He backs out of the store room. I look over at Nat, smile and shrug.
Only in New York.
Laughing so hard I’m clutching my ribs, I let Max finish his story.
“And they both hit the freakin’ floor like I was goin’ postal or some shit.” He’s laughing as hard as I am as he continues, “Then, get this Nik, I make the mistake of callin’ her friend ma’am and she threatens to punch me in the face!”
Ghost is reading the newspaper but he’s chuckling, too. Trick’s face is bright red and he’s wheezing, he thinks this is as hilarious as I think it is.
Ghost lifts his face and frowns. He asks “What is it with chicks and squealing?”
Trick answers “It’s their version of when a dog gets so excited it pees.”
Max face turns serious as he tells us “You should see the friend though. Mmmm, nice. Tina is cute as all get out with a great ass. Mimi is sexy but scary as hell. Natalie is just plain sexy. And there was another girl there who was a little young but just as fine.” He turns to me and smirks, “I’m really glad you decided to be friends with Tina.”
With Nat here, I get inventory done in 2 short hours. Work goes quickly when you’re gabbing away with an old friend.
After a year apart she still looks the same to me except her hair is longer and dyed a deep magenta, some would call it violet. People always ask us if we’re sisters; we have the same eye shape and green eyes. Except my eyes have a dark rim around them and are lighter, hers are bright grass green.
I’ve told her all about The White Rabbit and the guys. I’m surprised when she doesn’t question me about Max and his gun but I’m glad because I honestly wouldn’t know how to answer her.
I ask her if she can steam some new items and she seems really excited to be put to work. After showing her how to use a professional steamer and warning her about steam burns (which I have had many of), I leave her to it.
The red mailbox on the computer flashes. I find one unread email.
It’s from Vanessa.
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Cupcake Recipe :)
Thank you so much, can’t wait to make these for my husband!
Who ever heard of mayonnaise in cake? But whatever work, right?
Tell your boyfriend he’s got himself a new sponsor. Doing the paperwork right now. Should be there Monday.
HOLY CANNOLI! Yay!
After yesterday’s accidental meeting with Vanessa, I went back to the store and typed out the recipe to email to her. I was just about to email it when I read what business she was from. NT3 Advertising is a huge advertising firm in New York. So, now I understand why this was so important to Nik. If he succeeded in getting them as a sponsor it would open the door to him for a lot of other sponsors. NT3, alone, has over ten sub companies.
I’m so happy for him right now I could dance a jig!
Instead, I forward the email to him and wait for a reply.
My excitement deflates when I don’t get one after ten minutes. I get back to work.
Just as I’m ready to glare at the damn doorbell, I’m pulled back into something hard.
I look up and there is Nik. Hugging me from behind.
He is so tall and handsome. And I feel safe in his muscular arms.
This bothers me.
I try to laugh it off saying, “Hey there big man! I see congratulations are in order!”
He takes my hand and turns me to face him. He takes my face in his large hands and explains, “They were going to turn me down. You,” he shoots me a grateful smile and whispers, “you are the reason I got this. This one’s all on you.” His face turns serious, “Thank you, sweetheart, you have no idea how much I needed this.”
Wrapping his arms around my shoulders, he picks me up and rocks me from side to side. My legs are swinging left to right and I can’t move my arms. I’m sure anyone watching thinks I’m his dolly.
When he’s done, he sets me back on my feet and put his hands on my shoulders. He orders, “You’re shuttin’ down for an hour. You and your girls are coming to The White Rabbit for lunch.” Not a request.
I scrunch my face up and start to refuse, “I really shouldn’t.”
His face turns serious again and he says firmly, “I’m not taking no for an answer.”
He tries to persuade me with, “C’mon. It’s just an hour. We need to celebrate.” He starts nodding.
This is the first time he’s been in my store and it’s been nice so far. I look around to see Mimi smirking, Natalie wink, and Lola wide eyed. I shoot them all a questioning look. Mimi and Nat nod vigorously, Lola just stares at Nik.
Oh, Lola. I know how you feel.
Shrugging my shoulders I put on my best bored voice, “Well I guess an hour won’t hurt.”
Nik smiles huge and, wow, I’ve never seen him smile like this before. I’ve only ever seen his smirk. But this…This is a smile. It’s a masterpiece. A work of art.
It’s a little like Max’s. He has a single dimple which is totally yummy. And his teeth are so straight and white, I want to lick him.
But his smile transforms his whole face. Gone is any hardness I once saw in his face; now whenever I see him I will remember this beautiful smile. I feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
He turns to Mimi and asks, “Can you lock up?”
She nods and walks to the staff room. Keys in hand, she shuffles us out the door and locks it.
Nik takes my hand, puts it in the crook of his elbow and walks us across the street, girls in tow.
We arrive at what Nik calls the ‘chill out’ room and there are at least ten other people there.
Max is the first to spot us arrive. He swoops up to us and picks me up, hugging me hard.
What the heck is it with these guys and picking me up?
Max exclaims, “Oh, doll face, you are a sight for sore eyes!” He looks at my girls and asks, “Have you tried this girl’s cupcakes?” They all nod and he continues, “They should win awards or some shit!”
From across the room, an older lady yells out to Max, “You watch your mouth, young man. You’re not too old for me to spank you, niño travieso!” She has a slight accent. She is also beautiful. I would guess she is in her mid to late fifties with salt and pepper hair, olive skin tone, and dark brown eyes.
Nik walks me over to her. He introduces me to her. “Mom, this is Tina.” He looks proud to introduce me. I melt a little.
She looks at me curiously and questions, “So this is your new friend?” She says friend in a teasing way. I don’t know what to make of it.
I clear my throat and respond, “It’s lovely to meet you…”
She takes my hand in hers and introduces herself with a kind voice. “Cecilia. But you girls can call me Mama.” She winks at me then goes to get my friends names.
Trick approaches with three other girls. They are all smiling big as Trick introduces them. “Tina, these are Max and Nik’s sisters. Leticia, Maria, and Isabel.”
Leticia looks the oldest. Not quite as old as Max or Nik but she is the oldest sister. She looks a lot like her Mom. As does Maria. She says, “Please call me Leti.”
I take her hand and shake it. I say with an awe-filled voice, “Wow, you’re all so beautiful. You must have great genes.”
Maria takes my hand next and responds, “We get told that a bit but it’s hard to see that in yourself.” She is humble and sweet. She looks about my age.
Isabel is the youngest. And I mean young. She is maybe eighteen. Nik has to be at least twelve years older than her. She looks a little like her sisters but shares the same eye color as Nik and Max. She gently takes my hand and shoots me a shy smile, “Call me Isa.”
Leti asks me about Safira’s. I tell them I’m the manager and which brands we currently stock. I also invite them to come see the store sometime. They all listen intently and seem genuinely interested. I like them instantly.
Ghost appears in the doorway carrying platters upon platters of sushi.
Oh dear lord, I’m in sushi heaven!
I freakin’ love sushi! I don’t love the raw fish bits but give me Teriyaki and Satay chicken any day. Ooh, and spicy tuna rolls. And spring rolls. And maybe the edamame beans.
Okay, so I love a lot of Japanese food items.
Nik comes up behind me and catches me staring with wide eyes at the platters. He smiles, I get the dimple again, and he says teasingly, “I promised you sushi, right?”
I nod up at him and he tells me, “Go eat then, sweetheart.” He gives me a little shove to move me along.
Looking around the room I see everyone chatting and laughing. Cecilia and Trick in one corner. Nat, Lola, and Max on the lounge, Ghost sitting on the arm of the sofa listening in. Mimi is chatting away to the sisters. Everyone seems to be having a good time and I’m glad we came. It seemed to be important to Nik.
I make a move to the table with the now open platters when a voice startles me.
Such a sweet little voice that my heart clenches.
I look up to see a young girl in a wheelchair blocking the doorway. I recognize her from the photo in Nik’s office.
She is around nine or ten years old and she has pale skin (like me) and auburn hair which is cut to her shoulders. Her eyes are the same color as Nik’s. The tooth that was missing in the photo has almost completely grown back.
This little Angel must be Nik’s daughter.
I’m a little shocked when Max walks over to the girl and kneels by her chair. He asks, “What is it, baby?”
She holds up a handheld game console and frowns. She whispers loudly, “I can’t get my game to work.”
He takes the game console from her, kisses her hand and says, “Hmm, let me see what I can do.”
The little girl rolls her chair into the room and right up to Nik and me. She looks up at him questioningly, “Hey uncle Nik, is this your girlfriend?”
He chokes down a laugh and explains, “No, Cricket. This is my friend Tina. Tina this is my niece Ceecee. She’s named after Mom but this is easier for us.”
I smile and take her small hand in mine and say, “It’s nice to meet you, Ceecee.”
Ceecee smiles back at me. She frowns suddenly and declares, “I’m hungry.”
I kneel beside her and ask, “Would you like for me to make you up a plate, sweetie?”
She nods and follows me over to the table. I ask, “What would you like?”
Her face scrunches up in disgust when she sees the Sashimi; she says with certainty, “I don’t want the fish.”
A bubble of laughter catches in my throat. I tell her, “That’s okay. I don’t like the raw fish either.” I take a look around the platters and say, “There’s chicken, egg, and cucumber. Which ones?”
Her face brightens and she replies, “One of each, please.”
I put some sushi on a plate for her and pop it in her lap. I notice her legs aren’t muscular at all; in fact they look quite small for her body. I take a guess that she is possibly a paraplegic.
Max comes back into the room and walks over to us. He sees the plate on her lap and his eyes go wide. He asks her, “Did you get that on your own, baby?”
With a mouth full of sushi, she replies, “Nuh uh. Tina got it for me.” She looks to her father and says, “Don’t you think Tina’s pretty, daddy?”
Max and I look at each other and laugh. He nods genuinely and tells her, “Yeah, baby, I think she’s very pretty.”
Ceecee surmises, “I think she looks like a princess.”
Max smiles and claims, “Maybe she is a princess.”
Her awe filled eyes meet Max’s and she questions, “Do you think she’s a real princess like in my book?”
With a small shrug, he responds, “I don’t know, babe. Why don’t you ask her?”
She turns her face to me and in a completely serious voice asks, “Tina, are you a princess from my book?”
Oh, my…You are too cute.
Shaking my head slightly, I tuck her hair behind her ear. I tell her, “No sweetie.” Her shoulders slump, so I continue, “But sometimes when I dress up really nice I feel like one.”
Her eye widen and she whispers, “Me, too. Can we be princesses one day?”
Without hesitation I answer, “Absolutely.” This is important to her for some reason.
Eyes still wide, she looks to the floor and whispers slowly, “Cool.”
She is so small and sweet. I want to hug her. So I do.
I wrap her small frame in my arms and hug her. I lean down to her ear and whisper, “You don’t have to be a real princess to feel like one. I’ll show you someday.”
She returns my hug briefly, takes the game console from Max, and wheels herself out of the room.
I turn to Max, grab hold of his hand and state, “I love her.”
Max pats my hand holding his and smiles as he boasts, “She has that effect on people.”
“You must be so proud,” I say. My voice is a little thick.
His face turns serious but answers with a soft voice, “I am, doll. I really am.”
Tina holds onto Max’s hand and I feel a swell of emotion in my chest.
Max has been through a lot over the past nine years. He was in love with a good woman. We don’t see Maddy anymore. Actually, we haven’t seen her since Ceecee was about one and a half.
Ceecee was born an extremely healthy little girl. She wasn’t planned but Max loved Maddy so much that he would’ve done anything to make her happy. They eventually both fell in love with the idea of a baby. Max was twenty four and strutting like a peacock when Maddy wound up pregnant. He liked the idea of being a dad.