Authors: Debbie Macomber
“Nikolai,” I sobbed.
“Yes, my Leanne.”
“I. Am. So. In. Love. With. You.”
His fingers stilled. His whole body froze and it seemed he stopped breathing as well. “What you say?”
“I said”âI paused to sob againâ“I'm so in love with youâ¦You are a wonderful man and I love you.”
Slowly he released me and his hands cupped my face. His eyes searched mine as if to gauge the sincerity of my words. He must have read what was in my heart, because I watched as tears gathered and pooled in his own eyes. After a long moment he smiled as if he was the happiest man on the face of the earth. Then he leaned down and kissed me full on the mouth in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the Russian Orthodox church.
“My heart belong to you a long time. I wait and wait for you to give me your heart. Now I know why God bring me to America. You best gift God ever give me.”
I pulled into the Potter Towing complex around four on Saturday afternoon. Owen was with his father and I'd worked at Dress for Success most of the day. Rocco had to work. I hadn't seen him all week, although we talked every day. He hadn't been successful in finding anyone to take over for him on Thanksgiving. I understood, but I couldn't help being disappointed. As Rocco explained, no one works harder than the owner of the company. I knew he was right.
All the trucks were out, so I knew Rocco wasn't at the office. Taking a chance, I climbed out of my car and checked the office door and found it unlocked.
“Anyone here?” I called out.
“Who's there?” a woman shouted from farther back in the complex.
I'd recognize that voice anywhere. “Shawntelle?”
“Nichole.” Within seconds I was wrapped in a huge bear hug from my friend. “It's been a month of Sundays, girl. Where you been?”
“Around,” I told her. “Working, mostly. I'm teaching at the high school. Do you know when Rocco is due back?”
“He should be here anytime. You two still an item? I'd ask him, but he don't tell me a thing. That man should work for the CIA; he isn't talkin'.” She paused and then lowered her voice. “But I will tell you that from the scuttlebutt going around the office something has happened to that man. The guys tell me Rocco's smiling and whistling and happy, and that just ain't Rocco. I know what's gotten into himâyou. Rocco's got himself a woman and that woman is you.” Her knowing grin was bigger than that of the Cheshire cat.
My heart did a little flip-flop of joy. Shawntelle looked more than pleased with herself. She crossed her arms. “And you aren't the only one who's got herself a man.”
“No. Did ya hear?” she asked, looking pleased with herself. “I found me a man right here: a driver, name of Jerome. At first we fought like wild alley cats, but then he came around. He's a good man, and honey, I got to tell you he's real sweet on me. Can hardly keep his hands to himself.” She placed her fist on her ample hip. “I ain't giving him nothing yet and he wants me bad. I learned my lesson. Men will say whatever they think a woman wants to hear until they get what they want. And once they do they backtrack so fast they spit gravel.”
“Good for you.” I was proud of Shawntelle. “By the way, Rocco says you're doing a great job with the bookkeeping.”
Shawntelle nodded. “He gave me a chance when no one else would. He's done that for Jerome and Buck, too. Buck's got a record and no one would hire him. He's our dispatcher.”
I'd met a couple of the guys when Rocco brought Owen and me to the complex a few weeks back. Owen still talked about driving the tow truck.
“You and Rocco got something going tonight?”
We'd been seeing each other for three months now, and to this point we'd been out together, just the two of us, only a few times. We saw each other as often as we could, but it was almost always with Kaylene and/or Owen. We'd had little time to ourselves.
A truck pulled into the yard and Rocco jumped down and started toward the building. A smile instantly lit up his face when he saw me talking to Shawntelle.
“You got a visitor,” Shawntelle told him, unnecessarily.
Just the way his eyes roved over me made my insides quiver. He looked around. “Where's Owen?”
“With his dad. Where's Kaylene?”
“Spending the night with a friend.” As soon as he said the words we both seemed to realize at the same moment we were each without responsibilities for the evening.
A slow, easy smile came over Rocco. “Give me a chance to clean up and I'll meet you at your place in an hour.”
“You got it.” My heart was pounding with anticipation. I started out the door and was halfway to the car when I heard Rocco call my name.
I turned back and looked up at him expectantly.
He exhaled and then reached for me, dragging me close to him as he lowered his mouth to mine, kissing me with a hunger that nearly had me pooling at his feet.
I kept my eyes closed when he lifted his head.
“I should have waited,” he whispered, “but I've been starving for a taste of you.”
“Was it worth the wait?”
“Baby, you have no idea.”
I left and hurried back to the apartment, showered and changed clothes. I'd just put the finishing touches on my makeup when the doorbell sounded. Rocco stood on the other side, wearing clean jeans and a shirt, and a leather jacket with several patches on the front and sleeves. He looked yummy enough to eat.
He stared at me as if seeing me for the first time. It made me wonder if I had lipstick on my teeth. “Is something wrong?” I asked, wishing there was a mirror close at hand.
He shook his head as though coming out of a trance. “Every time I see you I'm struck with how lovely you are.”
I hardly knew how to respond. Men had told me before that I was attractive, but it'd sounded practiced and insincere. It didn't with Rocco. He couldn't seem to take his eyes off me, and frankly, I felt the same way about him.
“I shouldn't kiss you, I really shouldn't,” he said, as if talking to himself. “If I do I'm afraid we'll never leave this apartment.” Even as he spoke he leaned closer to me. It seemed he had every intention of kissing me, but instead he hugged me. A deep sigh rumbled through him as he held me in his embrace. “I want to make love to you so bad it hurts. I know that probably shocks a good girl like you.”
“I'm not as good as you think,” I whispered, kissing the underside of his chin, running my tongue over his fresh shave, loving the taste of him. I knew we were tempting fate, but it felt so good and so right to be in his arms. We'd done little more than share a few passionate kisses, and I was ready to take this to a deeper level and I knew he was, too.
He growled as if in pain. “Nichole, please, don't make this any more difficult than it is. I want to do everything right by you. You deserve that.” He released me by inches, as if it demanded every ounce of self-restraint he possessed to let me go.
“Where are we going?” I asked, once I'd collected myself and could think clearly.
“I thought I'd take you to dinner. You okay with that?”
“Anything.” All I really cared about was being with Rocco.
He traced his finger down the side of my face. “My aunt owns a small Italian restaurant. I'd like you to meet her. You're the first girl I've ever introduced to my relatives, so they might make a bunch of embarrassing comments.”
“Forewarned is forearmed,” I said, smiling up at him.
“I called and she's got a table for us. I know it's a little early for dinner, but they pack out the place every night.”
“I'm starved. I didn't have lunch.”
A half-hour later we were seated at a table for two with a red checkered tablecloth in a dimly lit restaurant that had only about ten tables. We had barely sat down when Rocco's aunt arrived with fresh bread and cheese. She kissed Rocco on both cheeks and he introduced me.
“Aunt Maria, this is Nichole.”
The woman was barely five feet tall and smelled of garlic and Italian herbs. She looked at me and nodded approvingly. “It's about time Rocco got himself a wife. You going to marry my nephew?” she demanded. “Kaylene needs a woman's influence.”
“What did I tell you?” Rocco mumbled under his breath. “Aunt Maria, you're embarrassing my girl.”
She laughed and I laughed with her.
His aunt disappeared, but shortly afterward a steady flow of food began to arrive. We never saw a menu, not that we needed one. The bread and cheese were followed by a plate of pickled vegetables and sliced meats, then soup. When I was convinced I couldn't eat another bite, a huge plate of pasta with red sauce came. By then I was so full I couldn't stuff down another forkful.
“Please, tell me this is the end of it.”
Rocco grinned. “We haven't gotten to the main course yet.”
With my hands pressed against my stomach, I looked across the table at him, appalled. “Rocco. Please, I can't do it. I don't want to insult your family; the food is delicious, but I simply can't.”
I leaned back in my chair and dragged in several deep breaths in an effort to relieve the pressure on my stomach. Everything I'd tasted had been worthy of a five-star restaurant. Rocco spoke to his aunt Maria and she nodded understandingly.
“Next time you save room for more food,” Maria told me.
Rocco, however, finished off a full plate of some chicken dish. He told me the name of it, but it was in Italian and it quickly slipped my mind. It looked amazing, with lemon slices and capers over thin slices of chicken.
Rocco was talking to his aunt about dessert when my phone rang. I grabbed my cell out of my purse and saw that it was Jake. I didn't want to talk to him, but seeing that he had Owen, I had no choice but to answer.
“Owen's being fussy,” he snapped, as if I was the cause.
Most three-year-old boys tended to be like that from time to time. “What's wrong?”
“If I knew that, do you think I'd be phoning you?” Jake continued in the same accusatory voice.
I arched my brows. “Is he sick?”
“How am I supposed to know that? All he does is cry and say he wants to go home. He needs to learn that this is his home and I'm his father. Furthermore, if I hear Rocco's name one more time I swear to you, Nicholeâ”
“Find out if he has a fever,” I interrupted, hoping he heard the frustration and anger in my voice.
“How am I supposed to do that? I'm no nurse.”
“You take his temperature,” I said as calmly as I could.
Jake was having none of it.
“Feel his forehead and tell me if it's warm,” I suggested. I heard him walk into another room. Owen's hiccupping sobs sounded over the phone and I felt terrible for my son.
Rocco's eyes met mine. “Owen?” he mouthed.
Jake came back and he seemed more reasonable when he said, “He feels warm.”
“Let me talk to him,” I suggested.
“Okay.” I heard Jake tell Owen that I was on the phone.
“Mommy?” Owen's sad voice called out to me.
“You feeling okay, buddy?” I asked.
“I want to go home.”
“It's your daddy's weekend,” I said as gently as I could.
“I want to go home,” Owen insisted. “Daddy took my twuck and his friend is mean.”
I could only assume Jake's friend was female.
Jake grabbed the phone back and I could hear Owen wail in the background that he wanted me.
“You've spoiled him,” Jake shouted. “You've turned my son into a snot-nosed brat.”
Rocco clearly heard Jake and rushed to his feet. “Let's pick him up right now.”
I couldn't agree with him more. “I'm on my way. I should be there in less than half an hour.”
Jake didn't bother to respond. All I heard was the phone click.
We thanked Rocco's aunt for the incredible dinner and hurriedly left the restaurant. Rocco's hand was at my elbow, guiding me through the parking lot to where he'd parked his truck. He seemed to be in even more of a rush than I was.
“Owen doesn't cry like that unless something's wrong,” I said, worried about my son.
“It doesn't sound like Jake's comfortable caring for him.”
“He isn't.” I'd seen evidence of that myself and it worried me. I'd hoped that with time Jake would learn to be more patient with Owen. From what I'd been able to glean from my son, he spent the weekends with his father mostly with babysitters.
We drove in silence to Lake Oswego. My fingers were tight as I clung to my purse strap, my heart thumping impatiently, wanting to get to Owen as quickly as possible.
When we arrived the porch light was on and I noticed the draperies fall back in place as soon as we pulled into the driveway.