Dex Everett was just putting the key in his apartment door when he heard the elevator ding. At the end of the hall, his younger sister stepped out, dressed to the nine's--an Everett family custom. She smiled at him as she walked toward him, but he could see what she was thinking long before she spoke. "I am so nervous! I haven't been this nervous since my wedding day."
Pulling her in for a reassuring hug, Dex offered her a soothing grin. "My boss Angela will love you. You've got the job in the bag, Jolie."
"I hope so." She took a deep breath as he pushed open his door and waved her inside.
"Just let me get some work-ups I forgot this morning. Then we'll go to lunch," Dex said, following her and moving through the elegant, open living space to his home office. On the futuristic style desk, he flipped through the disk file, searching for the one he needed.
"Where's the woman who had this job before?" Jolie started from somewhere behind him.
Dex looked over his shoulder at her. "Keri Woods. Keri Lewis. She married my boss's cousin last Valentine's Day. They're happily ensconced in Fever, Texas, planning for the birth of their first child."
"So she's definitely not coming back?"
Angela Lewis-Mackenzie owned Kaleidoscope Office Building, a strip mall that contained the two businesses she owned, along with Two Brothers Accounting, which was one of Angela's many investments. Dex and Veronica "Roni" Spencer handled the graphic design done at Lewis Graphics. Aimee Cooper--and Keri, before she resigned last year in preparation for her wedding--worked at Kaleidoscope Office Services. Angela hadn't yet hired Keri's replacement. Dex had suggested to his boss on Monday that his sister might be interested in filling the position. That same day, Angela had called Jolie personally and asked her to come in for an interview today.
"No. Keri won't be coming back," Dex told his sister. "Why?"
"I don't know. I don't want a temporary job like all my modeling gigs. I'd prefer to have something settled for the first time in my life."
Dex understood her concern. At the age of twenty-four--five years younger than Dex himself--she'd spent her adult life thus far attending college in-between modeling jobs. Last year, she'd married Dex's best friend from high school and college... and basically hadn't seen her husband since. Jag was a wildlife photographer for one of the première nature magazines in the world. His assignments took him away, sometimes for a year or more at a time. Jolie, like most of the Everetts, was looking for stability and roots.
Tamping down at the instinctive protectiveness he'd always felt for his sister, Dex told himself he wouldn't help anything by letting on how furious he was with Jag. For abandoning her. For looking at Jolie in the first place, especially knowing he wouldn't be sticking around for long once the union was legal. Not to mention that Jolie's convinced he's having an affair with his assistant. As soon as he comes back, I'm going to kill him.
Dex put an arm around his sister, looking into her cobalt blue eyes so like his own. "This job is solid, honey. I promise you. Remember I told you Angela sees her employees as family? You already know most everyone who works there--Shayna, Roni and Billy. And you do know Angela--you've met her, remember? At Shayna's?" Billy LaPointe and Rob Channing owned Two Brothers, and Shayna Cavanay served as their secretary/receptionist but moonlighted at both of Angela's businesses when necessary. "Angela already loves you. It's why she called you when I mentioned you might want Keri's job." He gave Jolie a carefree grin that she responded to without resistance. "Now, let's go to lunch and then I'll personally take you to your interview."
Looking much more relaxed, she nodded. Arm and arm, they left his apartment. Dex's gaze focused on the apartment door across from his as it had for the past year whenever he was coming or going. He didn't linger this time.
He and his sister stepped into the elevator, then she asked if she'd dressed all right for the interview. Though Everetts were endowed with a sixth sense when it came to fashion, Dex knew she trusted his opinion. The heather-gray pantsuit she wore with a rose top, a simple gold chain and hoop earrings, was ideal for a business meeting but also perfectly suited Jolie's soft femininity. "You killed it, honey. You look exactly right. Not that it matters. You've got all the skills for this job."
She smiled. "Still, I hope I won't drop anything on my outfit during lunch."
Dex laughed. Mother Everett had drilled proper form, table manners and etiquette into her two children from birth. He and Jolie were probably the only babies who ever used napkins.
The elevator opened on the ground floor. As they moved toward the apartment exit at the far end of the same hall, Dex saw the person he inadvertently looked for before he left for work each morning and when he got home. His neighbor across the hall, Jordana DeSoto, stood in front of her mailbox wearing one of the few dresses he'd noticed she owned--a simple tea dress with small buttons and a knee length hem. It was the same basic pattern all her dresses shared, except this floral printed one was sleeveless. Bare-legged, she wore a fatigued pair of espadrilles that perfectly suited the July weather. He knew she didn't have a car. She walked to and from the sewing place she worked weekday mornings, came home for lunch, then walked to the diner she worked afternoons and evenings.
Dex swallowed the newly formed lump in his throat, muttering hoarsely to his sister, "I should get my mail."
He got out of his key, barely taking his eyes off Jordana looking through her mail as if she had all the time in the world. Inserting his key in the box next to hers, he glanced at her. "Hello."
She met his smile with one of her own. "Hello, Dex. How are you today?"
Her heavy Latin American accent sent shivers down his spine. His own voice sounded strange to his ears when he offered, "Good. How was work?"
"I love to sew."
He knew she did. He'd often heard her sewing behind her apartment door.
He turned to her, grasping his mail and shutting the small door as he did so. Cinderella. Without the soot on her face and bossy step sisters. Not that I know anything about Jordana's family. The only thing he knew about this woman was that she walked everywhere--luckily, not through any bad neighborhoods that he knew of. And that, modest dresser aside, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen with her fiery mahogany hair braided past her hips, her sultry hazel eyes, pronounced cheekbones and stubbornly proud chin.
When she'd first moved here a year ago, she'd been a mere waif, so thin she might have been anorexic. In the last several months, she'd put on weight that looked so good on her, he'd often wondered what it would be like to run his hands over her sleekly lush curves.
"And you are working today?" she asked.
He nodded, barely aware of the goofy smile he wore. Who cared that he couldn't always understand every word she said? At first, he'd comprehended almost nothing she said, but he caught most of it now. Her accent made her grasp of English clumsy and slow, but he loved to listen to her speak. Her voice was like a husky, lilting song.
She smiled again, her skin like silky caramel, her lips deep coral against it. "You've come home for lunch?"
"Just...um, home...forgot something. And lunch..."
Jolie stepped to his side, and Dex suddenly felt like an idiot who couldn't put two words together. "Jordana, this is Jolie. We're going to lunch."
Never losing her happy smile, Jordana nodded at his sister. Jolie held out her hand. "Nice to meet you, Jordana."
"Enjoy your lunch," Jordana murmured. "It is a beautiful day. I believe I will take my lunch out to the patio."
Jolie said something polite, and then Jordana was walking away. Dex didn't think about his actions--immediately turning back to watch his neighbor's gorgeous figure strolling away--until Jolie chuckled under her breath. Dex's gaze flew to her then followed her focus to Jordana in the elevator, waving to them. Dex lifted his hand, grinning like an idiot again.
"What is the story, Dexter?" Jolie demanded after the doors closed. Only when her hand squeezed his shoulder did he snap out of it.
Dex shook his head, suddenly aware of all that had happened. How foolish he must have looked in the last five minutes. "What? Nothing. No story. She's just my neighbor. Come on. We have reservations in a few minutes."
Jolie followed him out, chuckling. "No story? I don't think so. I've never heard my brother, Mr. Smooth, stutter before. And you barely introduced me. Instead, we had that big, dopey pause."
"I didn't stutter," he insisted defensively as they arrived at his Miata convertible. He could feel warmth in his cheeks.
Jolie slid inside the roadster next to him. "You did stutter, Dex. You like her."
"She's not my type." Knowing his sister would want to preserve her upswept hair, he left the top up.
"Well, you're being honest about one thing. She's nothing like your usual type. But seeing as though your usual type is all fashion, no substance...kind of like--"
He scolded her with a look. "Don't you dare bring up Camille. We're all allowed to make one mistake in love, aren't we?"
Jolie arched a silky brown eyebrow at him. "Don't bring up your rich socialite, bossy ex-wife? Sure, I won't bring her up... if you confess that Camille dumped you for a rich guy with big career plans and you've been dating women like her since you got out of college."
Dex shook his head as he zipped out of his parking space and roared toward the restaurant on Rose Street. The need for stability and roots had become strong in him at a young age. He'd made the mistake of sleeping with Camille on their first date and she'd decided they needed to get married barely a month later. Truthfully, he'd been happy when she did an about-face and announced they weren't such a good match after barely a year together. He'd never been satisfied with her, but he'd been taught better than to jump in and out of women's beds without responsibility.
"Dex, don't you realize that the fashion plates and socialites you date are only interested in high-powered career guys rolling in money?"
He had plenty of money. He just had no ambition to become a banker, doctor, lawyer or politician. He loved his career in graphic design--he loved working with people who were his closest friends. He made more than enough to live on, combined with a generous trust fund Grandfather Everett had left for him and Jolie.
"Jordana is different," his sister decided.
He couldn't deny that, didn't have any desire to refute it. And Jordana DeSoto intrigued him the way the women he dated didn't and couldn't, especially not the Camilles he gravitated toward for reasons he couldn't even define.
"She makes her own clothes, doesn't she?" Jolie said without prejudice.
"I think she does. It might be all she can afford. I've heard her sewing inside her apartment, and she works as a seamstress at Kept in Stitches. Her wardrobe consists of tea dress patterns, but, in different seasons, they have sleeves or cardigans that go over them."
"It's a nice pattern. You can't go wrong with a tea dress." His sister's hand covered his arm. "It's a good thing your apartment building is rent controlled. Anyway, she's very sweet, Dex. Why don't you ask her out?"
He turned to her from the road, eyes narrowed to scold. He discarded a sharp reply, which would give away his unwillingness to admit that Jordana intimidated him for the exact opposite reasons his usual type did. She was upbeat and happy every single time he saw her. She loved nature, loved purity. She was optimistic about life without a single expectation for anyone else. She never rushed anywhere, for anyone. Whatever anyone says or does, whatever happens... she seems good with it all. I don't understand that... but I love it about her. She's not like anyone else I've ever met.
He lived for the times he could corner her in the hall outside their apartment or near the mailboxes, in the parking lot. Oddly, she didn't seem to have any relatives, none that visited her anyway. The only person he'd ever seen at her apartment was a young woman around her age. No boyfriends.
Not knowing what to say, since anything would amount to stuffing his own foot inside his mouth, Dex said nothing more to his sister about the unforgettable Jordana DeSoto. He just drove, imagining his neighbor out on her patio eating lunch, enjoying the blue sky and brilliant sunshine. The goofy smile he seemed to reserve just for her spread across his face.
* * * *
Although Jordana didn't have the luxury of lingering over lunch on the patio outside her kitchen/dining/living room, she enjoyed the peaceful, warmth of the day. The clouds were as white and fluffy as fat sheep, the sky cerulean blue. Like Dex's beautiful eyes behind those rectangular eyeglasses that make him impossibly more handsome.
Jordana shook her head, determined not to fall into another foolish daydream about a man she had no business being drawn to. She quickly finished her peanut butter sandwich, drained the last of her milk, then carried her dishes inside. She had to be at work before twelve-thirty, and Diego never put up with lateness. Not without endless grousing that made the waitresses want to slip ipecac into the coffee he drank nonstop.
Brightening on that thought, Jordana went to change into her blue waitress uniform, the frilly apron, and comfortable, though ugly, wait staff shoes. Standing in front of the full-length mirror, she tightened up her braid, then rolled and fastened the length at the back of her neck so she could easily pull on a hair net when she arrived at the diner. Then she slipped her inspiration into her pocket.
Considering that the diner was nearly three miles away, she walked briskly, thinking about the chair she had on layaway. Maybe today she would make enough in tips to bring her treasure home. It would be the very first piece of furniture she'd bought herself--not one she'd found in the trash and refurbished into something usable. This chair would mark her second year of survival, as her apartment marked the first.
She'd come to La Crosse from Milwaukee a year ago, with little more than the clothes on her back and her mother's antique sewing machine--her one and only heirloom. At that time, she'd only had enough money to cover the down payment and the first month's rent on this wonderful apartment--plus a huge tub of peanut butter and bread. She'd gotten her two jobs within the first week. For that first month, she'd eaten nothing else when she wasn't at the diner, which provided dinner during her regular shift.
Spending almost no money, she was able to save enough for her second months' rent, a few more groceries, and a second-hand saucepan she did all her cooking in. Furniture hadn't been within her budget, so she'd begun looking for broken down pieces she could repair at home. Her father had taught her all she needed to know about refurbishing. Getting the items home was sometimes an obstacle, but Dex and her friend Shirley had helped out. In the last year, Jordana had managed to turn a trashed bed frame, all sorts of mismatched wooden chairs and tables of various sizes into treasures that had begun to fill her home. After finding a mattress propped up near a dumpster at a local consignment shop, she'd cleaned and aired it thoroughly once she got it home. Then she'd re-covered it, made sheets, a blanket and pillows, along with towels and curtains, out of the inexpensive bolts of material she'd purchased from a local consignment shop. With a few dishes, she was satisfied with her progress. No, she didn't have a television, telephone, let alone a vehicle. But her life was very good. She had everything she would need. And soon she would have her own armchair, where she could relax at night, listen to the classical music that Dex tended to play loud enough for her to hear, and read a library book.
Yes, life was very good. She remembered how often her father said, "We're together. We have love. That's all that matters." What did it matter if sometimes she was so lonely, she wanted to cry? She had friends...a friend. Shirley. And Dex.
I so enjoy the few minutes I spend with Dex Everett almost every day.
Truthfully, despite the time they spent together in the halls of the apartment building or the parking lot, she often realized she knew next to nothing about him. She knew he had a lot of girlfriends. Jolie was just one of the new ones he seemed to have every couple months. But she had seen Jolie before. Perhaps she was the one woman Dex couldn't forget. His destiny. Jolie was certainly not like Dex's usual girlfriends, though she dressed beautifully, the way he did. Jolie wasn't bleach-blond--shockingly, blindingly so. Also very different from his norm, Jolie had been warm and friendly with her. Dex's other girlfriends seemed to see Jordana as competition and far beneath them.
Maybe I am. I could never afford to dress in those rich fabrics. I have no jewelry whatsoever. And my two pairs of shoes are badly in need of replacement.
Jordana checked both ways before crossing the street a few blocks from Diego's Diner. She found herself smiling, even as she told herself she could never be with a man like Dex, a man who didn't seem to hold on to a girlfriend longer than a few weeks.
He is handsome. Undeniably, breathtakingly so. He resembled the god Shirley referred to him as the one time she'd seen him. His face looked carved from stone, with just a hint of sexy, well-trimmed moustache and beard around his full lips. Those beautiful blue eyes were so compelling and soft, she sometimes forgot her own name when he turned them on her. He had reddish blond hair, short in back, spiky long in front--hair any woman would want to run her hands through. At about six foot one, he was trim, but she'd seen him in swimming trunks. He was all golden, sleek muscle. He dressed as if he'd just stepped out of some men's fashion magazine. Never had she seen a man who dressed the way he did. He was too attractive for someone as down-to-earth as Jordana was and she knew it.
And, goodness, does he smell good. Heaven on earth. She'd never been able to describe even to herself what Dex smelled like, outside of words like spice, leather, intoxicating--words that couldn't capture how badly she wanted to tuck her face into the crook of his neck, snuggle there and just breath him in until she got drunk on him.
Patrons bustled along the streets around her as she neared the diner. She smiled at everyone, her mind foolishly lingering on those few minutes she'd spent with Dex near the mailboxes.
He was a good man. He always helped Mrs. Quigglemire with her groceries--no matter how many trips he had to make back and forth to her sixth floor apartment. He did old Mr. Boland's laundry whenever he was washing his own. And he goes out of his way to help me carry my broken treasures up to my apartment.
So Dex was the nicest, sweetest, cutest guy she'd met...ever. She could enjoy knowing him without getting her heart involved. So she felt soft as a marshmallow toward him right now. She could do that because it made her happy to do so. As long as she never had to sleep, hollow from constant, gnawing hunger, in a cardboard box on the freezing streets again, she could be satisfied with what life had given her and not wish for more. Dex was simply a beautiful, foolish dream she couldn't shake.
"You're late!" Diego barked before she'd put two feet into the diner. Behind the cash register, he glowered at her before swigging from the paper cup of coffee in his hand.
Jordana glanced at her watch. "Twenty seconds. I stopped to pick up the clapboard sign with the daily specials. The wind must have pushed it over."
Her boss's dark face tightened. "That's no excuse."
"I will stay twenty seconds longer tonight."
"See that you do."
On the far side of the counter, her friend and fellow waitress, Shirley, stared in shock, though Diego was always irascible and there was no reason to be surprised about his usual state. Jordana smiled and gave her friend's shoulder a squeeze on her way back to punch in and put her hair net on. She knew Diego would watch her like a hawk throughout the shift, but she paid no attention to his little lectures about being too friendly, too accommodating to her customers. After all, her vindication was that her tables always left her large tips. She would have her chair soon. The hope swept her through her shift to her dinner break.
Shirley brought them both the special and Jordana's favorite--a chicken chimichanga. Her friend nodded her head toward the napkin Jordana had wrapped around her finger. "What happened?"
"Paper cut when I pulled off a ticket," Jordana said as Shirley sat down with the plates. She peeked under the napkin again. "Do you think I should go to the doctor? Will it get infected?"
Laughing slightly, Shirley got up and opened the first aid kit attached to the wall nearby. She came back ripping open a small packet. She swiped the antiseptic wipe over Jordana's finger, causing a momentary sting. "There. Now it won't get infected, dear. I promise."
She knew her friend found her worry about getting sick amusing, but Jordana had yet to forget that her parents had contracted pneumonia while they lived on the streets. They literally hadn't been able to afford to get sick... or to get well.
"How are your guys?" Jordana asked after she sprinkled more cheese on top of her chimichanga, then cut into it.
Shirley and Roscoe had gotten married only a few months ago, though they'd lived together for years and had a five-year-old son.
"Everything's good. You don't know what you're missing, girlfriend."
Jordana grinned. "Sure I do. I've met Roscoe and Henry."
Shirley set down her fork. "I'm serious, Jordana. You spent so many years living on the streets, your only focus is not going back. You never take any chances."
"But I'm happy. Do you want something to drink?"
Shirley put her hand on her arm to prevent her from leaving. "You're happy because you never consider what you're missing."
"The love of a good man?"
Her friend's plump face took on a scowl that simply didn't fit her. "Well, yeah, that, and the chance to have children of your own."
"I'm young, Shirley. I'm content... or I will be when I get my chair." Jordana slipped her inspiration from her pocket--the advertisement for the armchair waiting for her on layaway. "Look at this beauty. Turned legs. See all that comfy cushioning on the upholstery? It's long enough that I could sleep on it if I wanted. And the pattern is so pretty--scrolled leaves in amethyst and green. Rolled arms with rattan inserts. It's the prettiest thing you've ever seen. You could sink down into this and understand true comfort for the first time..."
Bewildered, she looked up at the strange tone of her friend's voice. "What?"
Shirley's blue-gray eyes expressed both exasperation and love. "You're hopeless. You do know that, don't you?"
Jordana gave her a brilliant smile. "Never. I'm simply a survivor. All I have is hope, my friend."