Grace Winters’ cheeks hurt from smiling as she poured what had to be her hundredth cup of coffee today. She’d learned two things since becoming a waitress. First, if she didn’t smile, someone, truck driver or businessman, would tell her how much prettier she’d be if she did. Second, the amount of tips doubled when she did it before they asked. Apparently, being “pretty” made the service better.
Right now, she needed every dime she could scrape up. If it meant she walked around grinning like an idiot, though her feet ached and her life lay in tatters, then so be it. The bells on the door jangled. Grace glanced up in time to see an extremely handsome man in an expensive suit stroll in and head straight for the payphone. Tucked under an arm, he carried a leather bag, like a large black doctor’s bag with the clasp on top. New in town, maybe?
He was tall, with olive skin, piercing dark eyes, and thick black hair that tumbled over his forehead in waves. Italian. He had to be Italian, or at least have Roman blood running through his veins. She turned around to grab an order from the window, then paused to watch him.
More than any of the visually appealing traits, he carried a presence with him. When his eyes landed on her for a moment, Grace couldn’t not be aware. Attraction sparked in her chest, heavy and scary. That was the very last thing she needed.
“Hey, miss! Where’s my order?” the robust man at table four called out. She pasted on a grin and delivered the hamburger and fries she’d been holding.
Her gaze kept drifting back to the man sitting inside the phone alcove, despite scolding herself and promising that this time was the very last look she’d take. After he finished, he sat down at the counter, flipped over his coffee cup, and lifted a finger. When she grabbed the pot and sidled up to him, she allowed herself to think only about one day not needing this job. She’d get ahead, take a typing class. Then she’d carefully and at her discretion smile when she wanted.
He offered his own grin, one that did something strange to her legs, making them weak and hot all at once. “What else can I get you?” she asked, surprised by the flush of heat in her cheeks. Some widow she was turning out to be.
“You have the prettiest green eyes.” He chuckled. “Did that sound like a line?”
“A little.” The stiff expression slid off her face, a genuine smile taking its place.
“Sorry. I bet someone as beautiful as you gets a lot of them. Lines, I mean.”
“You could say that.” She frowned at the compliment. She happened to know she didn’t look beautiful today. She’d overslept because she’d been up all night with her son Bobby. Her hair was falling out of the hastily-plaited braids on either side of her head, and she wore no makeup. Biting her lip, she let her gaze drift past him and gave a shuddery sigh. “I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day. How about that coffee on the house?”
“Everyone is entitled to a bad day”—he looked at her name tag—“Grace. You ever get breaks? I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.”
Any other day, especially after the fight with her mom about Bobby, her anger would be coming to a boil now. She’d bite back a retort, give another fake smile, and walk back into the kitchen. She didn’t know what about this man, except that quiver of attraction, made this any different.
She sighed and met his expectant gaze. “Things usually slow down in about half an hour. Can you wait?”
“Definitely.” His dark eyes held something, like they were in on a secret together.
Just as she’d predicted, the diner cleared out in thirty minutes, leaving only two regulars in Janine’s section. Grace ducked under the counter at the end and plopped down on the stool beside the man before she poured two fresh coffees. She placed the coffee pot to the side and turned to him. “Since you’re not wearing a helpful name tag, let’s try again. Hi, I’m Grace. And you are?”
A laugh rumbled from his chest. “Dominic. It’s Dominic.”
Dominic had sat on the stool nursing a cup of coffee for the last thirty minutes and, despite the laughter Grace had been able to pull from him, nothing had lessened his rage at his parents. He needed to kill a little more time, and that’s how he came to be sitting beside a beautiful woman in a cheap pink uniform that reminded him of a feminine, round birthday cake—except the curvy parts looked much more palatable. “So,” he began, hoping to hold her attention for a while longer, “why the bad day?”
In no hurry, she poured sugar from the glass dispenser into her coffee and stirred it with a spoon. “Why don’t you tell me about your day?”
“Because I want to know more about you.”
“Um…I live with my mother. I have a five-year-old son who, I have to admit, is a holy terror. Scared yet?” She had high cheekbones and a lush bottom lip that created a perfect heart when her mouth was pursed like it was this second.
Innocence, that’s what he sensed from her. And kindness. Maybe a shy sense of humor. What would she think of his life, the excesses he paid for, like laundry service, to make life simpler? She wasn’t like anyone he’d dated, women who owned lavish dresses that would put the cheap pink uniform to shame. And, yet…she’d snagged his attention.
“Doesn’t your husband help with the kid?” he asked.
She lifted her left hand and wiggled her fingers. “Widowed. Seriously widowed. He crashed his car, and it exploded.”
“I’m sorry.” He took a sip of his coffee, quiet for a moment.
“Thank you.” She dipped her head. “So, what about you? What’s your story?”
“My bad day? I had to fly all day to get back here because my parents were trying to institutionalize my sister so they could steal her inheritance. Lucky for them, my sister left me a message that she’s safe. That’s why I stopped here—to check in with my household manager.”
With a low whistle, Grace shook her head. “Your day is officially worse than mine. How does your wife feel about in-laws like that?”
“Never married.” He leaned closer, and her scent, oranges, surrounded him.
Grace looked around the diner like she might get up and end their conversation, so he rushed to fill the silence. “I manage a hotel in New York. I actually won an award last night—the hotel won an award. I’ve increased revenue by three-hundred percent since I became manager.”
“Very impressive.” She lifted a finger and twirled it to encompass the diner. “Coffee sales have increased by twenty percent since I started here.”
Dominic laughed, and she offered him a grin. “Is that right?” he asked.
“No, but it sounds good.” The grin slid off her face, and she heaved a sigh. “I should probably get back to work.”
He couldn’t simply let her go. He’d walk out of here and never see her again—unacceptable. “Come out with me tonight.”
“Are you going back home?”
“At some point.”
“That would be fun.” Standing from the stool, she shook her head slowly as she gathered up her coffee cup and saucer in one hand and picked up the pot with the other. “I don’t date for fun. I do nothing for fun reasons, not for two years now.”
“When your husband…?”
“Right.” He could see the struggle on her face, the frown furrowing between her brows. She might’ve said yes if she didn’t have so many responsibilities now. “No dates, but the consolation prize is pie.”
Something flowed between them, a thing he’d never experienced before. All he could say was, “I’ll take apple.”
“You got it. But, listen, the prize thing was a joke. You’ve got to pay for it.” He laughed deeply, the third time she’d done it to him. He couldn’t remember when he’d last laughed before coming in here. It was that as much as her beauty that attracted him.
She stood, ducked back under the counter, and brought him a wide slice of pie.
He devoured it, savoring every bite, and watched her while she wiped down the counter and refilled the sugar dispensers. When he finished, a satisfied sigh escaped him. Duty called him for now, but if he could find an excuse to come back in and see the hard-working, charming waitress before he went back to New York, he wouldn’t hesitate.
He slid a twenty under the saucer for her. Her gaze slid back to land on him, and he tipped his hat in goodbye then slipped out the door.
Dominic took off his suit jacket and draped it over his arm, then began the mile-long trek to his parents’ home. He should’ve called a cab, but at this point it would take one at least a half-hour to get here and he didn’t want to put off the confrontation with his parents any longer.
By the time he got to the neighborhood where his parents lived now, perspiration made his skin sticky under his white dress shirt. He loosened his tie a bit and lifted a hand to wave at the elderly woman who lived down the street. She made him cookies whenever he visited. Probably because his mother was the least maternal person he knew.
When he arrived, he rang the doorbell, but no one—not even Mrs. C.—answered his summons. He turned the handle and pushed the door open. Inside, he could hear raised voices coming from the living room, and he followed them down the hall, across the polished tile floor.
“Mrs. C.?” He called out for the housekeeper, but again got no answer.
With a nudge, he pushed the six-paneled wooden door open. His father stood in front of him, his back to Dominic. Across the wide room, his mother’s face distorted like a monster and she picked up a crystal vase and threw it at his father.
It went wide and exploded to Dominic’s right. He winced away from it just as his mother noticed him standing there. His mother, Vivian, moved to stand by the window, a cigarette smoldering in one hand, and glared at his father.
His father, Benny, turned to him. Red splotches stood out prominently on Benny’s face. Blood trickled from a small cut the vase must’ve caused on his father’s cheek.
When Dominic’s grandfather had died, his dad had looked at him with disdain and said, “Well, I guess you can quit working now. Sit back; let his investments take care of you.” That was the only indication Benny had given that he resented being passed over for the wealth Dominic’s grandfather had accumulated.
Instead, Dominic had worked even harder, and the award he’d won last night was a much coveted one in the hospitality industry. His father had always underestimated him, and it always hit him in a way that made him want to prove the old man wrong. Every time.
“Where’s Layla?” Dominic asked, his voice soft. He knew where she was, but how would his parents respond to the question?
“How should we know?” his father replied.
Vivian began speaking in Italian, then paused. She considered using her mother’s tongue beneath her. “She’s gone,” she started over, her accent perfectly American. “And good riddance to her.”
“Mm-hmm.” Dominic took another step into the room. “Get out, Mamma.”
“Why?” She crossed her arms, obstinate. Instead of leaving, she tossed her head and gave him her best withering gaze.
“Because I’ll deal with you later. Because,” Dominic went on, “I don’t expect any better from you.”
For some reason, Vivian flashed a triumphant smile in his father’s direction, then scurried for the door. She paused to take Dominic’s chin in one hand. “You’re a good boy.”
“I’m going, darling. Remind your father what ridiculous lengths your sister will go to to make me look bad.”
“She doesn’t lie. Just go.”
Her lips pressed into a thin, coral line, then she exited the room. Dominic turned on his father. “You son-of-a-bitch. Layla worships you. How could you do that to her?”
“Layla is twenty-five, and I have always provided for her. She had no need for that money.”
“That wasn’t your decision to make—it was hers. And trying to make her look crazy?”
“Oh, come on, son. She is crazy.”
Dominic advanced on his father who, in turn, stalked toward the bar.
“She is a product of growing up in this house. You barely paid her any attention, and Mamma saw her as a threat the first time someone remarked on how beautiful she was going to be.”
With a wave of his hand, Benny dismissed that. Fury blurred Dominic’s vision for a moment, and he closed his eyes to try to regain control. He had to get out of this house before he did something he’d regret. “She got a pittance compared to Anthony and me. Why go after hers?”
“Because it was easy. You’re a businessman now. Do you take on the lion or the lamb first?”
“The lamb?” he repeated, disbelief flooding his voice. Had his father really just said that? His head began to throb, and his heartbeat pulsed in his ears. “I’m going to destroy you, Papà. Like the lion devours the lamb.”
His father lifted his glass in a mocking toast. “You’re welcome to try.”
At this point, Dominic saw a clear choice: he could, and would prefer to, throttle his father or he could go and figure out exactly how to make good on his threat. He turned on his heel and walked straight out of the house. He was halfway back to the diner again before he saw a payphone. Sifting through the change in his pocket, he dialed zero. The operator directed his call to a cab company, and Dominic settled on a bench to seethe while he waited for his ride.
He thought back to his phone call to Charles at his apartment in New York. That had been his entire purpose for going into the diner. He’d never expected to meet a blonde angel with guileless green eyes and a beatific smile.
Charles managed Dominic’s life. He made sure the dry-cleaning hung in his closet and that the housekeeper, who came by three times a week, changed the sheets and did the grocery shopping. He could’ve called him a fairy godfather, really, for taking care of all the mundane crap Dominic didn’t care about, but knew needed doing, like paying bills and opening mail. Instead, he left it at manager and friend.
The operator had confirmed the call then patched them through. “Charles? Listen, I just wanted to know if my sister checked in with you.”
Charles had informed him that Layla had called an hour or so ago. “She went on for a full two minutes that she specifically told you to wait and then said you could reach her at The Desert Palms Hotel.”
He needed to ride around and look at the sights. Maybe reminiscing over the quickly changing city would cool his anger. The Desert Palms Hotel would be his next stop. He wanted to see for himself that his sister was safe and unharmed.