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Chapter 23

“Okay, let’s not sabotage this relationship even before it starts,” Mary practiced out loud.

She took a deep breath. It was almost seven. She knew that Raphael would be on time. It was part of his law-and-order, in-charge persona.

Mary knew that she was attractive. Maybe not in a drop dead gorgeous type of way or in a sophisticated, cool and controlled way like Kristin, but attractive enough that she felt good about herself.

She walked into the hallway and glanced at her reflection in the gold-gilded mirror. Her thick, dark hair tumbled past her shoulders in loose curls. Her skin was tan and smooth. She wore a sleeveless light purple dress cut low in the front and nipped along the waist with a black belt. She finished the look with strappy black sandals and a small gold choker.

The doorbell rang as the Tibetan bell clock chimed seven. Mary took another deep breath as she opened the door. Raphael looked like he’d fallen out of fashion magazine. A coral colored silk shirt and tan slacks; polished loafers and no socks. She was glad that she took the extra time to dress nicely. Raphael’s mouth opened, but words didn’t come out as quickly as usual.

“Hi, Mary. You look, look great,” he stuttered.

“Thanks.” She hugged him. “Come in. I have wine open and thought we could have some snacks before we leave.”

“What a great condominium you have.”

“I know. I’m lucky,” Mary said. She wouldn’t qualify her blessing tonight. Chris was gone and she couldn’t bring him back. It was time to let go of the ghosts in the room. It was time to move on.

“The view is beautiful, I know. I never get tired of looking.” Mary moved towards the balcony.

“Indeed, it is beautiful and I don’t get tired of looking, either.” Raphael’s voice was husky and right behind her.

Mary blushed. It was obvious that Raphael was not looking at the blue green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “Let’s have that wine so we can get these first date moments over and done with,” she said, pouring them each a glass of dark red Sagrantino wine.

Mary led him outside and they relaxed on the balcony. The wine reminded her of Raphael, bold and dry, but softer as it opened up.

“So, tell me about your family.” Mary sipped her wine and waited.

Raphael laughed. “Well, I’m the oldest of four children. I’ve got three younger sisters which keeps things really interesting. My grandparents emigrated from Cuba during the Mariel airlift. In that Cuban work ethic, we all worked together to make my father’s cigar store a success. I was the official baby-sitter while the folks worked, but you know, Dad’s store in Miami is gaining national recognition after twenty years of hand-rolling cigars. We didn’t always have a lot, but we didn’t even know it. Always lots of love and laughter. When I see these kids these days, I just cringe inside. I was really lucky.”

“Me, too,” Mary said. “My family is originally from Italy and we’re loud and fun. Lots of teasing and laughter, for sure. And, my brothers would kill to protect me, too, so I know what that’s like. I know what you mean about the kids we are seeing. They not only don’t have any possessions, they don’t get tucked in at night, they don’t hear bedtime stories, they don’t even know who their parents are, sometimes. It’s a sad situation that we just try to make a little better.”

“You do, Mary. You make everything brighter just by being you.”

Mary smiled. Raphael made her feel safe and secure. He was logical and yet not cold. Power radiated off of him as he confidently spoke of cases or politics or even the last book they both read. It was easy to let him be in control and not have to be on guard for what to do or say next. But was this what she wanted?”

She still felt a bit uncomfortable. She was used to being on her own and steering events and conversations. She felt a slight twinge of guilt, but it faded quickly.

She left her thoughts behind as Raphael took her hand and softly rubbed his thumb over her fingers.

“Hey, where did you go?”

“Nowhere. I’m really having a good time, Raphael. It feels great to talk over our day and relax out here. I don’t know why it took this long for us to have dinner.”

“I had to keep fighting off the competition.” Raphael kissed her palm.

Mary felt her stomach tighten. She knew that she was entering new territory with Raphael. The change would affect their work relationship and their friendship if dating didn’t work. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained as Dad would say.

“We are going to be late for our reservation if we don’t get going,” she squeaked. She was afraid that if he didn’t stop touching her, they might not ever make it to the restaurant.

She pulled her hand back and she turned to leave the balcony. Raphael followed with the wine glasses, setting them on the counter. As they were walking out, Raphael cornered her in the alcove and pushed her against the wall.

“I’ve been wanting to kiss you since you opened the door. I think I might die if I don’t kiss you before we leave. Please tell me that’s okay.”

His dark eyes met hers with an intensity that she didn’t expect. His lashes were so long they were probably the envy of his sisters. Mary didn’t answer him. She put her hand on the back of his neck and pulled him toward her. The kiss quickly deepened and passion flamed.

Raphael held her body close to him, as he kissed her mouth and then moved toward her ear and neck, murmuring how beautiful she looked. Her body responded. Maybe this was the elusive passion she was searching for, the overwhelming desire to have someone touch her, connect with her, be a part of her. She kissed him back with a fervor that surprised them both.

“You know I am a hot-blooded Latino. You’re playing with fire,” he teased. “In a minute, we are going to be very late for our reservation.”

Mary regained control of her breathing and heart rate.

“We need to go. Signore Forlini will tell my dad if we’re late,” she joked.

“Okay, but this isn’t over. It’s just the beginning,” Raphael said confidently. He looked for her response. “Right?”

“Right.”

He led them to his small, black BMW convertible. Mary thought he should be proud of all he had accomplished in five years at the State Attorney’s office.

“Do you ever think about leaving your job at the court house?” she asked.

“I’m thinking of running for judge. I’d still be in the courthouse. I like the action there, the people I work with. I think I can have an impact.”

“Sounds like a plan. These high profile cases thrown your way will help with name recognition.”

“I know, as long as they don’t backfire.”

They parked a few streets away from Forlini’s restaurant on Clearwater Beach and walked along the promenade to dinner, passing by a dolphin sightseeing attraction and a pirate ship replica. Mary noticed a young girl taking tickets for one of the tourist cruises.

“She looks a little young to be working on the docks by the tourist boats at night.” Mary sent a worried look to Raphael.

“Yeah. I think so too. I saw a couple of young girls by the pier who looked like trouble,” he added.

“This is how the trouble starts. Being vulnerable in a place where there are plenty of tourists and no one paying attention to a kid.” Mary grew more concerned.

“The police chief is beefing up patrols, taking a strong line against anyone walking around intoxicated, and arresting kids who are loitering,” Raphael countered.

“Maybe there’s another answer beside arrest, Raphael.” Mary’s voice was edgy.

Raphael stopped and took both of her hands. “Mary, we are going to disagree on issues. Take different sides. Don’t use that to come between us. We have to separate work issues from our personal feelings.”

His gaze was unwavering and Mary felt herself melt a little. He wanted to be with her despite their differences. Maybe they could work through it, at least to a point. She gave him a smile and a gentle kiss.

“Okay, big guy, let’s go. I’m starved.”

Mary looked forward to showing Raphael the restaurant.

“Wow,” he said, entering behind her. “I thought Italian restaurants were all about red checkered table cloths and straw baskets of wine dripping with candle wax.”

Mary laughed. Forlini’s surprised everyone with its black lacquer tables and expensive modern shades that provided a view to the beach along with privacy. Signore and Signora Forlini oversaw the kitchen while their sons waited tables or bartended.

“Whatever this is, it’s delicious,” Raphael said, squeezing her hand as they devoured the special antipasto of spinach, portabella mushrooms, roasted peppers topped with Forlini sausage and fresh mozzarella.

“And there’s more,” he exclaimed. They both licked their fingers and groaned as they split plates of homemade gnocchi and eggplant parmesan.

Signore Forlini stopped at their table and asked about her parents. Raphael raved about the food.

“So how do you know our Mary?” He gave Raphael the once over.

Raphael’s answer must have satisfied him for then Signore mentioned his youngest daughter. She was about to attend Florida State University. It was her first time away from home and he was worried.

“What will she eat? The food there is not fresh. I don’t even want to think about the parties.”

Raphael commiserated, telling him his youngest sister was going there as well. They exchanged phone numbers and talked about the girls meeting up, maybe even being roommates. Mary smiled as she thought how easily Raphael fit into her lifestyle.

“That went well,” she said. “Looks like you are accepted by the local Italians. I’m betting he’s on the phone with my parents right now. Letting them know he met you first and you are a man who loves his family.”

“Problem, Mary?” Raphael smiled wide, dazzling her again.

“Nope, no problem,”

As they were leaving, Mary said, “I need just a minute, okay? Signora Forlini is cooking in the kitchen. I just want to say goodbye.”

“That’s fine. I’ll get the car.”

Mary said a quick goodbye and was catching up to Raphael as she saw him bump into a young girl as he made his way to the parking lot.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” he said automatically, reaching out to steady her.

She brushed him off, all the while talking into her phone. “Germaine, I made the quota tonight. Can you pick me up? I miss you.” She snapped the phone shut and walked away.

Raphael turned to see Mary on his heels.

“Follow her!” she said catching her breath.

“Hey!” he yelled in a strong voice. The girl glanced back at him and ran like a rabbit being chased by a cat.

Mary stopped and grabbed his wrist.

“This situation with young girls is getting out of control,” she sputtered. “Germaine is always front and center.”

“Mary, you need to leave Germaine to the police. He’s dangerous. I don’t want him identifying you as his problem, because if he does, you could end up dead. These people are ruthless enough to use children. Killing people doesn’t bother them.”

Mary pulled away from him. After a long minute, she nodded slightly and took his hand.

“I don’t like backing down to this creep and I don’t like it that you’re right,” she said with a shaky laugh. “But I’m so frightened for the girls. He can kill them, sell them, any number of horrible things and there’s no getting them back.”

He stayed quiet. Mary knew he understood her fears. He and the task force had them, too, but the truth was, they might lose some girls before they could shut down Germaine, and those like him, for good. It was the hard truth of the streets. Raphael squeezed her hand before letting it go to unlock the car and open her door.

As they drove back to Mary’s, she wondered if she’d pushed too far tonight.

They both started talking at once.

“You first,” she said with a smile.

“I want to see you. I want to be with you, a lot. I know I’m pushy and possessive. Can you handle that?”

She seemed to be looking for the right words as he held his breath.

“I’m up for the challenge,” she finally said. “Besides, I know how to push back. Do you want to come upstairs?”

He expelled his breath on a rueful laugh. “More than anything. But I want to give you some breathing room. How about breakfast tomorrow and a walk on the beach? That will give you some time, but not enough to back out.”

She squeezed his hand. “Who’s the psychologist here? Okay, see you in the morning. I’ll pick up some croissants and we’ll have a light breakfast before our walk.”

“Deal.” He looked as if he’d just won the lottery. Mary appreciated the respect he showed to her.

He walked around the car and opened her door. She stood on tiptoes to put her arms around his neck, He leaned forward with a light kiss. She pulled him closer and deepened it. He gently pulled away. He watched her walk toward her building with a swing of her hips and a spring in her step.

“Sweet dreams,” she called to him as she entered the lobby.

This was a fabulous night. She smiled all the way up the elevator and into her apartment. She kicked off her shoes, and called Kristin on her cell.

“Hi, I hope you weren’t sleeping,” Mary said.

“No. I was hoping for a reason to get my nose out of these law journals. How was your dinner date?”

“Oh, Kristin, it was wonderful. I was relaxed and we had fun and he kissed me, really kissed me. I felt it down to my toes. He’s coming over for breakfast tomorrow. I’m excited, scared, I don’t know what.”

Kristin laughed. “It’s one date, Mary. Just let it unfold the way it needs to.”

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