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Justin slammed a hand onto the desk. “You can’t do this!”
“Three cars, Justin,” Piper Mahoney said, looking up at him, her heart thumping. Three months into her new job and she already had to fire someone. Someone she’d hired.
“Accidents!” he shouted. His pale skin had turned bright red in his fury.
“You’ve cost the hotel twenty thousand dollars in damages,” she said in her calmest voice, while she pressed her shaking hands onto her thighs under the desk. “You inconvenienced the guests while their cars were fixed. That pillar you nicked with the Mercedes cost twelve thousand dollars to repair. My predecessor would have fired you after that one, you know.”
“Take it out of my wages!” he yelped.
Piper sighed. He’d be paying it back until she became a Yankees fan. “Justin, go find another job. One that doesn’t involve driving in tight spaces.”
He was sweating with rage and his voice cracked with panic. “Where am I supposed to get another job if you don’t give me a reference, you stupid bitch?”
Well, she’d accept the stupid part, since she’d hired him. “The point is, you do your job well, you get good references. That’s how it works. Not calling your boss names also helps.” Piper stood up, putting her an inch or two above him, thanks to her four-inch heels. “Go clean out your locker. Now. Security will meet you there. We’ll mail you your final check.”
Justin strung together a few choice words regarding Piper’s ancestry, but he had turned his back on her, and, within a few seconds, she was alone in her office.
She sat down again on shaky legs, the adrenaline racing faster through her veins now that she didn’t have to put on an act for anyone. She put her hands into her hair and covered her eyes with the heels of her palms.
Was it that different here? Employees like Justin existed in Boston, too. This is your job. She peeked out from behind her hands at the blond wood and burnished nickel of her office. You supervise. You fire people. Justin was a liability to the hotel—if you hadn’t been his boss, you would have been yelling at whoever was to fire him.
It wasn’t the job. It wasn’t even Justin’s invective. It was the faces on the people she would have to see when she got out into the break room. Piper hid her eyes again. No one wanted her here. To them, and to one of them in particular, she had swooped down from Boston and taken the front desk manager’s position right from under their noses. The worst of them had made it clear, on her first day, he had wanted her job; that he’d been doing it fine for the month it took her to finish up in Boston and move down here. Everyone else had wanted him to have her job, and they were not pleased the hotel had gone outside to find someone. Never mind that he had only three years’ experience and she had twelve. Or that he had worked in New York for all of two of those years, and she had experience of a large city full of tourists that spanned more than a decade. To her employees, she was foreign; she didn’t belong. Square peg, round hole, etc.
The problem was, she agreed with them. This hotel, this city. The impossible crowds of people. Piper knew crowds, she knew attitude. She was used to people stopping in the street for no apparent reason. She was used to random cursing from cars, from homeless men, from Botoxed women on their cell phones. These things she had lived through in Boston.
She was getting used to the Yankees caps everywhere now; they hardly even made her flinch anymore. She was used to the way the subway worked, drawing her in from her Williamsburg apartment every day to the noise and hustle of Manhattan. She had her local bodega, a cashier who was beginning to get to know her and had begun smiling at her when he saw her. She was getting used to the walking shoes she had to wear for her commute, though she changed them as soon as she could each day for the heels that were the only holdover from her previous wardrobe.
But she was alone and lonely in this city of eight million, and the word “homesick,” that she had banished from her vocabulary as soon as she’d arrived outside her new front door, pushed insistently at her, slammed its hand onto the desk as Justin had done.
Don’t be a baby. You can make it here. Frank Sinatra said so.
Frank was from New Jersey. What the hell did he know?
Frank’s logic had an inverse. If she couldn’t be successful here, where else could she go? She’d have to go back to Boston. And she couldn’t. Not now. Even though it meant leaving her parents, her brother and sister, and her best friend. No. She was stuck here and she was going to have to figure it out. And little pissants like Justin weren’t going to stop her.
Piper gave herself a shake, sniffled, and took out her compact to make sure she hadn’t disarranged her makeup. Her blue eyes looked a little larger, a little darker, maybe, but her mascara was doing its job. The darkness could be because of her hair. Sensible, supervisor-ish brown hair. Managerial. That’s what you look like, that’s why you dyed your hair. Along with this sensible charcoal-gray suit and bank manager-teal silk blouse. You look like your mother.
Her mascara started to lose the fight.
She had to make sure Justin had left. Then she could get out of here. Ignoring the persistent headache that hovered behind her eyes these days, she reapplied her makeup, blew her nose, reapplied again, gathered her things and left her office.
The valets switching shifts in the break room watched her pass with sullen expressions, though some, she noted with a small pleasure, looked a little scared of her. Good. That was the point of her position. Too many of these kids thought the job was there for them, not the other way around. She had to remind them what customer service meant, why the Clover was respected in this city. Whether or not she felt like it.
A couple of receptionists were also in the break room. They were holdovers from her temporary predecessor’s brief reign, and weren’t sure where their loyalty should lie. They, too, said nothing as she went past the doorway.
“Good night,” she said into the room in an acerbic tone, and got a couple of half-hearted good nights in return.
She slipped out into the lobby behind the reception desk. Like her office, the Clover hotel’s lobby was decorated in aggressively modern tones of Swedish maple and sleek brushed nickel. A magnificent chandelier made with hundreds of cylinders of clear glass and more nickel loomed over her head, reflecting the sun coming through the floor-to-ceiling windows and often blinding the receptionists and guests. The carpets were thick and soft in a pale gray that had to be vacuumed several times a day. The entrance to the hotel restaurant, a Michelin-rated space that the owners guarded jealously, was off to one side, not disturbing the calm with unseemly shows of hunger or thirst. The general impression was of a spa. Or, when Piper was grumpy—which she often was these days—a padded cell.
She liked to give the desk one last glance on her way home. It kept the receptionists on their toes. Those on duty gave her a quick glance but turned back without talking to her. God. She wasn’t that much of a tyrant, was she? She couldn’t even get a simple good night from them? Damn her predecessor and his childish backstabbing.
She was halfway through the lobby when the two men coming in through the revolving doors made her pause.
She knew one of them. Knew the set of his shoulders. Knew his walk. Had held the memory of it close to her for three years.
Even saying his name in her head made her heart throb in her chest… and her chest throb against her blouse.
His dark curly hair was cut close to his head, showing the wide cheekbones and warm brown eyes she’d first seen what seemed like a lifetime ago. His suit was charcoal gray, with a white shirt and a dark green tie that highlighted the tawny-brown tone of his skin. She stayed frozen in place, remembering how he’d looked in the elevator three years ago, the day after they’d met. When they’d gone at each other as if it were their last night before deployment.
Okay, Piper, time to take a breath now.
This city had eight million people in it. She’d never thought she’d run into him.
He was with another man; they were about to head for the restaurant to her right. Business dinner. Look around. No, don’t look around. No, look around. Her hand twitched on her purse as she fought the desire to fix her hair.
She didn’t even look like herself any more. He wouldn’t recognize—
He’d turned while his friend was talking to the maître d’. At first his eyes slid away from her. This is a good thing. Go have your dinner. Come here.
He did a double take and now he was walking toward her, throwing a word or two over his shoulder to his companion.
“Piper?” he said when he was closer. His voice was everything she remembered, low and intimate.
“Hi, Lucas,” she said, letting out way more breath than the phrase demanded.
“Wow,” he said, stopping a couple of feet from her.
Wow, indeed; his skin was luminous in the lights from the chandelier above them, the brown seeming to glow. She remembered the skin on his hip that day; the bite marks she’d left on it.
“You look… different,” he said. He lifted a hand as if he would touch the hair that rested on her shoulders, but he paused before he got there.
She wished he looked different, didn’t look so… appetizing. “Well, you know,” she said, trying to sound flippant. “Couldn’t do the Betty Grable thing forever.”
He was staring hard into her eyes now. “Okay,” he said. “The dark hair suits you.”
She gave a faint smile. “Thank you.”
“I knew you were here,” he went on. “I just didn’t know you were… here.”
Piper’s best friend was married to Lucas’s. She was sure Jessica and Adam would have told him about Piper cutting off all communication and moving to New York—emigrating, her family back in Boston called it. Jessica would have told him about Jay, about Piper’s engagement, and the baby and the loss of both.
If Lucas said one word about all that right now, though, Piper would burst into tears, and her careful reapplication of makeup would be wasted.
His mouth—oh, God, his mouth—tightened and then relaxed. He nodded. He wasn’t going to say anything.
“Yep,” she answered, covering her thoughts with a veneer of playfulness. In her best customer-service voice, she went on. “Welcome to the Clover. Is there anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable?”
Instead of laughing at her weak joke, he frowned. In fact, now that she was over the first shock of his physical presence, she saw that he was, in fact, different. Three years ago his face had been open, friendly, his smiles easy and frequent. She’d learned he had dimples within seconds of meeting him. Now she saw two lines between his eyebrows, and the dimples seemed to have been replaced by more lines bracketing his mouth.
“Are you still with the DA?” she asked, as the silence again threatened to lengthen.
Anyone would look haunted when they worked in the sex crimes unit of the New York District Attorney’s Office. She didn’t want to think about the stories he must have heard over the years.
Not the most cheerful of topics, Piper. Great job.
He nodded. The shadow remained on his face. He looked at her as if she were bringing him bad news.
Then she remembered the last thing she’d heard about him before she’d cut Jessica off—his mother, Sal, the only family he had, had early-onset Alzheimer’s. No wonder his eyes seemed so careworn.
A wave of compassion swept over her. She wanted to touch him, to smooth the lines between his eyebrows. To recall the thread that had connected them the day they’d met, the thread she’d allowed to break. She went as far as to raise a hand as he had done, almost to reach for his suit-clad arm.
The shadow on his face darkened. She pulled her hand back. The hell he was going through right now was closing him off from everyone.
Or, at least, her. Maybe he was going to talk about it right now with that friend, who was waiting over by the maître d’. And Piper was keeping him. Stupid that she would think he remembered that afternoon three years ago with as much fondness as she did.
“Well,” she said bravely, straightening her shoulders, “it was good to see you, Lucas.” And she held out her hand.
The dark glare stopped, replaced by raised eyebrows and a softening of the eyes. “You too,” he said, taking her hand in his.
This was no businesslike handshake. His palm was warm against hers and the simple touch sent a spark up her arm that she hadn’t felt in months. Perhaps years.
They stood for several seconds, hands joined, looking at each other, memory crashing between them.
“Lucas,” she said, before she could think it through, “would you like to have dinner one night?”
His eyes widened, but were soon hooded and shadowed again. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
Of course it wasn’t. But now she’d asked, she wanted nothing more than an hour or two in Lucas’s calming presence. “Just as friends,” she clarified.
That brought the light back into his eyes, for a second. “I would find it very hard to just be your friend.”
Piper smiled and warmed and his hand squeezed hers.
But then he said, “Saying no to you doesn’t come easy, Pip, especially when you look at me like that.”
She smiled wider at his use of her nickname.
“But I have to anyway.”
Piper wanted to shiver at the sadness in his voice. “Of course,” she said. What did you expect?
“My life is too crazy right now,” he went on.
“I understand,” she answered, and hid her loneliness behind the brightest smile she could muster.
They were still holding hands. Lucas’s mouth twitched sadly, and he squeezed her hand one more time. “You take care of yourself, Piper.”
“You too,” she said, her voice gone.
Lucas went back to his companion. Piper stood on the spot, desire and sympathy warring inside her.
She was walking down the stairs to the subway before she realized she’d forgotten to change out of her heels.
End of Excerpt