When Nick drove Katie to work the following morning, she expressed her concern again about the price of the dress.
“Don’t worry about the money,” he told her as he kissed her goodbye. He understood why she worried. The last six years had been difficult for her after the loss of her parents, emotionally and financially. Their life insurance payment and the money from the sale of their house were the only money she had. Katie used a large portion to pay for the college where she earned her nursing degree. When she graduated, Saint Mary’s hospital offered her a well-paying job. Still, she chose an apartment within walking distance of the hospital to save the expense of a car. She found another nurse, Tara, to split the rent. Nick knew Katie lived frugally and banked most of her earnings. Money, or rather the lack of money, had been the main reason Nick delayed asking Katie to marry him. But now, with Ruby as his agent, Nick felt confident he could provide financial security for them both.
Nick carefully placed Katie’s wrapped dress and shoes into the back seat of the Mustang. The same saleswoman from yesterday convinced him to buy an evening bag to match the shoes. The woman’s first genuine smile came with the approval of the purchase on his debit card.
Nick’s clothes for the VIP party were laid out in a garment bag on the back seat. He put the top up on the car to protect their clothing. His cell rang as he pulled out into traffic to head home.
“Nickie, I need a ride. Can you take me to pick up a few things at Maria’s house? And then over to the Shelter?” Nonna asked.
“Sure, Nonna. When?”
“I be ready in an hour,” she replied.
Nick had planned to drive home and work on his book, and then bring Katie her dress when he picked her up from work. He knew if his grandmother required a car to transport a few things, the load would probably take up the entire back seat, as well as the trunk. Nonna, and Ray’s grandmother, Maria, regularly donated clothing and other items they collected to a neighborhood domestic abuse shelter. Nick didn’t want to damage Katie’s expensive outfit, so he made a quick right turn and headed to her apartment. He hoped to sneak in and put the dress in Katie’s room while Tara slept.
Nick parked in front of the building, not far from Tara’s Mazda. Tara and another woman stood talking outside the front door of Katie’s apartment.
He waited in the car for the woman to leave. Although the delay annoyed him, knowing he would have to deal with an awake Tara annoyed him more. He considered bringing the dress in while Tara was occupied but feared she might make an embarrassing scene.
Ten minutes later, the woman finally turned and walked down the path. As she approached the sidewalk, Nick recognized her. Janis Ford, the reporter who had photographed him and Stephanie in the park last week. She crossed the street and got into a white Camry. Nick ducked down in his seat as she drove past. In the rear-view mirror, he watched as her car turned left at the end of the block and disappeared from view.
Gathering up the boxes, he carried the shoes and bag under one arm, and held the dress in his other hand so it wouldn’t touch the ground. He rang the doorbell with his elbow. Tara talking to a reporter worried him. Although he had only a few brief encounters with Janis Ford, she had been openly hostile each time. Seeing both women together gave him a bad feeling.
Tara peered through the narrow door opening secured with a chain. “Nick, what are you doing here?”
“Dropping off some things for Katie,” he said.
“Can’t it wait till she’s home?”
Although relieved not to hear Tara’s usual crude come-ons, Nick wondered why she seemed reluctant to let him inside. “C’mon, Tara. I don’t want to drop this stuff. It’ll only take me a minute to put it in Katie’s room.”
“Oh, all right. Hang on.”
He heard Tara’s footsteps run across the linoleum kitchen floor. A few moments later, she returned, unlatched the chain, and then stood in the kitchen flipping through a magazine while Nick hurried into Katie’s bedroom. He hung the dress in her closet and placed the boxes on her bed. Tara glanced up as he closed Katie’s door, then quickly looked down at the magazine. The magazine cover was upside down.
“What did Janis Ford want?” he asked.
Nick sighed. “Janis Ford. The reporter from The Entertainer. You were outside talking to her for ten minutes or more. What was she doing here?”
Tara dropped the magazine on the table. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to get some sleep. I’ve been working all night.” She stomped to the front door and held it open.
“Tara, I saw you talking to her. Tell me what she wanted.”
“Oh, her.” Tara twirled one of her long, black hair extensions around her finger. “Just some woman selling make-up.” She snorted. “Took me forever to get rid of her.” She averted her eyes from Nick’s piercing gaze.
“You’re lying. I know who she is. Now tell me what she wanted.”
“Why were you watching the apartment? Are you spying on me?” Tara backed up against the kitchen table. She reached behind her back and slid her purse closer. “Leave, or I’ll—I’ll call the cops.”
“Oh, please Tara, cut the drama crap.” Nick walked to the side of the table and spotted a white card sticking out from the side pocket of her bag. He snatched the business card before Tara could react.
“So, the Avon lady’s name is Janis Ford. And her business card has The Entertainer’s logo on it, isn’t that strange?” Nick held the card above his head while Tara swatted the air below attempting to grab it. “And look, she wrote her cell number on the back. Why does Janis want you to call her, Tara? Is she asking questions about me? Or Katie?”
“Give it back! You can’t just take stuff out of my purse!”
“It’s no different than you taking the poster out of my gym bag. Isn’t the kitchen part of your common area, too?” Nick pocketed the card and walked out the front door.
Tara followed him part way down the path screaming at him. “You bastard! Don’t you ever come here again when I’m alone! I swear I’ll call the police!”
A middle-aged couple walking in the courtyard stopped and stared. Nick hurried to his car and drove away.
Nick carried the last box from his car into the lobby of the Domestic Abuse Shelter. He surveyed the pile of cardboard boxes and plastic bags, amazed it had all fit into the Mustang.
Nonna stood talking to the shelter’s director. “The clothes are washed and packed by size. And toys for the kids.” Nonna pointed to the neatly labeled boxes. “Sheets, blankets and towels in those bags. Maria’s cookies are in the white plastic bin.”
“This is wonderful, Rosa. Thank you, and Maria, so much,” The woman took Nonna’s hand. “You two are our biggest and most consistent donors. It’s all so appreciated. The children look forward to Maria’s cookies every week.”
Nick helped his grandmother into his car. “Do you need to go anywhere else, Nonna?”
She shook her head. “No. I go home. Thank you, Nickie. I feel better now. The kids have clothes and shoes.”
Nick smiled at his grandmother and started the car. His cell phone rang. He saw Stephanie’s name on the screen.
“Hi, Nick. Listen, I have the prepared questions for the press conference and an outline for your biography. I meant to give them to you the other day when we went shopping, but I forgot. Mr. Ruby wants them completed tomorrow morning. Can you come by the office or should I email them to you?”
Nick glanced over at his grandmother. She sat stiff-backed in the car seat, looking straight ahead, her knuckles white from gripping the rosary beads she clutched in her lap. Riding in cars made her nervous. On the drive to the Gonzalez’s house and the shelter he had purposely stayed on the less trafficked side streets. The busy downtown avenues near the Ruby building would terrify her. “Email them to me, okay Steph?”
Stephanie verified his email address. “I’m sending you two files. One is an outline for you to use to write your bio. The information will be released to the media. The other is a list of five questions Mr. Ruby chose for you to answer at the press conference Saturday night. It might be narrowed to three, for time constraints. He wants you to write out your answers and then review them with him tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. I’m so sorry, you should have had more time to work on this. I screwed up. Please, don’t tell Mr. Ruby.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll knock it out this evening. Sounds easy enough.”
“Damn, this is harder than I thought.” Nick sat at Katie’s kitchen table typing on his laptop.
“They didn’t give you much time.” Katie poured coffee for Nick. A tea bag steeped in her cup.
Katie insisted Nick stay at her place and offered to help him with his project. Although she refused to talk about the shadowy figure that had terrorized her the other night, Nick sensed she feared being alone at night. He brought his laptop and a change of clothes with him when he picked her up from work.
“Okay, bio’s done. What do you think?” He turned the screen toward Katie.
She read the page. “It sounds good. I see a typo. I’ll fix it.”
“Now, the dreaded press questions.” Nick sighed.
“Yes, I dread standing on a stage answering questions from reporters,” Nick said. “One of them is Janis Ford, the goth-looking woman I told you about. For some reason, she doesn’t like me. I told you she made a nasty comment the day Ruby picked me.”
“She’s probably jealous.”
“And she was bitchy the other day in the park when she took pictures of me and Steph.”
“Took pictures of you and Steph? What are you talking about?”
“Last Sunday. Steph and I grabbed a hot dog at a City Dawg cart.”
“I didn’t know you were that close with Ruby’s secretary.”
“I wouldn’t say close. She has no friends here. I told you she’s from the mid-west, right?”
Katie chewed on her bottom lip and dunked the tea bag up and down in her cup. “Do you think she’s looking for a friend, or something more?”
“Oh, c’mon, babe. Steph’s a kid. I don’t even think she’s twenty-one like she says.” Nick put his hand over Katie’s. “It was a hot dog on a park bench. She was lonely and I felt sorry for her. Then Janis Ford showed up and started snapping pictures.”
Seeing Katie’s adverse reaction to his lunch with Stephanie, he decided not to mention Janis Ford speaking to Tara today. He wanted to ask Katie to talk to Tara about Janis. But, knowing Tara’s spiteful nature, she’d use it as an opportunity to cause trouble between him and Katie. He had tried calling Janis to find out why she was at Katie’s apartment. He left messages on her office phone and her cell, but she never returned his calls.
“You told me Stephanie went shopping with you, but I didn’t know you had lunch with her. It’s just . . . don’t you notice how girls are always looking at you?” Katie looked down. “Especially now with the designer clothes and the sexy, single image Ruby’s pushing. It’s not that I don’t want you to be successful, you know I do. I guess I wasn’t prepared for all this.”
Nick laughed. “Now you know how I feel. Guys stare at you all the time.”
“I’m not interested in any other guys.”
“And I’m not interested in any other girls.” Nick lifted Katie’s hand and pressed it against his lips. “That’s why I asked you to marry me.”
Her pout broadened into a smile. “I never thought of myself as the jealous type. Guess I am.”
“I kinda like you being the jealous one for a change,” he teased. “Besides, you’ll meet Steph tomorrow night. You’ll see what I mean. She’s a naive young girl, all starry-eyed about meeting rock stars and shopping for designer clothes. I think of her like a kid sister.”
“Okay.” Katie scrolled to the page of press questions. “I know you have to get this done tonight. I’ll read the questions and you can practice answering and . . . oh, for— seriously?”
“Question one. Are you single and what turns you on the most about a woman?”
Katie pushed the laptop across the table. “No, look.”
“Must be Ruby’s idea.” Nick looked over at Katie chewing on her lip again. He scanned down the page. “Here we go, question two, who or what inspired you to write horror stories?” Nick typed as he spoke out loud. “I’d say Joseph Cullen. I started reading his books when I was twelve. Read every one he’s written. He revolutionized the horror genre. Unique story lines, intricate plot twists, and in-depth characters. I don’t like his newer books, though. Too much senseless violence and gore. Same plot over and over. Cullen’s gotten lazy in his old age.”
Katie sat with her arms crossed staring into her cup. “Aren’t you supposed to answer all of the questions, and then Ruby picks out which three the press will ask?”
Nick sighed. “Okay, fine. Question one.” He typed for about a minute and then turned the screen toward Katie.
Katie read his answer.
No, I am not single. I’m engaged to a beautiful, intelligent, woman with an incredibly hot body. What would turn me on the most is if she would help me answer these stupid press questions so we could make love instead of sitting here at her kitchen table talking about silly crap that’s never going to happen.
Katie giggled. “Smart ass.”