They say lightning never strikes twice, but Lance hoped there was enough of the first jolt to keep things going with the woman perched stiffly in the taxi beside him. He hoped it enough to bring her home to his family, to show his underbelly; the place, the people who had formed him-and still left him vulnerable. People he loved and needed. He looked at Rese. Love and need, risky business.
As they left LaGuardia, he marveled that she had blocked out an unreserved week from the inn to accompany him, but mostly that she would accompany him at all. She'd given him a second chance, but second chance meant get it right this time or fagedda-bout-it. And what were the odds of that?
He had begun his mission alone and in secret, at the urging of Nonna Antonia. If that had remained his focus, he would have gone home without Rese, but he'd made her part of it-or she'd made him. One way or another they were in it together now. And no more secrets. This time he'd keep everything up front and do it right-or as close as he could get it. Shaky ground, but he was standing. Story of his life.
Rese stared out the window as they drove through Queens, then crossed the Triborough Bridge into the Bronx, where the scene waxed less than lovely. After living in swanky Sausalito, working only in the most elite neighborhoods in San Francisco, and purchasing her own piece of wine country Sonoma real estate, the view was no doubt a disappointment.
His Belmont neighborhood had shrunk to a quaint attraction as progeny went to college, found professional positions, and moved out to the suburbs. Not many third-generation Italian-Americans stayed close and called it home, as he had, until Nonna's request sent him across the country to Rese's inn. Now, although this looked like coming home, it wasn't.
He'd found his place in Sonoma, with Rese ... if he got it right this time. He'd only known her three months, but that was long compared to his folks, who had met on the dance floor where Pop proposed that same night with the memorable words, "So, I think we should get married; whatchu think?"
Proceeding through the Bronx past Pelham Parkway to Fordham Road and on into the hood, Lance glanced at Rese, who was now studying the architecture of Belmont Avenue and then Hughes, as they progressed along 186th to the four-story building his family owned. No barred windows, no graffiti, and the brick and stonework were nice, especially along the roof.
Rese was noting it all with her trained eye, but he couldn't read her thoughts. Did she see that his family took care of the building they'd owned since the thirties? Or did she see a broken-down neighborhood clinging to its past?
The cab pulled to the curb and the driver popped the trunk. Lance stepped onto the sidewalk that had borne his chalk, his cherry bombs, and for a while, his cigarette butts. More than that, it was the spot where he and his friends had sung when they'd been sent outside to bother someone else.
He turned at the call.
Frankie Cavallo hung out the window of the Mr. Softee truck, playing the music-box ditty that was the piper's call to children far and near. "Whatchu doin' in a cab? Where's that bike what drowns out my music?"
Lance grinned. If that tune didn't have such good memories attached, it would be pure torture. You had to admire a guy who could hear it all day and still call it music. Probably, had no ear at all.
When Rese climbed out, Frankie raised his ridge of eyebrows. "So that's how it is." He winked and crawled on along the block, enticing the children with soft-serve pleasure they would never outgrow.
But the damage had been done, and Lance couldn't help thinking of his Harley back in Rese's workshop. He sighed. "We should have taken the bike. The road stretched out before us, the wind in our hair-"
"Wind in your hair; I wear a helmet."
Lance hauled her duffle out and set it on the curb. "Baxter in my arms...."
His backpack next. "Did you see his face when we left him behind?"
"It was buried in Michelle's hand."
"She bribed him." Poor dog. Lance felt for the animal with all his heart.
"It would have taken too long to drive. I have responsibilities." Rese folded her arms across her chest.
They had responsibilities. Though he was not surprised she didn't say that. Rese looked as though she might jump back into the cab and leave him wondering if his time in Sonoma had been no more than a dream-the kind of dream that wakes you in a heart-pounding sweat, gasping Gesu, Maria, e Giuseppe, then plunging your head into cold water for the clean, painful shock of it. He had fallen in love with a woman who might never trust him again. That she needed his expertise was the only thing he had going.
He leaned in and paid the driver, then turned to find the strained look on Rese that brought his gaze straight to her mouth. He could soften that mouth, but when Michelle had stopped his kissing Rese in the inn's driveway by proffering his grandmother's lost diary, he had seen very clearly the Lord's warning hand. He was not getting away with anything this time.
Rese gripped her duffle and slung the strap over her shoulder. He could carry it for her, but she wasn't that kind of girl. Here in his warmly expressive neighborhood, with her marble features and stoic stance, she was as incongruous as soprasatta on rye. It had seemed right to bring her, but that presumed a facility with good decision-making and a heart that didn't leap before his head could ask how far.
And since most everything he'd done since meeting Rese had been wrong, he was in the hole already. He hadn't meant to hurt her, but the nature of his quest had set them at odds. Amazing how you could blind yourself when you needed something so badly it left a taste like metal in your mouth.
And he had hurt her, because he hadn't known how to get out of what he'd started. One of these days, he'd learn what trouble looked like from the front side instead of dead center.
* * *
The strap of her duffle dug into her shoulder, and Rese imagined steel rods connecting her head to her spine. Why had she agreed to this? Hadn't she learned that listening to Lance took her directions she never intended to go?
"I have to show Nonna Antonia what I've found, put her mind at rest. But it involves you, too, Rese. I want her to see you, to know what you're doing with the place, what the plan is." As always, his idea had implanted, and now she was on the opposite end of the country with a man she knew better than to trust, yet couldn't seem to resist.
When would she learn to say no? It had never been an issue until the dark-eyed spellbinder strode into her inn with a gilded tongue full of ideas that turned her simple plans upside down. And the worst part was, she'd let him-as she had now, and probably would again.
This was not her normal mode. This was the havoc of Lance Michelli. She shifted the bag and looked up at the red-brick building-circa 1935 judging by the Art Deco motifs: white brick arches over the highest windows with a prominent keystone that hinted of Mayan and Egyptian influences emerging from the Paris Exposition of 1925.
The same white-brick motif formed a linear design beneath the top story and decorated the edges of the middle two stories. The lower windows were crowned with a boat-shaped header with the same elongated keystone for continuity. Somehow the metal fire escape running down the front didn't ruin the effect.
Hoisting his pack, Lance led her past a storefront with an awning that read Bella Tabella to a metal scrollwork door beside it. He unlocked the door, and she followed him down a bike-strewn hallway, cracking where the walls met the high ceiling that bore a painted pipe along its length-a plumbing addition or repair done in the most cost-effective and least aesthetic way. Rese's fingers twitched. The old place deserved better.
Still, there were some nice features. The marble staircase at the back had geometric designs on the newel post, in keeping with the period, and the Beaumont-glass light fixtures appeared to be original. With some TLC, it could be brought into prime condition.
But what was she thinking? She was out of renovation, into hospitality, which was why she needed Lance, why she'd agreed to speak with his grandmother to clear up any impediments. This was about the Wayfaring Inn. She had to keep that foremost in her mind.
They climbed the first flight, walked halfway down the hall to the second door, and Lance inserted another key. So this was his place, the apartment he shared with Chaz and Rico. Though not as grim as some of what they'd driven through, this whole scene was not what she'd pictured for him.
Inside the door, he set his pack in the corner, stacked hers atop, and hollered, "Momma! I have someone for you to meet."
Rese stiffened. Momma?
A woman stepped out from a side room into the hall, one hand fluffing her hair as she approached. "What, you don't tell me you're bringing someone? You don't want me to look nice when you bring me someone to meet?"
He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "You look nice, Momma."
More than nice. The woman was shapely in a classic hourglass way, with olive-toned skin and shoulder-length mahogany hair laced with silver. Sophia Loren in a housedress. Rese's throat closed up.
Lance drew her forward by the elbow. "This is Rese Barrett."
"Rese?" His mother's brow puzzled.
"Theresa, but she goes by Rese."
His mother turned to her. "Therese the little flower, or Teresa of Avila?"
"Just Rese," she managed. They were supposed to be meeting his stroke-ridden grandmother, explaining about the inn, making a business plan. Now his mother had fixed her with the expectant look of a cat on a mousehole.
"You're the secret he's been keeping, ay?"
Death by bludgeoning. Where was a hammer when she needed one? "I'm sorry this is unexpected."
"Ah, well." The woman closed her into a hug and kissed her cheek. Rese stood like wood as she moved to the second cheek, planting kisses on a person she'd never laid eyes on, then turning to her own offspring with a glare. "So I would have had a nice meal planned; I would have gotten dressed."
He grinned, and Rese could see the little boy he'd been, the boy who lied just to see if he could get away with it-and the man who lied to her. Or was it keeping secrets? He hadn't told her anything untrue; he just hadn't told her everything-as he hadn't told his mother they were coming.
"How's Nonna? Can I see her?"
"Sleeping. I just left her."
He nodded. "I'm taking Rese upstairs. We'll see you in a while." He hefted his pack, and she snatched her tote and followed him back down the hall to the stairs.
As soon as they reached the next floor she hissed, "You didn't tell her I was coming?"
He set down his pack. "I was saving her."
He unlocked another door. "If I told her I was bringing you home, she'd have scoured every inch of the building, had her hair colored, lost five pounds, and bought enough food to feed you for a year."
Rese opened her mouth, but no retort came. She couldn't fathom anyone fussing like that over her. "Well ... she ... I don't know her name."
"Doria, but just call her Momma. Everyone does."
Rese glared. "You didn't say I was meeting your mother. You said we were telling-"
"We are. But I could hardly take you upstairs without introducing you. Frankie saw you, so the neighborhood knows, and Momma will have heard eleven different versions within the hour."
Rese frowned. It wasn't so much what he did as how he did it. There was no time to duck.
He pushed open the door and let her into a narrow room with a high plastered ceiling and linoleum floor. As in the rest of the building, the doors and trim were coated in seventy years of white paint, under which she could sense the wood smothering. A navy couch sat in the center with two ecru chairs and glass tables with steel frames. The eclectic art on the walls looked original but hardly museum quality. Lush red and beige rugs saved the apartment from being hard and cold. And of course, in the corner sat a drum set, keyboard, and other musical paraphernalia.
She stopped her gaze at the end of the room. "Kitchenette? Lance Michelli with a kitchenette?"
He shrugged. "I mostly cook downstairs."
"In your mother's kitchen?" She was getting a strange picture.
"All the way down. Bella Tabella, Nonna's restaurant." He went to the window that looked out over the street. Its twin to the left had an air-conditioner, but it wasn't turned on.
Lance tugged the window open, letting in the scent of traffic and pavement. "Not much happening down there now, but when the restaurant opens for dinner, people line the walk waiting for their tables. It's like a family gathering. From up here you get squabbles and boasts and pretty much everything that's happening to everyone. More than you wanted to know."
Everyone's business shared like the flu.
Lance leaned a hip against the frame. "Still mad?"
"I ought to be." He had obviously not improved in the communication department. With as much as he talked, you'd think he would tell people the important things like "I'm bringing a guest" and "You'll meet my mother the minute you set foot in my neighborhood." "You should have told us."
He spread his hands expansively. "It's going to get crazy once word spreads. I thought it would be easier for you if the whole troop wasn't waiting at the door, pushing and shoving to kiss you first."
"How bad will it be?"
"About thirty curious people's worth. I thought you'd rather meet them little by little."
She had to recognize the logic. The only alternative would have been to give her all the facts, and that, of course, was beyond him.
"In the meantime, you can settle in." He led her to three doorways at the opposite end of the room; a bedroom that must be for Chaz and Rico, a bath, then another bedroom that might have been his, but was now clearly Star's. Brilliant hand-sized tropical frog sculptures stretched, perched, and dangled from a dozen spots, and piles of flimsy, colorful clothes adorned the rest.
"Looks like Star's in here. You can share with her. I'll sleep on the couch."
She felt suddenly claustrophobic. She'd spent many nights with Star, growing up, but not in confined spaces such as these, with five of them in the same apartment. It had been only Dad and her for a long time in their house, and even at the inn, the guests were upstairs and her first-floor suite was her own private haven.
He looked toward the hallway. "Unless you'd rather try upstairs with one of my sisters, but they're pretty maxed out."
"They live here too? Your whole family?" He might have said that, but she hadn't imagined them all packed under one roof.
"Monica's family splits the top floor with Lucy's. Sofie lives with Nonna across the hall. The two rooms in the back are for Dom and Vinnie. They're not family, but they lost their rent control, so Pop fixed them up." He pointed to a bent woman in a black veil sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk. "Stella lives across the street, but she likes the shade on our side better. Some people call her Strega Stella, but I've never seen her fly, with or without a broom. She just feeds the neighborhood cats."
Rese stared at him. From the moment they'd stepped out of the taxi, he had taken on mannerisms and speech that matched his surroundings and made her question all over again who he was. No wonder he was so good at fooling people.
"Except for Nonna, who keeps watch on her restaurant and everything else that happens on the street, we put the old ones in the back so they can look out on the courtyard. Come on, I'll show you." He took the duffle bag from her shoulder and dumped it in the bedroom, then led her back into the hallway. A child cried upstairs as he took her down the stairs to a back door and turned the two dead bolts to exit.
The courtyard had a tree. Three of them actually, though two were spindly, and none had much in the way of foliage. The yard was a narrow, brick-paved space between the surrounding buildings, and a portion of it had been built up into garden beds similar to those Lance had made in her yard at the inn. She was no expert on growing things, but they looked more like vegetables than flowers. Pigeons bobbed and pecked around a metal bench in one corner near a plastic turtle-shaped sandbox.