Excerpt: A Wholesale Arrangement

Excerpt for: A Wholesale Arrangement, Book Two in the Nordic Heroes 2-book Boxed Set

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“She’s what?”

Nordic Heroes, final cover

A Wholesale Arrangement: Book Two in The Nordic Heroes Boxed Set

Thor Thorsen kicked aside his chair and surged to his feet, his impressive size instantly dwarfing everything—and everyone—in the room. He slammed his palms onto the desk in front of him and leaned across it. His voice dropped to an ominous rumble. “She’s what?” he repeated.

“You heard me,” Rainer responded, not the least bit intimidated by his older brother’s wrath. He lifted a scruffy sneakered foot and rested it on the edge of the gleaming mahogany desk. “Andrea’s price-gouging. You know the term ‘price-gouging,’ don’t you? That’s when one party has another party at a financial disadvantage and puts the screws—”

“I know what it means.” Thor returned fire. “Give me proof. Evidence. You know the term ‘evidence,’ don’t you? That’s when one party can substantiate their accusations against another party with documentation.” He switched his furious gaze to Rainer’s companion. “What do you have, Red? Fair warning. It had better be good.”

The fifty-year-old man lifted a nervous hand to hair gone iron gray. “Calling it price-gouging might be a tad strong. I think, maybe.”

Rainer snorted and tilted his chair to a precarious two-legged angle. “Yeah, right. Andrea Constantine is as innocent as a lamb and I wear eggplants for slippers.” A backhanded swipe knocked his foot off the desk and he scrambled to keep from falling.

“Let him speak or you’ll be eating those eggplants, as well as wearing them,” Thor informed his brother, ignoring his acrobatic efforts to remain upright. “Go on, Red.”

The older man cleared his throat. “That term, er, price-gouging, does suggest a certain deliberation on Miss Constantine’s part. And, well, we don’t know for certain it is. Deliberate, I mean. I think maybe it could all be a little misunderstanding.”

“A little misunderstanding,” Thor repeated softly. “Rainer says Andrea’s billing our stores twice what her father, Nick, charged us six months ago. That’s a little misunderstanding?”

Red gulped. “I think maybe… yes?”

“I think maybe no!” Thor glared at his brother. “Evidence I said. Where’s the evidence?”

“You want it? I’ve got it.” Rainer’s demeanor changed abruptly. He tossed a bulky folder marked “Constantine’s Wholesale Produce Market” onto Thor’s desk. “Here’s a little evidence for you. These are the produce invoices from a year ago, six months before Nick Constantine’s death.”

Thor sat down and picked up the folder, extracting the pertinent files. They brought back bittersweet memories—memories he’d prefer to forget. Memories he couldn’t forget. With bleak determination, he focused on the papers, swiftly absorbing the necessary information. “This would be the month after our contract with Constantine’s first took effect.”

“Right. And this next piece of evidence—” Rainer sent another folder spinning onto the desk “—is seven months ago, immediately before Nick’s death. You’ll note some minor fluctuation in prices. But overall, it’s within acceptable parameters.”

“Lettuce and cucumbers up. That was mid-December. The freeze in central California and the heavy rains in Mexico would account for the increases there.”

Rainer’s gaze hardened. He heaved the final folder onto his brother’s desk. “This is last month’s invoices. My last bit of evidence and proof positive.”

Thor could guess what was coming, but he glanced through the invoices, anyway. They confirmed his worst fears. “Damn.” He rocked back in his chair and closed his eyes. Why, Andrea? Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? You had to hit out at me, didn’t you?

The increases were huge. He knew simple inflation couldn’t come close to accounting for them. No, the reason had nothing to do with business. Anger began to build in him, a hot penetrating wrath that seeped into his veins and spread like quicksilver. His mouth firmed into a taut line as he fought to control it. Andrea always did manage to rouse a strong reaction one way or the other.

“There’s more.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Thor rested an elbow on his desk and rubbed a finger across his jaw. “Finish it.”

Rainer handed him a graph. “I’ve charted some of our standard purchases over the past twelve months and compared them to last year’s. Just a few of the basics—lettuce, potatoes, things our retail produce markets and Milano’s Restaurants get from us on a daily basis.”

Thor studied the sharp upward slash of the red line on the graph. “Prices began to skyrocket right after Nick died and are headed straight through the roof.” He tossed the chart onto the desk and glanced from Red to his brother. “We can’t let this continue. We have to act. Suggestions?”

Red spoke first. “She’s a woman, you know.”

Both Thor and Rainer stared at the older man.

“She’s… she’s a woman, you know,” he repeated with dogged determination. “I think maybe that could mean something.”

Thor fixed his attention on the nervous man. “Such as?” he asked with barely concealed impatience.

“A woman in this business…” Red’s brow puckered. “Don’t know. Don’t seem right somehow. Think maybe we could check to be sure there’s been no mistake?”

Thor considered the possibilities for a minute. Andrea deserved the benefit of the doubt. But facts were facts. What legitimate excuse could there possibly be? On the other hand…

“He’s right,” Rainer reluctantly conceded. “We should be certain before we act.”

“Agreed.” Thor thought for a moment, then spoke. “Have my secretary call Constantine’s main competitor, Produce, Inc. Don’t mention Thorsen’s. She’s a woman calling out of the blue. Have her get the price on a box of bananas, a flat of strawberries and a carton of lettuce.”

Rainer lifted an eyebrow. “Clever. If Produce, Inc., gives a better deal to a complete stranger than Constantine’s gives to their best customer, we’ll know for sure Andrea’s price-gouging.”

“Red,” Thor prompted. “Take care of it right away.”

The older man’s expression turned gloomy. “Yes, sir. Won’t take no time at all.”

“Thanks.” Thor waited until he was alone with his brother before continuing. “So, tell me the rest. The part you weren’t saying in front of Red.”

“Never could put one over on you.” Rainer leaned forward, his voice grim. “I’ve heard rumblings from other retailers. It isn’t Andrea’s prices alone. The quality of the produce is down, too.”

Thor’s eyes narrowed. “That would explain the phone calls I’ve received of late. Three different wholesale houses, in addition to Produce, Inc., are after our business. And they’re willing to give some major concessions to get it.”

“Tough luck we can’t take advantage of their offers. At least, not while our contract with Constantine’s forces us to buy exclusively from them.” Rainer’s brows drew together. “If we go anywhere else, we lose the right to service their Milano account.”

“We entered into that contract because we could make major bucks supplying produce to Milano’s restaurant chain.” Thor thumbed through the files on his desk, then decisively flipped them closed. “Unfortunately our contract is with Constantine’s, not with the Milanos. In order to keep that account, we have to deal with Andrea.”

“Can’t we sidestep her and cut a separate deal with Milano’s?”

Thor shook his head. “I tried that over a year ago and again after Nick’s death. Caesar made it clear that his contract’s with Constantine’s and he isn’t interested in any other arrangement.”

Rainer didn’t hide his annoyance. “Despite the fact we provide him with faster, round the clock service?”

“He’s been friends with the family for too long to tolerate change.”

Rainer grimaced. “Which takes us back to first base. We buy only from Constantine’s, and their good friend Milano buys only from us.” He paused. “Still, everybody does make a profit.”

Thor tapped the documentation. “You’ll notice the last few months our profit’s headed straight for Antarctica.”

“I agree we can’t keep paying top dollar for second-rate produce—”

“Damn right!” Thor cut in. “If something doesn’t change, and soon, we’ll be lucky to keep the reputations of our retail markets intact, let alone satisfy the Milano’s Restaurants account. Tell me where the profit is in that.”

A knock at the door interrupted than, and Red stepped into the room. His expression told its own story. “I think maybe price-gouging is the right word, after all,” he muttered. With a sorrowful sigh, he turned and left.

Thor’s piercing gaze rested on Rainer. “You were supposed to keep an eye on this situation. Why wait so long to tell me?”

“I needed hard facts before I brought it to your attention. Evidence, remember?”

“Evidence?” Thor questioned. “Or the fact that Andrea is your wife’s best friend?”

“Leave Jordan out of this—she isn’t involved!” Rainer snapped. Then he shrugged. “Your relationship with Andrea is. I don’t like having to carry tales about your fiancée.”

“Former fiancée,” Thor corrected roughly. “And that’s no excuse for keeping this information from me.”

Rainer smiled skeptically. “You don’t think so? Perhaps not. I don’t know. But I also waited for the same reason you would have—to give Andrea a chance. What with Nick’s death and the amount of work involved in taking sole control of Constantine’s, she needed time to get a handle on the business.”

Thor swept the papers littering his desk to one side. “She didn’t get a handle on business. She got a handle on a knife and shoved it in our backs.”

“What now?” Rainer asked.

Thor rose to his feet and strode to the window. He leaned against the casing and stared down at the busy Seattle traffic. Why hesitate? He knew what choices were available.

And they were damned few. “Either we pull out of the contract, or I… discuss the matter with Andrea.”

“What’s to discuss?”

Thor ignored his brother’s impatience. “Plenty. Like why she’s playing games with us, for one.”

“Right.” Rainer paused. “By the way. Why is she playing games with us?”

“I can think of two reasons. It’s personal. Or it’s personal.” He frowned. “I want to be fair. There is one other possibility.”

“What’s that?”

“The woman could be totally incompetent at running a wholesale produce business.”

“So what are you going to do?”

Thor turned and faced him. “I think I’ll go have a little chat with Andrea.”

* * *

Bills, bills, bills and more bills. Andrea Constantine studied the listing stack of invoices piled on her desk and fought off an overwhelming sense of panic. Panicking wouldn’t do her any good. It might make her feel ten times better, but it wouldn’t help. Money would help. Lots of money would help even more. And several truckloads of some large-denominational green stuff would benefit her most of all.

The telephone at her elbow shrilled, and the trucks in her daydream pulled away from the loading dock without having deposited so much as a single penny. She glared at the phone. Thirty more seconds and she’d have been stinking rich. Life, she decided in disgust, had a warped sense of humor. She snatched up the receiver.

“Constantine’s,” she announced with professional briskness. “Andrea Constantine here.”

“Where’s my money?” the caller snarled, not wasting time on pleasantries.

There was that annoying, distasteful, repetitive “money” word again, being used by an equally annoying, distasteful, repetitive nuisance. “Mr. Hartsworth, I presume,” she said, her lips turning down at the corners.

“Damn right! Now where’s my money? And no more excuses. I shipped you a truckload of corn and I expect to be paid for it!”

“You shipped me a truckload of worm-ridden mush,” she contradicted in a firm voice. “You neglected to ice the corn down properly, and your driver took two full days to get it here.”

“How can that be? Yakima’s only 140 miles from you!”

“Which makes the trucker’s arrival in Seattle forty-eight hours after departing your farm an incredible feat. How’d he go, by way of Hawaii? The heat coming off the tail end of his trailer was unbelievable. It’s a wonder we didn’t have popcorn!”

“You watch your mouth, little girl.”

Little girl? Andrea couldn’t help smiling, despite the gravity of the situation. She and Mr. Hartsworth had never met face-to-face or he’d have chosen a different description. At five foot eight, she couldn’t be called anyone’s “little girl.” Oh, well, reasoning with the man might be a futile exercise, but she was determined to give it a try.

“Mr. Hartsworth, the federal inspectors looked at your corn and they agree with me. It’s worthless.”

“Buffalo chips! Now you listen here. I was supplying your pop with cobs since before you were born. You’re lucky I’m willing to work with you at all. So don’t try and tell me my business. This isn’t some girlie tea party, you know.”

“I quite agree—”

He bulldozed on. “If you don’t pay up, you’ll regret it, inspection or no inspection. I’ll see to it that your name is blacker than tar at midnight in a coal mine.”

She sat up straighter. That sounded fairly black, all right. And having her name so abused wouldn’t help her financial situation any. Still…

The man had dumped bad produce on her, and no one did that. If her father were still living Hartsworth wouldn’t have tried such a stunt. The knowledge brought a sharp pang of loss; the knowledge also brought home the painful truth. If her father had taught her the rules of this particular game, she wouldn’t be in her present predicament.

Her hand clenched into a fist. One thing she did know with absolute certainty. If she allowed even one supplier to take advantage of her, they’d all start stacking up at her dock ten deep to follow suit.

“I refuse to pay for rotten produce,” she announced in no uncertain terms. “And you’re not the only one capable of a little tar-tossing and name-blackening.”

“Don’t give me your lip! You’ll pay all right. Because if I put out the word you don’t honor your debts, no farmer or broker will ever ship to you again. They’ll offload you clear into tomorrow. And I’ve half a mind to see that they do, maybe more than half a mind.”

“You don’t have more than half a mind!” she let loose before common sense—or any sense—could prevail. “And don’t threaten me. I don’t operate well under threats.”

“Maybe you’ll operate better under promises. Because I promise you, either have a certified check on my desk by five tonight or my lawyer’s gonna pick your bank account cleaner than a melon patch after a gleaners’ convention! You got that?”

“But—” She winced as his receiver crashed down, ending any further discussion. “That gleaners’ convention went through my bank account last week,” she murmured disconsolately. “And believe me, they didn’t leave a dime, let alone a melon.”

She stared at the phone. Maybe, just maybe, she shouldn’t have lost her temper. And maybe she shouldn’t have antagonized the man. And she definitely shouldn’t have allowed her old nemesis, pride, to do all her talking. She rested her chin in her hand. One of these days she’d remember that.

Andrea considered her options. Things were fast going from bad to real bad. If Mr. Hartsworth succeeded in his threats and blacklisted her wholesale market with the other farmers and brokers, she’d go bankrupt. Not that that wasn’t a distinct possibility, anyway.

Get with it! she ordered silently. This isn’t how you’re supposed to react to problems. Where’s your gumption? Where’s your drive and ambition? Where’s your get-up-and-go? She groaned. It couldn’t have got up and went. It couldn’t have. Not now. Not when she needed every ounce of skill, determination and finesseful finagling she possessed.

She ran a finger over the prisms hanging from her desk lamp, watching their glittering reflection dance on the walls of her office. All her life she’d looked for the bright side to even the gloomiest of disasters. She’d taken special pride in knowing that somehow, somewhere, she’d find one positive in amongst all the negatives. Until now.

The only positive she could find at the moment was the absolute, positive fact that she’d landed herself in deep, deep trouble. And matters were fast worsening, leaving her helpless to prevent the threatened demise of her company.

She sighed, admitting the sad truth. If Constantine’s Wholesale Produce Market was a dike, she wouldn’t have enough fingers, toes and elbows to plug all the leaks. She better do something quick, or her father’s business would go under.

“If only…” She broke off and shook her head. If only her father hadn’t died. If only he hadn’t borrowed so much money from the bank. If only she wasn’t a woman in a man’s world. But Nick did die, he had borrowed money, and she—definitely—wasn’t a man. Which left her with one choice and one choice only, to swim fast or drown.

Too bad she only knew the dog paddle.

She let out a small sound of disgust. Honestly. That sort of attitude wouldn’t get her beans in this business. Keeping the company viable was important to her. She had something to prove. She wanted to prove to her father that she could succeed in a man’s world, despite his feelings to the contrary, and despite the fact he’d never witness her success. And she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it, that she could keep Constantine’s, Nick’s baby, afloat.

She faced the stack of bills, determination taking hold. “I won’t let you down, Dad,” she vowed in a resolute voice. “Somehow I’ll figure a way out.” Taking a deep breath, she reached for the first invoice.

“Andrea? Cam?”

She glanced up, the bill fluttering onto the stack, and smiled warmly. Joe Milano. Just what she needed—a long, cool drink of tall, dark and handsome, with a sexy Italian accent to top it off. “Joe! How nice to see you. Come in and sit down.”

“I like to see you, too. You look good. Very good.” He stepped into the room and gazed around with a touch of bewilderment. “But, ah, where do I sit? You do redecorating, yes? It is… different. Very nice.”

With a start she realized that the innumerable files, invoices and reams of paper that had taken up permanent residence in her life also covered every available surface in her office. A hint of color warmed her cheeks. Leave it to Joe to call her particular brand of mass confusion ‘redecorating.’ Inbred gallantry came as naturally to him as breathing.

“Maybe here,” she suggested, striving to lift a stack of order forms from one of the chairs.

“No, no!” Joe exclaimed, easing the burden from her arms with a disapproving frown. “I move them, no problem.” He staggered beneath the load, glancing around for a vacant spot to place it. His handsome face mirrored his growing alarm. “Er, earn,” he began. “You like these someplace special, yes? You tell me where, please.”

She hid a smile. “How about that corner over there?” she suggested, pointing to the least cluttered spot.

“Ah, fine,” he murmured in relief. He crossed the room in a few swift strides and dumped the pile onto the floor. Briskly he slapped the dust from his hands and beamed at her. “I am good help. Maybe I move another something, okay?”

She stared at the mess on the floor in secret amusement and shook her head. “You’ve done more than enough. Thanks.”

With a grin, he swept her into a bear hug, thick dark curls tumbling across his brow. “So how you been, huh?” He gave her a lingering kiss on each cheek, his mustache tickling her face. ” I miss you. You miss me?”

She laughed, returning his hug. “Always. And I’m not redecorating. This is the stuff from Dad’s office, on top of my own. I’m still sorting through it…” Her throat closed over and she broke off helplessly.

Joe slid his hands to her shoulders and studied her, his dark eyes gleaming with instant sympathy. “Poor Andrea. And here I bother you with more troubles. Maybe I come tomorrow, yes?”

“No, no. You’re always welcome. Sit down.” Besides, she already knew what Joe’d come to discuss—the poor quality of Constantine’s produce. More troubles, indeed. She struggled to recover her equilibrium and forced out a smile. “How’s Caesar?” she asked, preferring to put off the inevitable.

He relaxed into the chair, running a finger down the sharp crease of his trousers. “My poppa is fine, thank you so much. He ask for you all the time. You not visit for many weeks.”

Guilt swept through her. Caesar Milano’s arrival in the U.S. twenty-two years ago had coincided with her mother’s death, and he and her father had struck up an immediate friendship. Since then, she’d practically lived at the Milano house, the adored honorary daughter of a household overrun by males. A household that, until recently, hadn’t included Joe. As the eldest son he’d remained in Italy to care for his aging grandparents, not joining his father until a few years ago. To her delight, Joe had accepted her just as readily as all the other Milanos had, becoming like another big brother.

“I’m sorry I haven’t come by. Business. You know how it goes,” she offered.

His gaze held reproof. “This is not good, Andrea. Your business, it is too much. I worry about you. Poppa, he worries about you. My brothers, well—” he gestured in dismissal “—they not worry, but they are too stupid to know better.”

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, hastening to add, “Not about your brothers. I mean about not visiting more often.”

He studied her for a minute, his brow furrowed in concern. “Er, cam. I wonder if maybe you not come because of our little problem?”

“No! Of course it isn’t,” she denied, the lie bringing a stinging warmth to her cheeks.

He shot her an apologetic glance. “It is embarrassing. I understand,” he was quick to soothe. “Your poppa make contract with my poppa. This is fine. Okay. We know Nicky, he do the right thing by us.” Joe gave an expressive wave of his hand. “Now Nicky is dead. Poppa, his heart is broken up. He not like to talk business with his little Andrea. You understand?”

All too well. It was the story of her life. Men dealt with that aspect of life and the women kept well away. This conversation wouldn’t be happening if she had a brother or a husband. Most of her business problems were a result of that very fact.

“I’m sorry the produce went bad so fast,” she said, deciding to cut to the chase. She eyed Joe hesitantly, wondering if he’d mentioned such an awkward, troublesome, wrath-inducing problem to Thor Thorsen. With any luck he hadn’t. And with a bit more luck he wouldn’t. She cleared her throat. “You, ah, don’t need to bother Thor about this. I’ll refund you for the produce myself.”

Joe drew himself up in apparent insult. “You think I come here with the hand out? No! I come to see how you do. I should not like to say it, cara, but you don’t look so hot. All this work, it is gonna kill you.”

“What do you suggest I do? Joe, I’m a woman.”

He grinned, his gaze roaming over her in admiration. “Well, yes. I have noticed this.”

She threw him a fierce frown. “That’s not what I meant! I mean the prevailing male attitude that a woman shouldn’t be in the produce business. It’s ridiculous. I’m twenty-seven, for Pete’s sake. I know what I’m doing.” Well, she admitted with painful honesty, she sort of knew what she was doing. “Stop treating me like I have cotton candy between my ears and let’s get down to brass tacks.”

He stared at her in confusion. “Cotton candy and tacks? What you want with these?”

She smiled. “Business, Joe. Let’s get down to business. We need to reach an understanding about our contract.”

A long silent moment stretched between them. Andrea could see that he was in a quandary as to how to proceed. To go against a lifetime of conditioning must be difficult, she acknowledged. He might be only in his early thirties, but generations of Milanos had been taught that certain topics were the province of men alone. Clearly this was one of them.

“It is very hard. You understand?” he said at last.

“Yes, I do understand. My father felt the same way. He didn’t like women in business, either.” She spoke firmly, willing her voice not to falter. “But he’s gone now and I’m all that’s left. Talk to me, Joe.”

He shrugged fatalistically. “Okay. We talk.” His dark eyes were very serious, almost bleak, the usual humor and mischief missing. “This contract your father signed, it is good for everybody. We get food fast, we pay only a little more, and we order any time, and Thor, he deliver. This you not do for us. So we are happy. Who give us the produce is not important, so long as it is good produce.”

Andrea stared at him in concern. “And it hasn’t been. I realize that. I… I’m having trouble with my suppliers.”

“This trouble, it is over soon?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’m doing my best.” She swallowed, struggling to push the truth past her pride. “But I guess my best isn’t all that good.”

His gaze slid away from hers. “Cara,” he murmured, “we have problem. The bad produce, it hurt the restaurants. People expect only the very best at Milano’s. They start to complain. We hold out many months, but soon, Milano’s go pfft.” He gestured downward with his thumbs. “Down the tub.”

“Tube.”

“That, too.” He stared at her glumly. “Our goose, it is cooked?”

“I didn’t know,” she murmured in distress. “Let me think.”

On every front she faced a brick wall—uncooperative suppliers, poor quality, fierce competition, bad prices, angry buyers and, worst of all, that huge loan with those staggering payments. For her father’s sake, for all he’d sacrificed for Constantine’s, she’d desperately try to save the business. But without a door in those brick walls, she didn’t know how to do it.

The answer came to her. She hated it as an alternative, but she was fast running out of options. If she couldn’t save Constantine’s, she could at least help the Milanos. A man could succeed where she failed. A man familiar with the business would have a chance of turning things around.

That man was Jack Maxwell. He ran a small wholesale produce business that specialized in restaurant accounts. And he was interested in expanding. He called her on a regular basis offering to buy Constantine’s. At a ridiculously low price, true, but it was a solution. There’d only been one hitch to his proposition.

She glanced at Joe, requiring more facts before she proceeded. “Our contract hasn’t changed, has it? It’s still between the Milanos and Constantine’s, right?”

“Correct,” he agreed.

“If…if Constantine’s was sold, the deal would continue with the new owner, not with the Thorsens?”

Joe looked bewildered. “Yes. We have contract with you. You have contract with Thorsen. This mean we stay with you, er, the new owner. Why you ask?”

So Maxwell’s one condition—that Constantine’s would retain the Milano account—could be met. It also meant that the Thorsens would be left out of the deal because Jack wanted to supply the Milanos directly. Thor, forgive me, she thought unhappily before speaking. “It’s simple, Joe. If there’s no other way—” and she’d begun to believe there wasn’t “—I’ll sell Constantine’s.”

Silence reigned.

Then Joe leapt to his feet, launching into speech. “No! This is no good. It is family business. How you sell family business? No, no. I not ask such a thing. Poppa, he not ask such a thing. My brothers—” he snorted “—they probably ask, but I smack them upside the head for being stupid.”

Andrea couldn’t help it. She laughed. For a minute Joe stared at her, uncertain whether or not to take insult at her amusement. A frown creased his brow. Then his lips twitched and he grinned.

“You think that is funny, huh? I defend your honor to my brothers and you laugh at me?” He crossed to her desk and edged his hip onto one corner. The huge pile of bills wobbled precariously before toppling to the side. Invoices spewed in a white-and-pink flood across the desk and onto the floor.

“The way things are right now, it’s either that or cry. And I’m fresh out of tears.” She reached for his hand. “It isn’t because of Milano’s alone that I might sell. There are other factors. Factors I can’t control.” Like her supply problems and that loan from the bank.

“You maybe discuss these factors?”

“No, I maybe don’t discuss these factors.”

He leaned closer. “What you say to a little bribe? Some of my cannoli, perhaps?”

“That’s not fair!” She gave him a wounded look. “You know how much I love cannoli.”

“Of course you love my pastry. This is because Italians make good chefs. I,” he pronounced without modesty, choosing to interpret her words in his own inimitable fashion, “make great chef.” His admiring gaze drifted to her hair and he reached out to snag a soft curl. “This is very good. You love pastry. Me, I love blondes.”

“And brunettes and redheads,” Andrea added dryly, long used to his flattery.

“Well, yes,” he admitted with a broad grin, not a bit abashed. “But blondes!” He covered his heart with his hand and sighed.”These are my favorites.”

“Every last one of them,” she agreed.

“Ah, cara,” he reproached. “Finding the good woman is much hard work. You marry me and I don’t look no more! What you say, huh? We marry and fix all this trouble with your business somehow. No problem. I make you very happy.”

To her amazement, she was tempted to accept. Which gave her a clue to how desperate she was. She adored Joe, but not in that way. Gently she set about dissuading him. “I don’t think so,” she said, then lied without compunction, “You see, I don’t like children.”

For a minute he simply sat and stared at her. “What you mean you don’t like children?”

She shrugged. “Just that. I don’t like them.”

“Not one?” he demanded, horrified. “Not even little ones? How can this be? You pull on my leg, yes?”

“No, I haven’t touched your leg.” She smiled in mock innocence. “You see why it won’t work.”

He closed his eyes, a martyred expression on his face. “Okay, fine, cara. I make very big sacrifice. For other woman, no way. But for you, I wait three whole months. You learn to like just the little boys and I marry you. What you say?”

What could she say? Andrea ground her teeth, laboring to find the words to vent her outrage. Then she saw his mustache quiver slightly, a rakish gleam dance in his dark eyes, and knew she’d been had. They both burst out laughing.

He yanked her from the chair and into his arms. “Your face!” he exclaimed. “It is very funny, your face.”

“You’re lucky you have a face left,” she retorted. ” ‘You learn to like just the little boys.’ Get real.”

“You should not tell a lie. You do it very bad,” Joe reprimanded.

She wrinkled her nose. “Why don’t you teach me how to do it good?”

“I teach you anything you like.” He lifted a brow. “What you say, huh? We start first lesson right now. I teach you how to—”

“I realize it’s a cliché, but it does seem fitting,” a deep authoritative voice cut in. “Am I interrupting something?”

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