Nick scrambled eggs while Katie showered.
“Oh look, a hottie who cooks.” Tara’s voice dripped with sarcasm. She closed the front door and flung her key ring on the table. “I like mine boiled hard.”
Nick glared over his shoulder. “Don’t start, Tara.”
“Somebody’s testy.” Her laughter reminded him of a bleating goat.
“You left your bedroom window wide open. This is a first-floor apartment. Katie’s here alone all night.” Nick jammed the lever down on the toaster.
“You were in my bedroom?” Tara sidled up next to Nick, “If I had known, I would have called in sick last night.”
“You don’t even care. You’re an inconsiderate bitch—”
“Be nice, Nickie.” She patted Nick’s cheek.
He grabbed her wrist. “What wrong with you? Katie’s supposed to be your best friend. Stop coming on to me. How many times do I have to tell you, I’m not interested?” He released her wrist and stared down at her. “And what were you doing with my poster hanging on your door?”
Tara’s eyes widened in mock innocence. “I found it in the living room. That’s our common area.”
“Inside my zipped-up gym bag is not your common area.”
“Everything okay?” Katie padded barefoot into the kitchen in her robe with a towel wrapped around her wet hair.
“Everything’s fine,” Nick said. “Breakfast’s ready.”
“I’m going to bed.” Tara yawned loudly and walked toward her room. She held up her middle finger to Nick behind Katie’s back.
Nick set the two plates of eggs on the table with more force than he intended. He turned to retrieve the toast.
Katie lowered her voice. “I know you don’t like Tara, but what did she say to make you so angry?”
“It’s what she didn’t say. She never apologized about the window. She’s an inconsiderate bitch and I told her that.”
“She usually does close her window. I guess she forgot.”
“Forget about Tara. You have your exams to think about. Relax. Eat some breakfast.” He buttered a slice of toast and placed it on her plate. “Are you feeling better this morning?”
“Yeah.” She paused and looked down. “Look, Nick, I can’t explain it and I know how crazy it must sound, but there was someone—or something—here last night.”
Before he could respond, she looked up at him and shook her head. “Forget it. I don’t want to talk about it now.”
After walking Katie to the hospital, Nick stopped by his home to change clothes and then went to the gym. The image of Katie’s terrified face stayed in his mind as he went through his workout. The only logical explanation was she had a nightmare, or a panic attack brought on by stress and lack of sleep. He decided it best to wait and talk to her about it after her exams were over.
He returned home, opened his laptop and read over his first chapter with fresh eyes. After smoothing out the paragraphs which had stumped him the night before, he continued typing. He completed the second chapter as his cell phone vibrated on the desk. Seeing a message from Katie surprised him. She said cell phones weren’t allowed in the exam room. She texted she was on a break. A row of smiley faces preceded the next line telling him she would be finished with the tests by five o’clock and she had the next two days off.
Nick immediately started planning for tomorrow evening. He wanted to propose to Katie in the same restaurant he had taken her to on their first date. The Cafe´ Bella Luna offered the perfect atmosphere; candlelight, soft music and intimate seating. He found the phone number online and made the reservation.
His cell rang as he ended the call to the restaurant.
“Hello, Nick,” Victor Ruby said.
“Good morning, Mr. Ruby.”
“I need you to come to the office. In one hour.”
“Yes sir,” Nick closed his laptop. “I’ll be there.”
Nick changed his clothes and walked at a brisk pace to get to the office within the hour. In the waiting room, he found the reception desk vacant and Ruby’s office door wide open.
“Come in, Nick.” Ruby stood in the doorway. “Stephanie’s out running errands.”
The air conditioning streaming through the open door made the interior office temperature bearable.
“How did you get here today?” Ruby asked, settling into his chair.
“It’s a long walk, yes?”
“About thirty minutes, I—”
“Let me get to the point, Nick.” Ruby tossed a key ring on the desk in front of Nick. “There’s an older model Ford in the parking lot. Space number eight. It’s yours to use.”
“A car? Mr. Ruby, I can’t accept—”
“Do you have a valid driver’s license?”
“Then you can accept.” Ruby held his hand up to silence Nick’s objections. “As my newest client, I can’t have you walking clear across town to your debut at the VIP. I’m working on scheduling book signings and media appearances for you. You’ll need reliable transportation.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. I planned to buy a car—”
“There’s an apartment key on the ring, also,” Ruby interrupted. “I own the building. It’s six blocks west of here. I use it for out-of-town clients and a few employees. Stephanie lives there.”
“Mr. Ruby, the car is more than enough. I couldn’t possibly accept an apartment.”
“I insist. Writers need a quiet place to work. I expect many bestsellers from you in the future.”
“Let me pay you rent at least.”
“You couldn’t afford it.” Ruby laughed and then leaned forward. “Soon you’ll be able to afford to live anywhere you like. Until then, enjoy.” He pressed the keys into Nick’s palm. “I have some routine maintenance and cleaning scheduled, but you can move in Saturday morning.”
“I don’t know what to say, Mr. Ruby. I want to repay you for all of this.”
“No need to say anything, Nick. Settle in. Finish your next book.” Ruby led Nick to the door. “You’ll repay me soon enough.”
Nick left the office in a daze. He nearly walked into Stephanie as he exited the elevator in the lobby.
“Nick? I didn’t know you had an appointment today,” she said.
“Me neither. Ruby called and told me to come down.”
Nick held up the keys. “He gave me a car and an apartment to use. He said it’s in your building.”
“Awesome! You’ll love it there. I told you there were major perks to working here.” She pointed to an exit at the rear of the lobby. “The parking lot’s out back. He has several cars he loans to clients. Which one did he give you?”
“A Ford in space number eight. Maybe an older Taurus or something?”
“You’ll flip when you see it. C’mon.” Stephanie pulled Nick by the hand toward the back door.
The parking lot had only one row with numbered spaces. Nick’s mouth fell open as they walked up to space number eight.
Nick stared at the classic, fully restored 1966 Mustang convertible. He walked around the car admiring the Raven Black paint that shone from every angle. The interior, upholstered in red leather with chrome trim, looked brand new. The signature pony emblem centered on the slotted chrome front grill, gleamed in the sunlight.
“I’ve always wanted a ’66.” He popped the hood to check out the engine and was awed by its spotless condition. “It’s the high performance 289 with the four-barrel carb,” he said.
A snippet of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire played from Stephanie’s cell phone. “Yes, Mr. Ruby. On my way.” She wrinkled her nose. “I have to get back to work.” She hesitated a second, then gave Nick a hug. “I’m so happy for you. I can’t wait until we’re neighbors.”
Nick gaped at the car for several more minutes before he unlocked the driver’s door and slid inside. He moved the seat back to accommodate his long legs and breathed in the earthy leather scent. Running his hands across the steering wheel and dash, he caught his smile reflected in the rear-view mirror as he realized he could drive Katie to the restaurant tomorrow night instead of taking a cab.
Katie exited the hospital with a small group of coworkers a few minutes past five. They congratulated each other on completing the exams. Jon Gerber stood next to Katie. He hovered too close for Nick’s liking. Gerber looked more like a surfer than a nurse with his sun-streaked hair, deep tan, and athletic build. Nick’s jaw tightened involuntarily when Katie hugged Gerber. She waved to her friends and then ran over to greet Nick. He picked her up and spun her around, glancing over her head at Gerber, who watched them from the group.
“You look happy tonight,” he said to Katie.
“I’m so relieved exams are over,” she said. “We have to wait a couple of weeks to get our scores, but I think I did okay.”
“I had no doubt you would,” he said. “As hard as you’ve trained and studied, I’ll bet you get the highest scores in your class.”
“As long as I pass, I’ll be thrilled. Working in Radiology would mean higher pay and better hours.” She stood on her toes and kissed Nick on the lips. “Let’s go home and celebrate.” She tugged on his hand, but he didn’t move.
“I can’t walk you home tonight,” he said.
“How come?” Her expression changed from disappointment to concern. “Is something wrong?”
Nick couldn’t keep himself from grinning any longer. “No, something’s right. C’mon, I’ll show you.” He took Katie’s hand and led her around the corner of the hospital building into the parking lot. He stopped in front of the Mustang. “I’m going to drive you home tonight.”
“It’s beautiful. You bought a car today?”
“I wish. It’s a loaner from Ruby. Get in.” He opened the passenger door for Katie and then ran around to the driver’s side. He turned the key in the ignition and the deep, throaty engine rumbled to life.
“Love it,” he said. “Doesn’t she sound sexy?”
“I don’t know about sexy, but gas-guzzling, yes.”
“She’s worth every drop.”
“She?” Katie laughed. “I’m jealous.”
“Let’s go for ride. I’ll tell you about my meeting with Ruby.”
Nick had pulled the car into a lookout near the river.
The sky turned from orange, to crimson and then to a deep purple as the sun dipped below the horizon. Nick and Katie watched as the colors of the sunset rippled across the surface of the river. As night fell, the water turned to a glossy black mirror reflecting the myriad of sparkling lights from the city.
“It’s so pretty here.” Katie leaned her head against Nick’s shoulder.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool to be able to drive down to the river on a whim and watch the sunset.”
“Yes, it is. A car and an apartment. That’s very generous of Mr. Ruby. He must have a lot of confidence in you and your book sales.”
“I hope so.” He squeezed her hand. “Hey, do you mind if I plan your day off tomorrow?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“First, I want to take you dress shopping.”
“Shopping? You hate shopping.” She frowned and then cocked her head. “A dress for what?”
“Ruby’s annual VIP party is this Saturday night. It’s a big event in the horror industry. A lot of Ruby’s clients will be there, actors, musicians and authors. And a press conference where they’ll announce I won his talent contest and introduce my first novel.”
“Nick, that’s so exciting!” Her eyes sparkled. “Oh no, wait, this Saturday? I have to work.”
“I was hoping you could swap a day with one of your—”
“Julie,” Katie interrupted him. “She owes me a favor. I’ll work Thursday for her and she can cover Saturday for me.” Katie grabbed her cell phone and called Julie to confirm the arrangement. She ended the call and grinned. “All set.”
“One more thing, I want to take you out to dinner tomorrow night,” Nick said. “To celebrate your exams being over.”
Katie touched his cheek. “You’re so sweet to me. But you don’t have to spend your money—”
Nick touched his finger to her lips. “I want to.”
Katie wriggled in the bucket seat to move closer to Nick. He leaned across the center console to kiss her. The gear shift lever jabbed into his ribs.
“Ow! This car’s sexy, but not built for romance,” Nick said.
“There’s always . . .” Katie glanced at the narrow back seat, then at Nick’s six foot plus frame and burst out laughing. “Let’s go to my apartment.”