The following morning, they drove downtown with the top down, enjoying the warm, sunny morning. Katie’s windblown hair streamed behind her in long, shiny ribbons. Nick couldn’t stop glancing over at her and smiling. He slowed and parked the Mustang in a space in front of an upscale boutique.
“I thought we were going to the mall. Damned Divas? What is this place?” Katie asked.
“Ruby’s secretary recommended it.”
The sign on the barred front door instructed to ring the bell for entrance. A tall, bony woman dressed in a red leather corset and a tattered, lime-green skirt opened the door. Her cheekbones dominated her gaunt face. She studied them with icy eyes. “May I help you?”
“My girlfriend needs a dress for the Ruby International Promotions VIP party.”
The woman’s pencil-drawn brows raised. “Come in. Please, be seated.” She sauntered off into a back room. Layers of shredded material on her skirt ruffled in the air as she walked.
Nick and Katie grinned at each other. “I guess we sit,” Nick said.
The tall, narrow display windows outside belied the spacious interior. Glossy black walls with back-lit cubby holes showcased displays of clothing and shoes. Groupings of bright-colored upholstered chairs dotted the plush, snow-white carpeting.
“This place looks pricey, Nick. And if the dresses here are anything like hers—”
“Don’t worry about price. This is my treat.” Nick leaned close to Katie’s ear. “She looks like an old dominatrix who fell into a chipper-shredder.”
Katie stifled her laughter as the sales woman returned rolling a small chrome rack with a colorful selection of evening gowns. She held up each dress and recited its list of designer features in a monotone voice.
“This one’s cute.” Katie stood and admired a black cocktail dress. “May I try it on?”
“Certainly, follow me.”
Katie waved to Nick and then followed the woman to the dressing room.
“It looks nice,” Nick commented when she returned. While the simple dress flattered Katie’s figure, the plunging neckline and back held Nick’s attention “How does it stay on?” he asked.
The saleswoman pursed her thin lips but kept silent.
“It feels more secure than it looks,” Katie said. She walked to an alcove with mirrors on three walls and studied the dress.
“This one would better suit you.” The woman removed a dress from the rack and held it up. The pale golden material shone under the florescent lights.
“I thought a black dress would be the safest choice for a formal party,” Katie said.
“The VIP is definitely not about safe choices,” the woman said. “You’ll stand out in this. Your coloring and body type are a perfect match for this gown.”
Nick shrugged. “Try it on.”
Several minutes later, Katie and the dour-faced saleswoman walked back into the show room.
Nick stood. “Wow!”
The dress fit Katie’s slender body like a shimmering glove. Beneath the sheer outer layer, matching pearlescent fabric provided coverage and accentuated Katie’s tiny waist and full breasts. The deep V-back ended at her waist in a cascade of sparkling fabric. The long asymmetrical skirt had a daring slit to the upper thigh on one side.
The saleswoman’s grim red lips twitched at the corners. “I told you.”
Katie pulled Nick by the hand over to the mirrors. “The dress is gorgeous, but she said it cost nine-hundred dollars,” she whispered. “Then she brought me these heels to try with it. They’re one-hundred and seventy!” Katie lifted her long hair to simulate an up-sweep and slowly twirled around in front of the mirrors.
“You look fantastic. We’re getting it.” Nick said. “Of course, I’ll have to bring my gun and a couple of Dobermans to keep the guys away from you.”
“No, Nick, it’s too expensive. I can find a nice black dress for eighty dollars at the mall. Maybe less, if there’s a sale. I already have black heels—”
“Nope. This dress looks incredible on you. Face it babe, the ol’ dominatrix is right.”
Although he knew Katie loved the dress, she couldn’t get past the price of the extravagant purchase. As they drove away from the boutique, she still protested.
“Nick, over a thousand dollars for one outfit. I feel terrible you spent so much.”
“You can’t back out, they’re doing alterations. I’ll pick it up for you tomorrow. I have to get my clothes across the street.”
“Let’s pass on going out to dinner tonight,” Katie said.
“Why? I made reservations.”
“To save money. We can make dinner at home.”
“We?” Nick grinned. “You plan on making your special pasta soup?”
“You’re never going to let me forget, are you?”
“I know I won’t.” He enjoyed teasing Katie about her first and only attempt to cook him dinner. After boiling spaghetti in a covered pot for over two hours, she was horrified when she discovered the glutinous mass inside the pot.
“You’re a fantastic chef,” she said. “You cook. I’ll wash dishes.”
“Nice try, but I’m not cooking tonight. We’re going out.”
Despite her earlier objections, Katie’s face lit up when they pulled up outside the Cafè Bella Luna.
“Oh, Nick, I love this place!”
Nick couldn’t remember the last time he felt as elated as he did escorting Katie into the cafe. He couldn’t afford to take her here before receiving Ruby’s check. They followed the maitre d’ to a secluded alcove in the rear of the dining room. He seated them in a booth next to an arch-shaped window overlooking the river. The Venetian plaster walls reflected the warm amber light from candles flickering in the wrought iron and glass wall sconces. More candles glowed in the center of the table. A ceramic planter filled with ivy sat on the windowsill, its delicate green tendrils trailed down the wall and curled onto the table.
Nick picked at the selection of tapas-style dishes he and Katie shared. An unexpected bout of nerves dulled his appetite. Until this moment, the possibility Katie might reject his marriage proposal hadn’t occurred to him. If she turned him down, he couldn’t imagine how the rest of the evening would play out—much less, the rest of his life.
He ran through a mental check list of reasons why he believed she would accept. They could talk to each other about anything or be equally as comfortable together in total silence. While Katie voiced her disapproval if he drank too much or acted jealous, they had never had a serious argument.
Beyond the long list of practical reasons, Nick knew in his heart he and Katie belonged together. He put all of his feelings into a proposal he had written months ago. He had read it and edited it over and over, as if it were a page from one of his novels. He kept the folded sheet of paper inside his wallet.
“I said you’re not eating much. Aren’t you hungry?” Katie asked.
“Not really. But everything’s delicious.”
When they finished eating, Katie excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. As the waiter cleared their plates, Nick asked him to wait five minutes after Katie returned and then bring a bottle of champagne to the table. He clutched the velvet ring box in his hand.
“Excuse me.” Nick motioned to the same waiter again. “Make it ten minutes, okay?”
The waiter smiled and nodded.
He gulped the remaining wine in his glass, then picked up Katie’s untouched glass and drained it.
Nick drew a deep breath as Katie settled into the booth. She gazed out the window and remarked about the beautiful skyline. He moved from his seat and knelt on one knee beside her. Katie stopped talking in mid-sentence. He took her left hand in his.
She clasped her right hand over her mouth. Her eyes widened more each second she waited for Nick to speak.
His mouth felt dry and his stomach hollow. The proposal he had memorized and rehearsed so eloquently in his mind completely eluded him.
“Katie, I, I’ve loved you from the minute I first saw you. Even more now . . . and I, I . . . will you marry me?” With damp hands, he flipped open the velvet box. Katie gasped as he slid the ring onto her finger. She gaped at the diamonds glinting in the candlelight and then stared at Nick with wet eyes. Katie leaned over, wrapped her arms around him, and pressed her face into his neck. He stayed on one knee holding her.
His words came out in a hoarse whisper. “Um, does this mean you will?”
Katie sat up and stroked his face.
Nick’s heart beat hard and fast in his throat as he waited for her response.
“Yes.” She nodded and smiled. “Yes, of course I will.”
He slid into the booth next to her and kissed her. They glanced up when they heard a smattering of applause. Diners smiled from the surrounding booths, some waved, and others held up their glasses. The waiter placed an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne and two fluted glasses on the table. The pop of the cork brought more applause.
“Congratulations,” the waiter said. He poured the champagne and then left them alone.
“Nick, I had no idea you were going to propose. This ring is stunning.” Katie dabbed at her eyes with a corner of the linen napkin. “When I saw you kneeling there, my heart started beating so fast.”
“Not as fast as mine,” he said. “I was afraid you we’re going to say no.”
“Never.” Katie kissed his cheek. “I was so choked up, I couldn’t talk.”
Nick smiled. “Me neither. I had memorized a romantic speech but,” he paused and blew out a long breath, “my mind went blank.”
“You’ll have to tell me your speech sometime.”
“Or, you can read it.” Nick pulled the paper from his wallet. “I wrote my proposal six months ago.”
Katie carefully unfolded the paper and read. Fresh tears rolled from her eyes. “Oh my God. This is the most beautiful. . ..” She kissed him. “May I keep it?”
“Only if you pretend I actually said it.”
“Are you sure you want to do this tonight?” Nick parked the Mustang a few doors down from his family’s restaurant. “I thought we’d go back to your place and, you know, celebrate.”
“Don’t you think we should tell your family?” Katie asked.
“Of course. I just hadn’t planned on doing it tonight,” he said.
“It’ll be fun to share the news with them,” Katie said. “I always wanted a family like yours.”
Nick grinned. “Be careful what you wish for, it’s about to come true.”
“I know they get on your nerves sometimes, but they’re so loving compared to my parents, especially my father. I love being around your family, it helps me forget—”
“It was six years yesterday.”
“Since your parents died?” Nick clamped his hand on his forehead. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I proposed to you so near the date of their deaths.”
Katie took his hand. “No, that date was yesterday. Six years ago today, I was all alone and feeling sorry for myself. I’m not sure if I was grieving for them or crying for the parents I wished I had.”
“I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you.”
“When the cops came to the door to tell me about the car accident, they asked how old I was. I said nineteen. Legally, I was an adult. The officer handed me a card for a grief counselor and left. It’s like remembering a bad dream. I wasn’t surprised my father was drunk. He was always drunk. And angry. My mom shouldn’t have let him drive. But she never stood up to him. She was always so afraid.” Katie sighed. “I used to get as angry at her as I did at my father.”
“But you sold the house and put yourself though college. Became a nurse. Landed a good job here in the city. That’s amazing for a nineteen-year-old.”
“My neighbors helped me. He was a lawyer. She was a retired baker. They were so sweet to me. Even before the accident, I sometimes wished they could be my parents.”
“I’m sorry, Katie. I didn’t know the date they died.”
“Don’t be sorry. Six years ago today, I was alone and lost. Now, I have you.”
“You have a family, too. After all you did for my mom, my family adores you, Katie.” Nick squeezed her hand and sighed. “Let’s get this over with.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes,” Katie said. “We’ll have the rest of the night to ourselves.”
They strolled the half block to the front door of Rosa’s Ristorante. Nick held the door open for Katie. His grandmother sat at a large table near the window surrounded by the ladies from her church group. Near closing time, a lone customer stood at the back counter as Nick’s father, Dom, piled take-out boxes into his outstretched arms. Nick waited and held the door for him to exit.
Nonna rose to greet them. “Come sit,” she said dragging two chairs from a smaller table over to the large table. Like a circle of dominoes, the ladies inched their chairs over one by one to make room. “You come for supper?”
“No, thank you, we’ve already eaten.” Nick smiled and grasped Katie’s hand. “Nonna, we have wonderful news to share.”
Nonna and her friends turned their expectant faces toward the couple.
“I asked Katie to marry me tonight.” Nick held Katie’s hand up to show Nonna the ring. “The wonderful part is, she said yes.”
The women jumped up from their chairs and swarmed around the couple, kissing and hugging each in turn. Nonna hugged Katie and kissed both her cheeks repeatedly. Nick’s father edged his way through the crowd.
“Let me kiss my future daughter-in-law.” He cupped his hands around Katie’s face and kissed her on the forehead. Taking both her hands, he stepped back to look at her. His brown eyes shone with tears. “I already think of you as my daughter.” He thrust a beefy hand toward Nick. “You did good, son.” He shook Nick’s hand, then pulled him into a tight hug.
Sal called from the pass-through in the kitchen. “What’s going on?”
His father motioned to him. “Your brother’s gonna marry Katie!”
Sal untied his apron and tossed it on a chair as he sprinted over. “Awesome, Nick.” He slapped Nick on the back. “Hey, I get to kiss Katie.” He stood with his lips puckered and eyes closed. Katie tactfully avoided his mouth and kissed him on the cheek. Sal’s face flushed bright pink, sparking laughter from the ladies.
Nonna clapped her hands above her head to quiet everyone. “When is the wedding?”
Nick and Katie looked at each other. “We haven’t set a date yet,” Katie said.
Nonna made a tsking sound. “It’s spring now. You have the wedding in the summer, yes? Or maybe fall? Fall is nice for a wedding.”
“Nonna, we don’t know yet,” Nick said.
“I call Father Santore. I need a date to reserve the church.”
Mrs. Gonzalez patted Katie’s cheek. “My daughter-in-law’s family owns a bridal boutique. We can all go shopping to find your dress! You’ll be a beautiful bride.”
A tall, thin woman with bluish-grey hair tapped Katie on the shoulder. “My neighbor has a hair salon. She does my hair. I can make appointments for you and the bridal party. How many bridesmaids will you have?”
Another woman’s voice called out. “My grandson works for a printer. He can print your invitations. I’ll need your guest list.”
“What flowers you like?” Nonna asked Katie. “I talk to Loretta tomorrow.”
“Who’s Loretta?” Katie asked.
“The florist, on the corner. You like roses, yes? Everybody likes roses.”
Nick sat sprawled in a chair with his hands folded behind his neck grinning up at Katie. “I warned you.”
“What you mean you warn her? Agitatore! Troublemaker!” She waved her hand dismissing his laughter.
“I haven’t even thought about a dress, or flowers, or anything yet,” Katie told the chattering women. “I’ve only been engaged twenty minutes.”
“That’s okay. Loretta will know what’s nice for a fall wedding. Nickie, I call your cousin Sophia tomorrow. Her daughter’s five, she make a beautiful flower girl. But first we need to redecorate the restaurant.”
“Redecorate?” Dom asked.
“Yes, yes,” Nonna bustled around the dining room pointing as she talked. “Fresh paint, maybe new upholstery for the booths and chairs, and linens for the tables.”
Sal snickered as he watched his father’s mouth fall open.
“Salvatore, you paint on Mondays when the restaurant’s closed,” Nonna said.
“Me? This place is huge, Nonna,” Sal said. “Why not hire a painter?”
“You a big, strong boy. You paint. We buy the paint next Monday. Then you start.”
“What does Nick getting married have to do with me painting the restaurant?” Sal asked.
Nonna smacked the back of his head. “How can we have the reception here unless you paint and make it nice?”
Nick smirked at his brother.
Nonna poked Nick in the chest. “Nickie you taller, you do the ceilings. Oh, and I make that cream cake you like for your wedding cake. Katie, you like that cake? Or, maybe you like the chocolate one? Eh, I make both.”
A plump, white-haired woman leaning on a cane joined in. “Rosa, my niece, Angela, had a cannoli tree at her reception. It looked so grand. With your delicious cannoli, it would be fabulous!”
“Cannoli tree? Why you put cannoli on a tree?”
“No, no,” the woman said. “They piled them all up and made it look like a pyramid.” She made a triangular shape with her hands.
“I can do this. You two want this cannoli tree?” Nonna asked, repeating the shape with her hands.
Katie stood with her mouth open looking from Nonna to Nick.
“Nonna,” Nick stood and put his arm around his grandmother’s shoulders. “I love you, but you need to slow down. Katie and I need time to set a date.”
“Slow down? What, I wait for you? Dio aiutami! God help me! I want to hold my grandchildren before I’m dead!”
“Told you.” Nick chuckled as they drove toward Katie’s apartment.
“Yes, but they meant well. Nonna looked so happy. Your dad, too.”
“I saw him hug you. He loves you, Nick. Your dad isn’t comfortable showing his feelings. I saw how hard it was for him to handle his emotions when your mom was sick.”
“I guess,” Nick sighed. He would gladly give up a hug from his father if it would bring back his mother. She would have been thrilled over his engagement to Katie.
“You got quiet all of a sudden, are you okay?” Katie asked.
Nick blinked his eyes. “Excellent.” He squeezed her knee and laughed when she squealed.