The sound of the front door closing woke him. He jumped up, ran to the door and opened it. Stephanie climbed the staircase to the upper floor.
“Steph, you okay?” he called.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah. Thanks for letting me stay.”
“Wait.” Nick sprinted up the stairs. “Are you sure you’re all right?” He lifted her chin with his hand and looked into her eyes. “You’re not going to hurt yourself, are you?”
“No.” She shrugged his hand away and stared at her feet. “Sorry for all the stupid stuff I said. I made a real ass of myself.”
“Forget it.” Nick hugged her. “I’d say me answering the door buck naked takes the being-an-ass grand prize.” He touched the bruises on her arms. “I’m sorry, Steph. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She gave a weak smile. “They don’t hurt. It was my fault. I’m going to call Mr. Ruby and ask for a personal day today. I need some time alone.”
Returning to his apartment, he saw Stephanie had started a pot of coffee brewing for him. He checked his cell phone but found no messages. It was seven o’clock. Katie would be getting ready for work, if she felt well enough to go in today. After their tense exchange yesterday, he felt apprehensive calling her. She answered on the third ring.
“Are you feeling better?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m getting ready for work.”
“Can I see you tonight?”
“I’m working a double. I won’t get out till midnight.”
“I can come by on your dinner break.”
After long pause Katie answered, “Okay.”
“About eight,” she said.
“I’ll see you at eight. I love you.”
A steady stream of people walked in and out of the front doors of the hospital, but Katie wasn’t one of them. Nick sat waiting on the top step outside the main entrance. The digital time display on his cell read eight twenty-two. He worried she changed her mind about meeting him. A soft “Hey” startled him. He stood and stared at Katie across the two feet of space between them. Two days ago, he would have scooped her up in his arms, but tonight, tension paralyzed him.
“How long is your break?” he asked.
“It’s too busy for me to take dinner. This is only a five-minute break,” she said.
He reached for her hands and held them. “Babe, we really need to talk.”
She stared past him, over his shoulder. Her eyes shone with tears. “I know,” she murmured.
“We can’t talk in five minutes. Call me when you’re done work. I’ll drive you home.”
She slipped her hands from his grasp and tucked them inside her uniform pockets.
“It’ll be after midnight,” she said. “I need to sleep. I have the early shift tomorrow.”
“I’ll still drive you home. We can talk tomorrow.”
“I have a ride.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed Katie’s face. “Jennifer. She drives by my place on her way home.”
“I’d rather drive you and make sure you get into your apartment safe.” He brushed away a wisp of her hair that had blown over her eyes in the cool breeze.
“It’s silly for you to come all the way back here.” Katie took a step back. “I’ll be fine.” She glanced at her watch. “I have to go.”
Nick put his hands on her shoulders. “Katie, promise you’ll find time to talk. Please.”
She looked up at him with wet eyes and nodded.
“I’ll pick you up after work tomorrow. We can go to my place,” he said. “I’ll make dinner, okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered. She turned and ran back into the building.
Hot tears stung Nick’s eyelids. He stomped down the steps and stopped at the edge of the parking lot. Pacing in a circle, he considered running after Katie. Instead, he slammed his fist down on the top of a metal newspaper rack.
“Everything all right, big fella?” A security guard pointed a flashlight in Nick’s face.
“Yeah, sorry,” he mumbled to the old man. He walked to his car.
After driving aimlessly for blocks, Nick found himself at his family’s restaurant. Although past closing time, the lights were on inside. He parked on the side street. A galvanized-metal mop bucket propped open the back kitchen door. Inside, his brother, Sal, stood peering through one of the porthole windows in the double swinging doors which led into the dining room. Sal jumped as the back door screeched on its hinges.
“Nick! Geez, you scared the shit outta me,” Sal said. “Did Pop call you?”
Sal motioned toward the dining room. “Tonight’s the big meeting.”
“What big meeting?”
“Nonna and Eddie.”
“What’re you talking about?”
Sal snorted and wiped his eyes with his palms. “Nonna found out about me boxing.”
“Ah, shit. So, what’s the meeting about?”
“Nonna insisted on talking to Eddie, face to face. They’re all out there now.” Sal peeked through the round window again.
“Pop will stick up for you, Sal. So will Eddie.”
“You know Nonna. If she decides she doesn’t want me boxing . . .” Sal walked over to the big stainless-steel cooler and leaned his back against it. “Shit, it’s not fair. I don’t care what Nonna thinks. I love boxing. I’m good at it. I’ll be eighteen in a few months. She can’t stop me then.” He crossed his arms and jerked his head at Nick. “Right?”
“Once you’re an adult, you can do whatever you want.”
Sal threw his hands in the air. “What’s she got against boxing anyway?”
“She probably doesn’t want her youngest grandson to get hurt.”
“I’m not a damn baby.”
The kitchen door swung open. “Sal, come out here, son,” their father said. “Oh, hey Nick. Didn’t know you were here. You can come out, too.”
Nick held the door. Sal walked ahead to the table where his grandmother and Eddie sat opposite each other.
“Sit, Salvatore,” Nonna said.
Sal slumped into a chair and glared at her over his crossed arms.
“Me and Mr. Eddie reach an agreement,” she said. “You can keep training, as long as you get good grades and graduate high school next spring.”
Sal straightened up in the chair. He looked from Nonna to Eddie. “Really? I can box?”
His father patted his shoulders. “Yes, but you have to do good in school, like your nonna said. And help in the restaurant. And once you turn eighteen, we want to be included in any decisions. You know, like what fights you take, and money you get. Understood?”
“Yeah, Pop. Sure.” Sal jumped up and hugged his father. He ran around the table and shook Eddie’s hand.
“You should thank your grandmother,” Eddie said in a voice that sounded like tires on a gravel road.
Sal crouched down next to his grandmother. “Thank you, Nonna.”
She cupped his face in both hands. “I forget sometimes, you not a little boy anymore. You promise me, you be careful, Salvatore. I don’t want you to get hurt. And remember, you can talk to your father, or me, about this boxing, or anything.”
“Yes, Nonna.” Sal stood, his face beamed with happiness.
Nick gripped his brother in a bear hug. “Glad it worked out.”
Eddie rose to leave, tipping his grey fedora toward Nonna before planting it on top of his white-haired head. “My pleasure to meet you, Miz Rosa.” A younger man sitting near the front window stood to help Eddie. Eddie pushed the man’s arm away. “I can walk by myself, Danny. You drive the car.”
Nick’s father locked the front door after the two exited. “It’s late. Help me finish cleaning up in the kitchen, Sal,” he said.
Nonna nodded at Nick and patted the chair next to her.
Nick sat down. “You made Sal very happy, Nonna.”
“I want to say no. Stupido sport. Hitting each other, for what? Money? Machismo? But, if I say no, he do it anyway. He be angry. It only push him away. Testardo ragazzo, stubborn boys, both of you.” She shook her head. “Why you look so sad tonight, Nickie?”
“It’s Katie, Nonna,” he said. “She’s still angry at me.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding her head. “You say you apologized? From your heart?” She placed her hands over her heart.
“Yes, I did.” Although he didn’t intend to, Nick found himself pouring out the details of the last two days to his grandmother. He told her how Ruby manipulated the press conference to gain more sensational publicity. He stopped short of telling her about sleeping with the models. Instead, he talked about how much he regretted drinking too much and how he loved and missed Katie. His grandmother sat in silence and listened until he had talked himself out.
“You bring Katie here for dinner tomorrow,” Nonna said.
“I wanted to make dinner for her at my new apartment. It’s quiet. We can talk,” Nick said.
“What you gonna cook?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Come in the kitchen,” she said getting up from her chair. “We got some nice veal today.” She took Nick’s hand. “Salvatore, get a box for your brother. Nickie, you take this fresh basil and some of the good Romano.” She packed meat, cheese and herbs into the box. “You make her a nice dinner, Nickie. She loves you. You love her. Everything will work out. You see.”