Authors: Linda Cajio
When they were close enough to the man in the white windbreaker to see his face in the bright lights of the Trump Plaza Casino entrance, Ellen slowed their pace to a stroll. Joe took in the dark hair, regular features, medium build and height, and admitted the man was about as average as they come. And he had never seen him before.
“It’s him,” Ellen whispered fiercely, her nails digging through his suit jacket to his flesh.
She relaxed her hold on him, then stopped and looked up at the beautiful hotel, just as any normal tourist would. Joe helplessly followed suit. What else, he wondered, could he do? He had lied and now it was coming true. Just as he was about to kiss her,
It was a punishment, he thought. A cruel and inhuman punishment. He would have gladly settled for a nose that turned into a ship’s mast at the first fib. Anything was better than this.
“He’s going into the Plaza,” she said, interrupting his thoughts.
Joe sighed as he guided her into the casino. Who knows, he thought. He might find out who Mario’s buyer was. Somehow, he didn’t feel enthusiastic about the prospect.
They followed the man in the white windbreaker at a respectable distance all the way through the lobby and casino areas and into the parking garage. He was easy to tail since he strode purposefully, never stopping or deviating from the direction he was headed. Ellen’s eyes sparkled with her excitement, and her skin glowed with her energy.
Joe wished he, rather than a complete stranger, had been the cause.
They lost the man, however, in the vast parking garage, since they couldn’t get into the elevator with him. They could only watch the indicator for the level and go up on the next elevator. To Joe’s further disgust, Ellen insisted on checking every aisle of that level. But the man was gone.
“So close,” Ellen muttered, finally giving up.
, Joe’s brain echoed, as he admitted the moment had been lost.
He vowed that Ellen was about to retire from the I Spy business.
Whether she liked it or not.
Ellen had no desire to break the silence on the drive home.
As she gazed out at the dark shapes of the pine trees and the low, modern warehouses lining the north-south freeway, she almost wished she had never seen the man from the rink. Now Joe had seen him. He wouldn’t need her help any longer.
It was over, and she admitted she would miss the excitement and adventure. And the fun. It had been exhilarating, a change from her drifting.
And she would miss Joe.
“I’d like to thank you, Ellen, for all your help tonight,” he said, interrupting her thoughts. “You have very sharp eyes. You must be an optometrist’s nightmare.”
She turned to face him. His voice seemed to echo hollowly, as if he were being sarcastic, and his features looked like stone in the glow of the dashboard lights. She felt a little disappointed
that he hadn’t used his nickname for her. She had been growing used to it … even liking it.
“I was glad I could help,” she said, studying the strong lines of his profile. Her blood swirled more thickly through her veins. She remembered how much she had wanted him to kiss her when they had been standing by the boardwalk’s railing. It had taken every ounce of her willpower
to fling herself into his arms. But then she’d seen the man, and the chase was on.
Suddenly she realized that Joe wouldn’t return to his own home until the very early hours, and he still had to get up and run a business in the morning. “These trips to the shore must be very hard on you, Joe.”
“I’d do it again in a minute, wouldn’t you?”
The sarcasm was unmistakable this time, and she sensed it was being directed at her. She couldn’t understand why. All this spying business certainly hadn’t been her idea.
“I’m sorry that we lost him before he connected with your cousin,” she said coolly.
“That would have been the icing on tonight’s cake,” he agreed, then mumbled a curse.
“Dammit, Joe Carlini,” she said, losing her temper. This hadn’t exactly been her night either, but she wasn’t sniping at him. “Save your bad mood for someone who deserves it, like your cousin Mario.
didn’t like dropping everything to run to Atlantic City either, you know. Or taking a barrage of lectures from my grandmother, or any of the other things I’ve put up with to help you with your problem.”
Joe gaped at her in surprise, then turned back
to the road. “I was angry with myself, Ell. I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized I was taking it out on you.”
She was silent for a moment as her anger dissipated. “I guess we’re both tired. It’s very late.”
“It probably would have made more sense to stay over in Atlantic City, than to drive home so far, so late like this,” she said, speaking as the thought entered her head. “But you must need to be in the office very early.”
His head swung around. “Do you mean to tell me that you would have stayed overnight with me—”
“Separately!” she exclaimed, realizing that common sense had unforeseen complications. “Separate rooms, Joe!”
He laughed. “Relax, Ellen.”
“I think driving home was a better idea after all,” she said in a rush.
“And let’s leave it at that.” He was silent for a moment. “I’ve been thinking … how would you like to see what all the fuss is about?”
She frowned. “You mean the sauce?”
“Sort of.” He smiled. “I thought you might like a tour of Carlini Foods. Tomorrow, maybe? You might enjoy it.”
“That’s very nice, Joe,” she began. “But I don’t think it would be a wise idea.”
“Ellen,” he said patiently. “Humor me, will you? I’ve had a very rough day.”
She knew she shouldn’t. But it was so tempting to spend just a little more time with him. She liked him very much. He was … comfortable to
be around. And yet he created feelings in her that bordered on obsession.
That was what scared her, she acknowledged. She was being pulled toward him faster and her feelings ran deeper than anything she’d ever experienced before. She was afraid to open herself again. The control she had so far exerted was a joke.
“Say yes, Ell.”
She sighed. “Oh, what the hell. All right.”
“Your enthusiasm overwhelms me,” he said dryly.
“I’m humoring you,” she reminded him. “I don’t have to be enthusiastic. Would you settle, though, for curious?”
He chuckled. “I’ll settle.”
She leaned back in the seat and smiled to herself. Okay, so she was tempting the fates again. Just a little bit, at any rate. Besides, she really was curious to see his company. She’d been making a substantial contribution to its welfare lately.
But her relaxed state lasted only as long as it took to reach the long drive to her grandmother’s Gladwyne home. Ellen’s stomach tensed as Joe turned the car into the lane. Outside it was pitch black, the trees effectively blocking any source of light. Inside the car was like a warm cocoon, isolated and protected. In all the times she had been with Joe, she had never felt this alone with him before. Her heart beat faster, and her limbs felt strangely heavy. She unconsciously licked her lips, feeling their softness. She remembered the kiss outside the Four Seasons Hotel after the charity dance. Had her lips felt this soft for Joe?
Her thoughts were getting too dangerous, and
she rolled down her window a few inches to let in some much needed air. But her brain, no matter how sensible on the subject of noninvolvement, was sounding like a nag. Common sense and need just didn’t mix, and right now the need was rushing through her. She knew the only thing saving her from a terrible mistake was that she was living with her grandmother. She didn’t know whether to be grateful or to curse the lack of privacy.
“Well, here we are,” Joe said, pulling up in front of the white-columned front portico. He shut out the headlights and turned off the Mercedes’s powerful engine.
“Yes. Home at last.” Ellen swallowed, aware of the small space separating them. She didn’t want to look at him. She was afraid of what would happen if she did.
The name was like a caress. She turned, and she was lost.
Joe’s face was in shadow, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t have to see it to know the features that had haunted her for days. Her senses caught the mingling scent of cologne and male. Her skin could feel the heat emanating from him. She was being drawn toward him at a speed that defied light.
She had to feel his mouth on hers, had to feel his tongue mating with hers, giving her life while leaving her without breath.
“Ell,” he whispered, touching her cheek with one hand.
She nearly whimpered at the fingers tracing her skin. She hadn’t realized how much she had been wanting this. She wanted more.
She said nothing. Did nothing.
His hands reached out and gripped her upper arms, sending shock waves through her. He pulled her closer.…
The bright portico light came on the moment Joe’s lips touched hers. They broke apart as if burned. Gasping, Ellen whipped around to see someone silhouetted in the open front door. It was easy to guess who that someone was.
“Ellen! Are you coming in?” Lettice called out. Her voice carried easily through Ellen’s partially open window.
“I’m not going to the moon,” Ellen muttered. She rolled the window all the way down and said, “I’ll be in shortly, Grandmother. You shouldn’t have waited up.”
Instead of returning to the house, her grandmother walked across the porch to the passenger side of the car. She tightened the sash of her satin robe and smiled archly. “I didn’t mind at all, child. Good evening, Mr. Carlini.”
“Good evening, Mrs. Kitteridge,” Joe said. “And please call me Joe. I’m sorry if we worried you.”
Lettice nodded. “Well, it was getting very late, Joseph.”
Ellen decided to kill her normally beloved relative. Lettice’s sense of timing was perfect. “Thank you, Grandmother, for being concerned, but everything is just fine.”
She rolled up her window in dismissal. Lettice stood next to the passenger car door, clearly refusing to take the hint.
Ellen gritted her teeth and turned back to Joe. “I have to go.”
“The Dragon Lady,” he said, sighing. “I don’t think she likes me.”
“Grandmother doesn’t like anyone.”
Joe grinned. “She’s the perfect ending to a perfect evening.”
Ellen frowned. “What are you—”
He put his forefinger against her lips. She resisted the impulse to kiss his finger.
“Never mind,” he said. “Anyway, she’s right. It is late. Why don’t you come to the plant day after tomorrow, instead of tomorrow? That will give you a day to recover from tonight’s manhunt.”
She nodded. It also gave her a day to come up with a good excuse to cancel it. She still had her doubts.
“Good,” he said. “There’s a dire punishment if you change your mind.”
She stifled a laugh at his mind reading. “Like what?”
He looked behind her and grinned. “I kiss you very thoroughly in front of your grandmother.”
Her skin heated at the thought, but she wasn’t sure whether it was from embarrassment or anticipation. She stared at his mouth and whispered, “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Get out of the car now, Ellen Kitteridge, before I forget it’s supposed to be a punishment.”
“Good night, Joe,” she said, opening the car door and stepping out into the night.
“ ’Night, Ell.”
She smiled at him and shut the door. Without a word to her grandmother, she walked into the house.
“I was concerned,” Lettice began as she caught up with her.
Ellen could hear the engine of the Mercedes start up, then the hum of the tires on the pavement as the car rolled down the drive. Taking a deep breath, she said, “I love you for caring about me so much, Grandmother. And if you ever pull a stunt like that again, I will cart your prize collection of Limoges up to the roof and fling it off a piece at a time.”
Lettice gasped. “You wouldn’t!”
“Let’s not find out, okay?” Ellen suggested and, without another word, walked up the long mahogany staircase to her bedroom.
Once inside, she pulled a videotape from her collection and pushed it into the VCR. She settled in to watch
From his office window four stories up, Joe watched Ellen’s little Audi pull into a parking space below. He breathed a sigh of relief. Even though he had called her yesterday and extracted a second promise from her to take the tour, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she hadn’t shown up. Sometimes dealing with her was like dealing with the mist. He never quite knew where he was. But she had come, and he considered that a major victory. The first of many, he told himself.
He picked up the two hard hats on his credenza and went down to meet her at the front doors of the executive offices. When he reached the reception area, she was already there, looking over the photographs hanging on the side wall. He nodded to the receptionist, then walked over to Ellen. She looked beautiful in a green, collarless jacket and
khaki shirt and trousers. He wanted to touch her, but knew he couldn’t follow through on that. His control was always precarious around her, so he was immensely grateful his hands were full at the moment. When he finally got his impulses in rein, he noticed her hair was pulled back in a tight chignon and she was wearing pumps with sensible heels.
He grinned and held out his little present for her. “Hi. Here’s the latest in Paris fashions.”
Ellen took the pristine white hard hat from him and held it up, admiring the intertwining C and F logo stenciled on the front. Her name was stenciled on the back.
“I love it,” she said, chuckling. “I’ll be the envy of all the girls on my block.”
“So glad I could please,” he said.
She grinned. “I had no idea, Joe, that Carlini Foods was this big. There must be ten acres of buildings.”
He nodded. “Close. You’ve a good eye. And all of it is right down the road from the regional office of the Internal Revenue Service. It keeps the accounting department on the straight and narrow.”