“You thought of me as a debutante.”
“I assumed you were a pampered immature…girl. Not a woman. I expected to find you ambitious and selfish, so eager to impress your father with what you could do that it didn’t matter how many people you stepped on. Then we did the Celebrity Debate, and I discovered that none of the things I wanted to believe about you were true.”
“What you’ve got to understand,” Nolan added forcefully, “is that I don’t want to become involved with you.”
“That message has come through loud and clear.” She moistened her lips and cast her gaze toward the floor, afraid he’d see how vulnerable he made her feel.
Suddenly he was standing directly in front of her, so close his breath warmed her face. With one gentle finger, he lifted her chin, raising her eyes to his.
“All evening I was telling myself how noble I was,” he said. “Griff Bradley is far better suited to you than I’ll ever be.”
“Stop saying that!”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her against him. “There can’t ever be any kind of relationship between us,” he said, his voice rough. “I learned my lesson years ago, and I’m not going to repeat that mistake.” But contrary to everything he was saying, his mouth lowered to hers until their lips touched. The kiss was slow and familiar. Their bottom lips clung as Nolan eased away from her.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” he murmured.
“I won’t tell anyone if you won’t,” she whispered.
“Just remember what I said,” he whispered back. “I don’t do well with rich girls. I already found that out. The hard way.”
“I’ll remember,” she said softly, looking up at him.
“Good.” And then he kissed her again.
It was three days before Maryanne saw Nolan. She didn’t need anyone to tell her he was avoiding her. Maybe he thought falling in love would wreak havoc with his comfortable well-ordered life. If he’d given her a chance, Maryanne would’ve told him she didn’t expect him to fill her days. She had her new job, and she was fixing up her apartment. Most importantly, she had her writing, which kept her busy the rest of the time. She’d recently queried a magazine about doing a humorous article on her experiences working for Rent-A-Maid.
“Here’s Nolan now,” Barbara whispered as she hurried past Maryanne, balancing three plates.
Automatically Maryanne reached for a water glass and a menu and followed Nolan to the booth. He was halfway into his seat when he saw her. He froze and his narrowed gaze flew across the room to the middle-aged waitress.
Barbara didn’t appear in the least intimidated. “Hey, what did you expect?” she called out. “We were one girl short, and when Maryanne applied for the job she gave you as a reference. Besides, she’s a good worker.”
Nolan didn’t bother to look at the menu. Standing beside the table, Maryanne took her green order pad out of her apron pocket.
“I’ll have the chili,” he said gruffly.
“With or without cheese?”
“Without,” he bellowed, then quickly lowered his voice. “How long have you been working here?”
“Since Monday morning. Don’t look so angry. You were the one who told me about the job. Remember?”
“I don’t want you working here!”
“Why not? It’s a respectable establishment. Honestly, Nolan, what did you expect me to do? I had to find another job, and fast. I can’t expect to sell any articles for at least a month, if then. I’ve got to have some way of paying the bills.”
“You could’ve done a hell of a lot better than Mom’s Place if you wanted to be a waitress.”
“Are we going to argue? Again?” she asked with an impatient sigh.
“No,” he answered, grabbing his napkin just in time to catch a violent sneeze.
Now that she had a chance to study him, she saw his nose was red and his eyes rheumy. In fact he looked downright miserable. “You’ve got a cold.”
“Are you always this brilliant?”
“I try to be. And I’ll try to ignore your rudeness. Would you like a glass of orange juice or a couple of aspirin?”
“No, Florence Nightingale, all I want is my usual bowl of chili, without the cheese. Have you got that?”
“Yes, of course,” she said, writing it down. Nolan certainly seemed to be in a rotten mood, but that was nothing new. Maryanne seemed to bring out the worst in him.
Barbara met her at the counter. “From the looks your boyfriend’s been sending me, he’d gladly cut off my head. What’s with him, anyway?”
“I don’t think he’s feeling well,” Maryanne answered in a low worried voice.
“Men, especially sick ones, are the biggest babies on earth,” Barbara said wryly. “They get a little virus and think someone should rush in to make a documentary about their life-threatening condition. My advice to you is let him wallow in his misery all by himself.”
“But he looks like he might have a fever,” Maryanne whispered.
“And he isn’t old enough to take an aspirin all on his own?” The older woman glanced behind her. “His order’s up. You want me to take it to him?”
“Don’t worry, if he gets smart with me I’ll just whack him upside the head. Someone needs to put that man in his place.”
Maryanne picked up the large bowl of chili. “I’ll do it.”
“Yes,” Barbara said, grinning broadly. “I have a feeling you will.”
Maryanne got home several hours later. Her feet hurt and her back ached, but she felt a pleasant glow of satisfaction. After three days of waitressing, she was beginning to get the knack of keeping orders straight and remembering everything she needed to do. It wasn’t the job of her dreams, but she was making a living wage, certainly better money than she’d been getting from Rent-A-Maid. Not only that, the tips were good. Maryanne didn’t dare imagine what her family would say if they found out, though. She suffered a stab of remorse every time she thought about the way she was deceiving them. In fact, it was simpler not to think about it at all.
After his initial reaction, Nolan hadn’t so much as mentioned her working at Mom’s Place. He clearly wasn’t thrilled, but that didn’t surprise her. Little, if anything, she’d done from the moment she’d met him had gained his approval.
Maryanne had grown accustomed to falling asleep most nights to the sound of Nolan’s typing. She found herself listening for it when she climbed into bed. But she didn’t hear it that night or the two nights that followed.
“How’s Nolan?” Barbara asked her on Friday afternoon.
“I don’t know.” Maryanne hadn’t seen him in days, but then, she rarely did.
“He must have got a really bad bug.”
Maryanne hated the way her heart lurched. She’d tried not to think about him. Not that she’d been successful…
“His column hasn’t been in the paper all week. The Sun’s been running some of his old ones—Nolan’s Classics. Did you read the one last night?” Barbara asked, laughing. “It was about how old-fashioned friendly service has disappeared from restaurants today.” She grinned. “He said there were a few exceptions, and you know who he was talking about.”
As a matter of fact, Maryanne had read the piece and been highly amused—and flattered, even though the column had been written long before she’d even come to Seattle, let alone worked at Mom’s Place. As always she’d been impressed with Nolan’s dry wit. They often disagreed—Nolan was too much of a pessimist to suit her—but she couldn’t help admiring his skill with words.
Since the afternoon he’d found her at Mom’s, Nolan hadn’t eaten there again. Maryanne didn’t consider that so strange. He went to great lengths to ensure that they didn’t run into each other. She did feel mildly guilty that he’d decided to stay away from his favorite diner, but it was his choice, after all.
During the rest of her shift, Maryanne had to struggle to keep Nolan out of her mind. His apartment had been unusually quiet for the past few days, but she hadn’t been concerned about it. Now she was.
“Do you think he’s all right?” she asked Barbara some time later.
“He’s a big boy,” the older woman was quick to remind her. “He can take care of himself.”
Maryanne wasn’t so sure. After work, she hurried home, convinced she’d find Nolan hovering near death, too ill to call for help. She didn’t even stop at her own apartment, but went directly to his.
She knocked politely, anticipating all kinds of disasters when there was no response.
“Nolan?” She pounded on his door and yelled his name, battling down a rising sense of panic. She envisioned him lying on his bed, suffering—or worse. “Nolan, please answer the door,” she pleaded, wondering if there was someone in the building with a passkey.
She’d waited hours, it seemed, before he yanked open the door.
“Are you all right?” she demanded, so relieved to see him she could hardly keep from hurling herself into his arms. Relieved, that was, until she got a good look at him.
“I was feeling just great,” he told her gruffly, “until I had to get out of bed to answer the stupid door. Which, incidentally, woke me up.”
Maryanne pressed her fingers over her mouth to hide her hysterical laughter. If Nolan felt anywhere near as bad as he looked, then she should seriously consider phoning for an ambulance. He wore grey sweatpants and a faded plaid robe, one she would guess had been moth fodder for years. His choice of clothes was the least of her concerns, however. He resembled someone who’d just surfaced from a four-day drunk. His eyes were red and his face ashen. He scowled at her and it was clear the moment he spoke that his disposition was as cheery as his appearance.
“I take it there’s a reason for this uninvited visit?” he growled, then sneezed fiercely.
“Yes…” Maryanne hedged, not knowing exactly what to do now. “I just wanted to make sure you’re all right.”
“Okay, you’ve seen me. I’m going to live, so you can leave in good conscience.” He would have closed the door, but Maryanne stepped forward and boldly forced her way into his apartment.
In the weeks they’d lived next door to each other, she’d never seen his home. The muted earth colors, the rich leather furniture and polished wood floors appealed to her immediately. Despite her worry about his condition, she smiled; this room reminded her of Nolan, with papers and books littering every available space. His apartment seemed at least twice the size of hers. He’d once mentioned that it was larger, but after becoming accustomed to her own small rooms, she found the spaciousness of his a pleasant shock.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m in no mood for company,” he informed her in a surly voice.