More asleep than awake, Lori Gordon fumbled for the shrilling phone. She heard her roommate grumble, "It's yours" and flop a pillow over her head.
His voice brought Lori awake instantly. Her head, her body, the constant ache that always seemed to reside in her heart no matter how she tried to exorcise it jolted her to consciousness. She sat up, forcing herself to take a deep breath. Calm down; find out what he wants, then hang up! she commanded herself, already sure she wouldn't do any of that.
"It's four o'clock in the morning," she said, and her roommate flopped again. After sliding out from the warmth of her blanket, she started toward the bathroom.
"Yeah, sorry. I..."
His voice brought tears to her eyes as she closed the bathroom door behind her and flipped on the soft light over the medicine cabinet.
"...just needed to hear your voice."
A part of her had known he'd call at some point today. She'd warred with wanting him to and desperately hoping he wouldn't.
Blackie's voice was always enough to shatter her resolve. Everything she'd done since she'd turned nineteen came down to getting over her love for this man. At first she'd tried to tell herself what she felt amounted to a stupid crush. As soon as she'd started dating, she'd known it was more than that. Every other male she'd met since moving to New York to attend Parsons School of Design failed to make her forget Blackie Scarpacchio. In fact, each one just made her remember him more, made her long for him and cringe at her own tenacity.
"How was the wedding?" she asked.
Their friends Jon Rushing and Tracey Scott had gotten married today. She knew neither of them understood why she hadn't gone back home to Milwaukee to attend. Maybe she should have told them the truth--that she couldn't bear to see Blackie. Maybe they would have even understood and accepted it. She could bear how sweet he'd be to her, so infinitely gentle, treating her in the manner his pet name for her suggested--like a princess. Like always, she'd fall in love with him again, make a fool of herself for the ten millionth time, and then she'd have to start all over again building her walls. Whenever she went home to visit her father, Blackie somehow seemed to know she was there because he always came. He was always there as if he was a physical part of that place. Maybe he was. She couldn't think of home without thinking of him.
From the other end of the telephone line, Blackie made a noncommittal noise in response to her question, something that was as familiar to her as the haunting in his dark eyes, the taste and scent of him...
"Everybody missed you, Princess," he said softly.
And you? Did you miss me? Tell me yes! Tears filled her throat, and Lori found that she couldn't face herself in the mirror over the sink anymore. With a deep breath, she closed the toilet lid, then sat down on it. She leaned over her knees. "I couldn't...I have an interview with Kira Gunn...I mean, I had one. Today." She realized her half-truth, the one she'd fed both Jon and Tracey earlier this week, had become a lie. She'd told them she had an important interview and implied it was today. Kira Gunn owned one of the foremost fashion design companies in the industry. Lori certainly couldn't blow off a meeting with her. Even re-scheduling could spell missed opportunity for her. Unbelievably, Jon and Tracey had offered to postpone their wedding--they'd wanted her there that much, but Lori had refused to hear of it. All their plans were made. Besides, postponing would only force her to lie again.
Blackie had to know she was lying. His silence spoke that eloquently. She did have an interview with Kira Gunn, not today but Monday.
Lori found her head in the state Blackie forever left it in--confused, crazed. Her fingers clenched in her hair. "Are you alone?" she asked, more self-torture.
The silence that followed told her everything. Of course he wasn't alone. In the six years she'd believed they were a couple, he'd had enough women to populate a continent. For some stupid reason, she'd not only believed she was the one woman for him but that he loved her enough to want only her. She'd been a moron. And she was still one because she was allowing the thought of the slut in his bed right now to hurt her.
"Why do you do this?" she exploded. "Damn you! Why do you call me like--" Like I'm the only one who can rescue you? Like we don't both know I'm the one person you won't allow to save you from your loneliness and pain.
"What do you want me to do, Princess?" he asked wearily.
They hadn't had this conversation nearly as often as his tone suggested, but each time it'd been on the basis of this question. What did she want him to do? Lori realized now that the real question should be what did he want her to do? "I want you to stop calling me like this. I want you to stay away when I come home." Saying the words forced a razor-sharp reality deep into her heart.
A reality he wanted spelled out. "What are you saying?"
She didn't like his rough tone. She didn't understand it, and that all the more fueled the crazy state of her mind. She'd never understood him. She never would. He wouldn't allow her to. She'd always be a baby to him, a little kid who helplessly gave him her heart after he so cruelly tricked her into handing it over.
"I don't want to see you anymore, Blackie. Ever. For any reason."
She hung up and predictably burst into tears. How could she avoid not seeing him? Her father was...well, the closest thing Blackie had to a father. His loyalty to Jerry Gordon would never waver, no matter what. Not even for her. Not even because of her.
But if she wanted to have a life, if she wanted to find some happiness and peace, she had no choice but to make the only place she ever saw Blackie Scarpacchio her memories.
* * * *
Even after she hung up, Blackie continued to listen to the dial tone like she would change her mind, come back on the line, and retract all her harshness. But she'd left him to bleed and die.
He turned slightly to look at the framed picture of Lori on his desk. Eighteen and so damn beautiful with that long, strawberry blond hair, those crystal eyes and her sweet smile. Eighteen, and she'd been completely infatuated with him. Every time she'd looked at him, she'd handed him her heart.
Guess you can call 'em the good old days now. Kiss 'em goodbye.
He dropped the receiver into the cradle and picked up the picture frame.
"I don't want to see you anymore, Blackie. Ever. For any reason."
She'd finally given him what he deserved and didn't want. Wouldn't accept. How could he? He needed her. She was the one, above anybody else on this whole planet, that he couldn't do without. He'd rather die.
He tried to tell himself she hadn't meant it, but he'd felt it coming for awhile. Especially when she lied about why she couldn't attend Jon and Tracey's wedding. She hadn't wanted to see him. For a long time, he'd been noticing that she didn't look at him the way she used to whenever she came home. And he didn't like Lori wary--not of him.
Setting the frame back on the desk, he took a deep breath, then leaned forward with his head in his hands. Couldn't even pride himself on being less f@#d up than his friends anymore. They'd all figured it out. They had their one-and-onlys, their kids and jobs and... Admit it, that's why you cut outta your best friends' wedding so early. All of 'em are happy, too damn happy--and, for you, misery loves nothin' but itself. 'Least when they had problems, you were useful.
A chuckle started in his chest, and Blackie tamped it down violently. Dammit, he thought, rubbing his bare chest like he could rub out the ache behind it. Behind it--in an organ that he'd be a hell of a lot better off if all it did was keep him alive. Damn sight easier being heartless. Nobody could touch you then. Nobody could destroy you with a handful of words.
"...don't want to see you anymore. Ever."
"Next time we might not come back and then what would you do, you little s@#t?"
Blackie stood, moving around the bed grabbing clothes. Then he bent over the sleeping form sprawled across his bed. When Blackie nudged her shoulder, she turned, peering up at him with one half-open eye.
"Come on. Time to get going," he said, soft yet firm. After tossing her clothes over her on the bed, he walked over to the open door of his bedroom. He leaned against the frame, watching her to make sure she understood he meant now, not whenever she woke up enough to figure it out.
Pushing her thick, red hair back, she sat up holding her clothes sloppily against her.
"You need a ride?" he asked.
They'd come here together in his car straight from the wedding reception, as soon as her shift got over.
Red laughed in her throat, as if surprised by his offer. Then she leveled him with a street-wise stare. "I've done this before, lover. I understood from the get-go it was just once."
Without backing away from her stare, Blackie crossed his arms over his chest. She was right--she couldn't claim ignorance. He'd been making his position clear with all his lovers since he was fourteen. Not much to misconstrue when he laid it out so plainly--"We dance, no kissing, you leave, and we never see each other again. Agreed?" He'd never bothered to wonder why nearly all of them had agreed.
She looked away first. "It was worth it," Red told him, standing to slip into her uniform. She zipped it decisively. "You're the best I ever had. Maybe I didn't fall in love..." She came over to him with her shoes and purse in hand. "...but it was close."
This time, Blackie deliberately glanced away from her, unwilling to acknowledge anything she'd said. She touched his chin, gliding her thumb up and over his lips. When she tried to kiss him, he eased her away with a scolding shake of his head.
"My sad, lonely vagabond," she whispered.
Blackie razed her with an eyeball-to-eyeball stare. "I'm not yours, Red."
For an instant, she seemed hurt, then she shook it off. She knew the rules. She'd played this game probably as many times as he had.
"She's a lucky girl. Your princess. Lori."
Had she overheard him on the phone? How did she know--?
"You said her name in bed..." Red told him, "...more than once." She scooped her coat off the floor. When she straightened she said, "Marry her, have a couple kids, if you want. Be happy. God knows that don't happen often enough to turn it down if it ever comes."
As she left his apartment, Blackie laughed to himself. Happy? Hell, more proof she didn't know him at all, to even suggest it. He'd stopped wanting anything good after his parents had exorcised him of all optimism in one fell swoop. He hadn't allowed himself to want... but he did anyway sometimes.
One time. One woman. And she was the one he could never have.
Two years later...
With a groan of stiffness, Lori eased out of her 1974 Corvette and stood, trying to get her body to cooperate with stretching. She'd driven from New York to Milwaukee, stopping only to re-fuel, eat and pee.
Thank God that's over! she thought, her mind on seeing her father, a hot shower, and maybe going to bed early tonight.
After locking the doors of the car that had been a present to herself once she'd started working for Kira, she pulled her luggage from the trunk. The rest of her things would follow her here soon.
Even the lightweight tote felt heavy, she was so stiff. A straight-through drive had been a necessity though. Deadlines in the fashion world--Kira Gunn's part of it anyway--were non-negotiable. The back door into the apartment suite behind the bar Lori's father owned stood open, but when Lori went inside she saw that no one was there. At Jerry Gordon's age, he was still working the same hours he had when he'd been a young man and had first opened Rainbow Nights.
Not wanting to go out to the bar just yet, Lori went upstairs to put her tote in her old bedroom, then started across the hall to the "all-purpose" room. In the past, it'd been used for storage or for an extra bedroom if they had a lot of overnight guests. Her father had had many plans for it--rec room, rented rooms to bring in a little extra money, a living room. He'd talked about expanding the bar into a full-fledged restaurant a time or two as well. In the end, he'd never done any of it and this room was still used for storage and guest accommodations. Once she'd cleaned it out, it'd be at least two and a half times the size of a regular bedroom. Just enough room for her to set up an office with all the equipment her spacious apartment in New York had easily held.
Lori opened the door to the room and got a jolt of surprise. Over twenty-five years of clutter had been swept away. The room was nearly empty and shockingly clean. The hardwood floor had even been buffed and shined. She could smell fresh wax. Even the bed was gone. Had her father...? Nah, the guys had probably done it for him when he'd told them she was moving back home and planning to set this room up as her office.
"The guys" were Rod Summers, Jon Rushing... and Blackie Scarpacchio--men who were honorary sons of her father, just as JoJo Summers was his honorary daughter and someone Lori considered a sister. All except Blackie, the guys had been like brothers to Lori.
A shiver went up her spine at the thought of Blackie being here, in this room, possibly in the bar. Although she'd never said outright to her father, "Make sure Blackie isn't here when I get here", she'd made it clear to him since she'd told Blackie to stay out of her life that she didn't want him to come around anymore. And she hadn't, for over two years.
All the times she'd come home during that time, she'd never been sure whether her father had specifically called Blackie to tell him to stay away, if Blackie had been so busy with his career that he hadn't had time anyway, or if he'd taken her "I never want to see you again" at face value.
Lori moved further into the room and saw a drafting table set up in the north corner. While it was similar to the one she used, it wasn't hers. So whose was it? And what was it doing in here? Her father hadn't bought her one, had he? No, he wouldn't because she strongly suspected he knew very little about the day-to-day tasks her job as a fashion designer entailed. So, while he was extremely proud of her, he wouldn't realize she even used a drafting table.
Exhaling with a whoosh, Lori decided it was time to find her father. Her decision to move back home hadn't been easy. Her career really wasn't an easily relocated one. The disruption involved had been immense, especially since--in terms of experience--she was still something of a novice. She'd completed her first collection, scheduled for release later in the summer. She was still getting the hang of everything. She'd just gotten comfortable with her assistant, the pattern makers, technicians, etc. This move would uproot all of that and force her to almost start over.
Her boss, Kira Gunn, had advised against doing it. She'd relented because Lori would have easy access to the Kira Gunn Fashions Milwaukee branch, because of Lori's insistence that she'd lose less than a day or twos' work, because her assistant had agreed to relocate with her, and finally because Lori had admitted the real reason for the necessary disruption. Her father's failing health. There was very little Lori wouldn't do for her father, and, when he'd hinted at the declining state of his health, she'd immediately made some calls to the friends who knew her father best. Although no one could pin down what was wrong, all agreed they were worried and wished they could get down to check on him more often. With growing families, Lori had understood that it wasn't easy for them to travel so far every weekend, the way they'd used to when they were single.
Disruption aside, Lori hadn't seen her relocation as a choice. She had to come home. The only thing that had surprised her was how little her father had put up a fight at her announcement that she was coming home to live. Her father was the type who placed neither attention nor concern on his health. He didn't like doctors and he didn't like anyone fussing over him. Yet he hadn't tried to talk her out of coming home because of his health.
As she walked through the living room downstairs, she heard the door that separated the bar from the apartment close. Her father appeared at the end of the hallway.
Jerry Gordon was built like an old, well-padded teddy bear. What hair he still possessed generated red tufts around his head and resided in eyebrow, nose and ear. Oh, had she missed him!
Lori almost started crying. He didn't look any different to her. He didn't look sick at all. "Daddy." Thank God, she thought once she was in his arms, feeling his strength. She'd harbored a deep-down fear that she'd get home and find him on his death bed.
"Look at you. My little ragamuffin is all grown up."
Lori laughed emotionally. He said that every time she came home.
"I'm glad you're home to stay, punkin," he said with another fierce hug.
If she'd considered for a moment regretting her decision to return because he wasn't sick, it disappeared with the reminder of his loneliness. He'd gone from having family around him nearly all the time to being completely alone here. His best friend had died and all his kids were off, too far away to visit often.
"So how are you, Daddy?" Lori asked when they separated.
Scratching his head, he said exactly what she expected him to. "Hangin' in there, you know. You don't need any help with your luggage--?"
Lori shook her head, lifting her waist-length hair to cool her neck. Her father still hadn't invested in a good air conditioning system back here. She'd fix that, now that she had her own money and she was going to be living here once more. "I just brought a tote. Everything else is coming in the moving van in the morning."
She knew what her father would say about the fact that she'd hired a professional moving company. A move around here boiled down to getting ten of your best and strongest friends together. Her employer was picking up the full tab for her move, so she'd taken advantage of it.
"Have you seen a doctor? Do they--?" Asking if they knew what was wrong with him was silly. She knew better.
As expected, he shook his head before she could finish her question. "I'm an old man, punkin. You don't go to see a doctor for a couple aches and pains. 'My age, a guy's gotta expect those."
"You're not even sixty! You're not exactly ready to be put out to pasture." She moved closer to him. "Please, Daddy. Just go for a check-up. For me."
For a long moment, he stared at her stubbornly. But he finally conceded with a nod. She'd have to goad him at least once more or he'd conveniently forget to do it. Or she'd have to make the appointment herself.
"I went upstairs to check out the storage room. There's a drafting table up there--"
Before she could finish--and fathom the strangely uncomfortable expression on her father's face--the back door out to the parking lot opened. She turned, and then she not only lost her train of thought, she lost all coordination.
Why didn't I prepare myself for this possibility? her chaotic mind wailed. How could she prepare herself? Prepare herself for a man who'd left her utterly boneless each time he'd looked her way when she was just a teenager. A man who, now at thirty-eight, affected her twice what he had in her troubled teen years. Ten times that!
Their gazes met and locked, sweeping her out of reality on a tidal wave of emotion, like always. Why had nothing changed? She'd been gone for so long, any reaction to him should have been mild. She'd been all over the world, she'd met and dated a lot of other men. She'd somehow convinced herself that Blackie was a brief part of her reckless youth, a part that had no grounding in reality. Certainly not in her present or future.
Oh, he was sexy. Dark, dangerous, that sense of the untamed just barely suppressed below the surface... His face was more mature, more shuttered than ever before, and impossibly handsome. He had dark eyes that seemed to hold all the mysteries of the universe, a long nose that flared slightly when he was mad, frustrated. Or aroused. The features of his face seemed to be carved from stone. At one time, she'd known every line, each unique texture. She'd actually believed she'd known the man--the inner man who remained an enigma even to his closest friends.
I loved you. I've never loved anyone the way I loved you. I would have given you everything I had to give if you'd only let me in a little.
What was he doing here? And why was he carrying in boxes?
"Blackie's movin' back in, too, muffin," her father said. "He doesn't got much more than that table you saw, so you'll have plenty of space for all your stuff in the storage room."
Lori barely digested his words. She just stared at Blackie, realizing, He didn't know. He didn't know I'd be here either.
Why wouldn't her father tell her something so vital? She'd made her stand so clear.
Blackie was moving in, too, moving back, and they'd be sharing a workspace that had seemed more than adequate ten minutes ago. Now she couldn't imagine how she'd breathe with him so close, so close she'd feel every little move he made.
It's official. It's all over, Lori thought in panic. I can't protect myself anymore.
* * * *
Blackie stood rooted to the spot, staring in disbelief at the last person he'd expected to see. Sure, he'd expected her to come home once in awhile and he'd see her since he was moving back in. He just hadn't expected her this soon.
"Blackie's movin' back in, too..."
From twenty feet away, Lori goggled at him, first in the same shock that had him paralyzed, then--
She'd changed. The obvious stuff had changed--she'd matured, she was even more beautiful. But she'd changed her mind about him. For most of his life, she'd hung around his legs literally and then figuratively. When she'd finally wised up, she'd been wary of him whenever they were in the same room. He'd thought that was killing. She looked at him now with no more expression than she would the mailman. She's over you. That's what you always wanted. Yeah, wanted, and dreaded.
"You don't mind sharin' some space with Lori, do you, son?" Jerry asked.
For a minute, Blackie glanced at the man who'd taken him in without question twenty-eight years ago. Had Jerry engineered this? Why hadn't he mentioned Lori was moving back to Milwaukee, too?
Blackie's reasons for returning were simple. Jerry had, unbelievably, complained about his health about a month before. The more Blackie thought about it, the more it made sense for him to move back here. His life in Stevens Point... Well, he could do his job just as easily here. And this way his friends wouldn't be dropping in on him constantly. Sometimes he thought they'd set up a schedule--JoJo, Randy and their trio of rugrats on Monday, Rod, Bethany and full company on Tuesday, Jon and Tracey with their two kids on Wednesday. Come Thursday, it started all over again. He was lucky to get eighteen hours to himself to work during a week. He knew they thought he was lonely. Who the hell am I kidding? I made my life that way. Custom-designed it. They just aren't willing to play along.
He'd told Jerry he needed more time to himself, to work. And that his apartment over Hog Heaven was too cramped to work in. Jerry had been all for the idea of him moving back and converting the storage room into his workspace. Two bachelors who didn't get in each other's way. That was the plan. Never once had the old guy mention that he'd be sharing the storage room and that it wouldn't be just the two of them.
Blackie glanced at Lori again.
Living and working in this small apartment with her... Ah damn, can't think of much else that qualifies so well as heaven and hell.
"No, I don't mind," he muttered, managing to get his legs to move forward, closer to them.
"Then it's all set. That room's pretty big. Could probably fit a circus in it."
All set? Blackie almost laughed out loud. Lori didn't look comfortable with the idea. Not at all. And Blackie had the feeling it hadn't been anywhere near as easy for her to pick up her life in New York and relocate back here as it'd been for him to move. She may not like the idea of having him here, but she was probably stuck with it now.
"You okay with it, Princess?" Blackie asked, watching her cringe. Because of the nickname that still fits her so well?
Her jaw tightened. "Sure. I can handle it." She stared at him with an almost haughty, challenging expression.
She was cold. Lori had never been cold. She was like a cat--sometimes soft and overly affectionate and sometimes wild and downright feral. She wasn't the type to be ice cold. New York change you, Princess? Or what I did to you? What I had to do?
He wasn't really sure he wanted that answer. He didn't want to find out that he meant nothing to her.
Without a word, he started for the stairs with his art supplies. Before he went up, he glanced back at her. He wondered which was preferable in this situation: Her coldness toward him now or the tenacious determination she'd pursued him with as a teenager?
The answer didn't really matter. Either way, he had the feeling he was back where Lori had left him bleeding and dying five years ago.