drained the cup. No longer needing Mama’s sweater, she slipped out of it, wriggling a little to get the sleeves off. The movement drew Grant’s gaze to her chest for a fleeting instant.

Smoothly he refilled her cup and asked, “So you come home from the school every day and do housework?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s a lot more than housework. For one thing, someone always has to go to the doctor—or the dentist, optometrist, podiatrist, you name it. Mama has to see a physical therapist twice a week for her sciatica. Papa goes to the chiropractor for a compressed disk. And Nonna’s always at the cardiologist or the rheumatologist or the orthopedist.”

“And it’s up to you to take them everywhere?” He popped a piece of yellowish sushi into his mouth and motioned for her to do the same.

“Sure.” She grappled with the chopsticks. “Between their declining vision and their various medical problems, neither of my parents drives anymore. You wouldn’t believe how challenging it can be juggling all the appointments. I have a system, though. It involves sticky notes and different colored pens and a master calendar I refer to as my Bible. Somehow it all works out.”

“So you’re the designated chauffeur.”

“When I’m not handling the household finances,” she said, “the bills and taxes and insurance and bank accounts, all of that. All the shopping, too, of course—groceries, clothes, medications. I keep up the property and make sure everything gets repaired and painted and whatnot.”

“You must possess exceptional organizational skills.”

He sounded genuinely impressed, prompting her to chuckle. “You don’t know the half of it. Have you ever made Thanksgiving dinner for thirty hungry relatives? Or a ninetieth birthday party for eighty guests? I had to rent the Knights of Columbus hall for that one, but I did all the cooking myself.”

His eyes widened. “You cooked for eighty people?”

“Five courses plus the cake. It was exhausting, but it was worth it. And I do love to cook. And entertain. So for me it’s not work.”

“Still, all that on top of your full-time job.” He shook his head, incredulous.

She shrugged. “It’s got to be done. My folks gave me life, took care of me when I was tiny and helpless. The least I can do is make sure they’re comfortable and cared for now when they need me.”

Gradually they worked their way through the large sushi platter, as well as the sake. Charli was feeling pleasantly relaxed, even a little tipsy. She asked Grant what kind of law he practiced.

“Matrimonial mostly.”

“Oh. You mean like divorces? That’s so sad.”

“Not at the rates my firm bills.”

That remark was obviously meant to be witty, so Charli dutifully smiled while privately she couldn’t help but wonder if it ever bothered him earning a living from people’s shattered dreams.

She said, “I overheard you telling my father you’ve been with your firm for five years. What did you do before that?”

“I was an ADA—an assistant in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.” He smiled. “Prosecuting bad guys.”

“How did you get from there to divorce work?”

“After I graduated law school I clerked for two years with a judge handling matrimonial cases, so I got experience in that area. And the partner who recruited me at Farman, Van Cleave was impressed by my litigation background. He felt I was well suited to handling their high-profile divorce cases.”

She noticed him furtively checking his watch. As little experience as Charli had with dating, she was more than familiar with that particular signal. She set down her sake cup. “Do you have to be somewhere? Because it’s okay if you do,” she added quickly.

He looked at her, and the truth kicked her in the gut. She hadn’t misread the gesture. Or his intention to cut the evening short. She saw it in his eyes.

“Because I really should get home,” she said, twisting the napkin in her lap. “I really didn’t want to be out too late tonight.”

He stared at her for long moments, his gaze too insightful for comfort. His eyes were greenish-gray now. She looked away.

A busboy removed their dishes. From the booth behind Charli came a burst of masculine laughter. Across the aisle a Japanese couple ordered dinner in their native language. Charli waited for Grant to signal the waitress for the check.

At last he said, softly, “Your grandma says you can stay out as late as you like.”

Charli glanced at him. His expression was neutral. Only his eyes held the trace of a teasing smile. Was he making fun of her? While she groped for a response, he said, “Have you ever been to Bunny’s?”

“What’s Bunny’s?”

“A club in the west Twenties. One of my clients is performing there tonight.”

“Oh. No, I’ve never been there.” Or to any club, but no doubt he surmised that.

“It’s a private show to promote his new album,” he said. “By invitation only. We can get dessert there.” Now he did signal the waitress.

Charli might not have a lot going for her in the romance department, but she had her pride. They both knew where he wanted to take her, and it wasn’t to any club—it was right to her doorstep.

“I’d prefer to go home, Grant.” She made herself look him in the eye. “I hope that doesn’t disrupt your plans.”

Grant started to say something, and stopped. She detected a morsel of contrition, which only made it worse. She didn’t want him to feel guilty for unloading his dreary blind date this early in the evening, and she sure as heck didn’t want him feeling sorry for her.

The check arrived. Without so much as glancing at it, he thrust a platinum credit card at the waitress, who spirited it away. “Did I mention it’s Phil Rivera?”

“Who? You mean…?” Phil Rivera was a well-known singer who’d gone solo when his band broke up last year. “That’s your client? The one who’s performing at Bunny’s?”

Grant nodded. “I worked on his divorce. He’s very grateful. Considering his probable future earnings, the settlement could’ve been disastrous. It wasn’t.”

Charli recalled having heard something about Rivera ending a sixteen-year marriage to the mother of his three children. So Grant had been his attorney.

Charli knew that divorce proceedings were generally skewed in favor of the wealthier party, in most cases the husband. Apparently Grant derived great satisfaction from chiseling down alimony and child-support payments on behalf of his wealthy clients.

He asked, “Do you like Rivera’s music?”

“I do, yes. But I have to decline. I can take the train home. You can still make the show.”

He gaped at her. “The train?”

“It’s less than an hour’s ride.”

“You think I’d let you take the train home?”

“Look, it’s no big deal—”

“That’s not how it works, Charli. I picked you up, I’ll drop you off.” The waitress appeared with the charge slip. Grant scrawled the total and his signature, barely taking his eyes off Charli. “Half an hour,” he said. “Give it half an hour at the club. Then, if you still want to go home, I’ll take you right home.”

“It’s not— I don’t—” Why did he have to make this so difficult?

“One song. We’ll stay for one song.” Rising, he came around the table and offered his hand. “Don’t forget your sweater.”


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