I pull my heel to my bottom and close my eyes to relish the deep burn in my quadricep. I count to thirty, release, and pull up my other heel. A pounding fist against the door interrupts. Who the hell?
Pressing my eye to the peephole, I blink a willowy blonde into focus. Only it’s not my door she’s pounding on. She’s just another admirer for the too-handsome womanizing jerk across the hall. I clench my jaw. Surprise, surprise. Blondie’s just his type, gorgeous and runway ready. I snort and drag my eyes away, turning to watch Fran sit with her long-time lover and my employer, Ollie Mercury. Ollie was once a famous comedian—a huge personality, with a body to match. He lived life to the fullest, enjoying everything in excess, even when I first started working for him ten years ago. But now he’s just a frail man with a gummy smile, concave cheeks, and dull eyes that only light for Franny.
“Fran, you wouldn’t believe how much he perks up when you’re around,” I say, and she sends me a quick sad smile before turning to elbow Ollie gently.
“This is perky, Ol? Shit, you look more like an old flaccid penis if you ask me.” She laughs, gently grabbing a handful of loose skin from around his neck. “And this here’s the foreskin.” She kisses his bald head and Ollie wheezes. He hasn’t talked in four years, but if he could, I know he’d probably get in a zinger of a rebuttal.
“He’s my world,” she says in a whisper, and I know without a doubt, it’s true. A select few get that love of a lifetime—the one person they’re meant to be with against all odds. I’m not one of those people, though. Love is not for me.
“I’ll be an hour. You’ll be okay? I won’t have my cell.” It’s the same thing I say every time I leave her.
“Yes, yes, we’ll be fine, Dani. Go do your joggy-thing.” She waves me off with a blue-veined hand. One of Ollie’s many extravagant gifts glints on her finger. I watch as she smooths her white shoulder-length hair. She always looks pretty for Ollie. I finish my stretches and decide to bring her back a box of pastries she loves from the Danish bakery on Fifth Avenue. She deserves a treat—even if she’s forever on a diet and always overly concerned about her ‘round’ figure. She’s beautiful just the way she is. I know Ollie has always seen it too, just as she sees him as perfect even though his body has failed him now and he’s nothing of what he used to be. I’m just tightening my laces when a commotion in the hall makes my hands still.
“What the hell do you mean, it’s my problem?” The too-handsome womanizing jerk’s deep male voice resounds from the hall—Adam Shiny-shoes Fiori. I roll my eyes, but my stomach flips at the thought of him. Mr. Shiny-shoes, just one of the things I like to call him, has lived in the condo across the hall for several years. He’s stinking rich like Ollie, but without the personality to go with the dough. But looks? Gosh, he has enough of them for ten men and an ego for double that, too. I don’t like him on the best of days, but I’m always curious. Curious? Is that what we’re calling it now? Okay, so my curiosity is really code for sexual attraction. One look at the man makes me as needy as a cat in heat, but even admitting it to myself is painful. I grimace at my thought. I’m a woman of good, strong ideals. I have a head on my shoulders. I believe a man with only looks and money to offer should not get the attention that Adam Fiori gets—especially not from me! Ugh, if only I had control over my body’s reaction to him.
I glance back at Fran, who has leaned her head on Ollie’s shoulder. His face, although not as animated as it once was, shows me he’s proud that in spite of his invalid status he still takes care of her—at least emotionally. His hand jerks unsteadily to land awkwardly on her hair. Her eyes glisten, and I turn away from their private moment.
Out the peephole I see Fiori arguing with Blondie. A hot jolt of jealousy fills me. They look damn good next to each other. I press my lips. She’s supermodel thin—unlike me, supermodel tall, unlike me, supermodel rich, unlike me. I can tell by her clothes she has money, and the way she moves is so graceful I can’t help but want to watch her—she’s like a ballerina performing life.
They seem a perfect match; she oozes grace and femininity to match his confidence and masculinity, so why is she shoving him? And why do his eyes flash anger back? I curl my lip and tug at my short dark hair, cut in a stylish, but no-nonsense bob, envious of the woman’s long wavy locks. She jabs a well-manicured finger at something to her side and my eyes follow. There are two kids beside her. I tilt my head, intrigued. Mr. Fiori has no children. I’ve seen the man almost every day since he moved into the building three years ago and I’ve never once seen him with kids—with women, yes, and plenty of them, but never children. Who are these kids? Hers? I can’t see a man like Fiori dating anyone with baggage. I press my lips. I spend too much time thinking about him. I should just walk out the door past them and get on with my run—my life, but I can’t. I want to know more.
The kids don’t look like they belong to either the blonde or Fiori. They are kind of scruffy, worn, and tangled. The girl looks about eight. She stands with a sour expression on her otherwise cherub face, with her too-thin arms crossed. The little boy is probably three—big enough to pass for four but still clutches a blankie and looks like he’s wearing a saggy pull-up. He’s tucked beside his sister like he wishes he was invisible. There’s a smudge of dirt stuck in the wet stuff that oozes from his nose. His sister notices and pulls a wrinkled tissue from her pocket and wipes it.
I pull back. Since when does an eight-year-old carry tissues in her pocket and when does a three-year-old accept his sister wiping his nose? I put my eye back against the hole. I don’t want to interrupt whatever’s going on, on either side of the door, so I stay put, unable to look away. This seems to be my story—life unfolding around me while I observe. My throat feels tight at the thought. I’ve always thought my life would start as soon as I… had enough money for school, got my degree, raised my sister, and on and on. But it hadn’t.
“Everything all right, Dani?” Fran asks, concern crackling in her age-shaky voice.
“Yeah, just a bit of a lover’s quarrel in the hall,” I say, pulling my face away from the door to wink at her. “I’m a busybody, ya know.”
She giggles, showing the younger woman she once was for a quick moment. Her face is round, and her eyes are big and sparkle with mischief even at her age. Sometimes when we’re out with Ollie together, people think I’m her daughter. I have that same oval face, light complexion, and eyes that dominate with their size. Fran’s eyes are a bright blue, though; mine are a boring pale green, so light they look like water poured into a glass with leftover lime Kool-Aid in the bottom.
“The cleaning couple again?” she asks, excitedly clapping her hands. The couple that does the maintenance and cleaning have a rep for their ‘on again, off again’ relationship. There would be no reason for anyone else to be on the seventieth floor; only Fiori and Ollie share it with their penthouse suites.
“Nah, Fiori,” I say, hoping my dislike isn’t too obvious.
“Adam?” Fran questions, her penciled brows rising. She smooths her perfectly styled hair again. It’s a common reaction for a woman at the mention of Fiori, and I swallow hard. Fran is just another woman snagged in his net. His looks weaken knees everywhere he goes; I’m sure of that, and I hate that I’m just another one in the long line. With his penetrating brown eyes, thick hair—a mixture of browns, coppers, and golds—and his sculpted six-foot-plus frame, he makes even the seventy-two-year-old Fran look overcome.
“Yep, Mr. Shiny-shoes himself,” I mumble, peeking again. “But who’re the kids?” I finish in a whisper.
“Such a nice young man,” Fran says. It is my turn to raise my brows at her.
“Nice?” I question.
“Oh, you!” She snickers. “He reminds me of Ollie in his younger days.” She pats Ollie’s liver-spotted face. “Before he fell for me, that is.”
I scrunch my nose. Ollie’s funny, charming, and sweet. Mr. Shiny-shoes only acknowledges you if you’re in his way, and that’s always clipped words and impatient sighs. No way is Adam Fiori anything like sweet Ollie Mercury.
I’m suddenly annoyed that I’m wasting my precious hour off for him. I work my ass off taking care of Ollie all day and working the evening shift at one of the busiest hospitals in Toronto. The hour a day that I sneak Fran in is the only break I get, besides the two evenings per week I’m off. Those evenings are spent with Jenny, though. She’s all I have. I feel a pang in my chest. What woman my age has nothing but two jobs and her sister for a life? Then again I don’t want what most women want. Relationships are like bombs, and I want nothing to do with the explosive end, so there’s no sense in building one.
I think back. Two orphans—soft-hearted, sweet little blond Jenny, no more than two, with her thumb suctioned between her cherry blossom lips and me, a scrappy ten-year-old—fighting to make sure no one separated us in foster care.
“You’d better go, Dani,” Fran says, popping my mind back to the present. “Miss Mercury will shit a brick if she finds out I’m here instead of you.”
I laugh at Fran’s description; it’s unsuitable for a woman wearing a pantsuit and pearls, but it’s purely Fran. The pinched-faced, hyper-controlling Tahlia Mercury would certainly shit a brick. She hates Fran. Fran was Ollie’s mistress before his wife had died. Fran is his true love. Tahlia’s mother refused to give Ollie a divorce. Ollie told me countless times, in better days, that they married too young.
“I should have looked in her cold dead eyes before I said I do,” he used to say. “Never marry someone without a sparkle of life in their eyes. They’ll only steal yours.” I always remembered that. Ollie’s a clever man.
His wife threatened not only to take all of Ollie’s money if he left her, but to take his daughter away, too. He believed her. Ollie had a bit of a drinking problem for a while, and although he quit the moment his daughter was born, the whole world knew of his indulgent lifestyle. He did, after all, wear one of his indulgences. He was well over three hundred and fifty pounds then. No one would doubt for a second that he’d gone back to his old ways if his wife said it was true. Of course, he’d never stopped seeing Fran. When his wife died, they thought they could finally be together but then his daughter, fresh out of law school and as sharp as they come, had prevented it, claiming that his weight, the small stroke that impaired his speech, and his general deteriorating health were proof he couldn’t make decisions on his own anymore. The judge sided with her. I think that was partly because Ollie didn’t fight hard enough. She was just like her mother and Ollie couldn’t fight her either.
I sneak Fran in whenever I can. It’s a small omission that won’t hurt anyone—except Jenny and me if I get caught. My sister and I live at the Mercurys’. If I get fired, I’m not only out of a great paying job, but we’re out of a home, too. I can’t afford to lose either, job or address, not with the bills that university racks up.
“Go, go,” Fran says, shooing me out the door.
I enter the hall just as the blondie’s hair swings around the corner into the elevator. Shiny-shoes looks up at me, his face pale. His look makes my stomach dip and my eyes drop. I scold myself. I picture him and Tahlia—two control freaks having sex. It’s something I do to steady my nerves around intimidating people. It’s hard to be intimidated after picturing people copulating. I almost laugh out loud at the sounds imaginary Tahlia is making in my head—the tiny controlled grunts in between shouted directions. Faster, harder, oh, oh, grab my ass, yes, yes! Imaginary Shiny-shoes is no less amusing—he’s trying to read the Wall Street Journal and fuck at the same time.
“Afternoon,” I blurt boldly while trying to hide my smirk. He mumbles something incoherent as I pass.
“Shit!” he swears at the retching sound at my back.
“Charlie’s three!” the young girl says with an exaggerated huff. “He’s impressionable.” To my further delight, she adds, “If you can’t speak nicely, you should button it.”
Her words make me stop in my tracks and look back. I feel an instant kinship. Her arms are crossed and she’s scowling but I can’t help but snicker. The girl looks at me and I pause. The scowl leaves her mouth and she looks curious at first before giving me a reserved but proud grin. She shares the same mishmash hair color as Fiori. I smile especially wide when I notice that Charlie has puked all over God’s gift’s high-priced shoes. They might even be the very ones he growled at me for scuffing in a crowded elevator three months ago. I’ve tried very hard to accidentally step on them ever since, too.
I turn quickly at Mr. G.Q.’s hard glare. His eyes practically burn with fury. It’s a relief to have it at my back as I head for the elevator. I swallow hard and use my trick again, picturing him telling Tahlia the latest stock reviews while his hips pound against her skinny white ass. I muffle a giggle when I picture a high-end coffee cup in his hand——some frou-frou latte with nonfat foam and artificial sweetener.
“Hey!” I hear him shout. “Hey, you!” I speed up. “Daniela, isn’t it?”
Aw, shit. I wonder if I can feign deafness. I stab the call button for the elevator impatiently. Come on!
“Daniela Torkaz, right?” He’s right behind me. His expensive cologne tells me so. He touches my shoulder, and my stomach drops like a boulder.
“Mr. Fiori,” I acknowledge crisply, turning to see his pearly smile. I want to mush his smooth, perfect cheeks and shock the fake charm right off his face. He wants something from me, which is the only reason he’s talking to me. I look him in the eye and ignore the betraying flutter of my lady bits. Sure, Mr. Shiny-shoes, ask away.
“Dani,” I add, and he looks puzzled. “My name is Dani.” I tilt my head to look him up and down. Gosh, I have a weakness for tall men. “Only my mother called me Daniela,” I finish, although I don’t know why I bother. He’s looking back at the two miserable kids in front of his door. Charlie looks disheartened and scared, and the girl looks a mixture of worried and pissed off—and not just at Shiny-shoes either; she looks pissed at the world—a look I know all too well.
“You’re a nurse, right?” Fiori asks, looking back at me and shoveling his large hand through that thick, gorgeous hair. Mr. God’s Gift’s eyes flicker amusement when he notices me noticing.
“Yep, RN, that’s me.” I clench my jaw and punch the call button again.
“Do you think you can look at the kid?” His eyes are tight, but I know it’s only concern for his situation, not Charlie. I consider telling him to shove it, but Charlie’s big blue eyes are so sweet and scared, and his sister is clutching his shoulder protectively like it’s them against the world. Damn!
“Yeah, sure,” I say and shoot him a dirty look as he sighs in relief. I wonder how he knew my name. Sure, we see each other often enough, but besides him snapping at me in elevators, we’ve never had more than tight etiquette-induced mailbox chatter. I walk toward the kids, thinking how he always seemed a bit hostile when I started those polite conversations. Is that why I hate him? Because he even rejected me as a neighbor? Don’t be ridiculous—a dick is a dick. I crouch down in front of Charlie. His sister steps in front of him like a mother bear. I’m about to ask her permission when the dumbass beside me speaks up.
“Move over, sweetie, and let the nurse look at your brother.” His tone is patronizing and only irritates the girl more. I roll my eyes. He looks shocked and then annoyed at my audacity and finally gives up and nods for me to try when I refuse to look repentant. Screw you, pal, you need me, not the other way around. Besides, you had your chance with friendly Dani, years ago, now you all you get is insolent Dani.
“What’s your name?” I ask the girl in a neutral tone like I would any adult next of kin in my ER. Fiori opens his mouth, about to answer for her, and I elbow him in the knee. He makes a small grunt but says nothing. The girl eyes me suspiciously at first, but answers. I want to brush the sweet feathery wisps of hair that have fallen over her beautiful brown eyes like a mother should. I know that’s what she deserves, but I hold my hand still because it is not what she needs right then. This little girl needs to feel in control.
“Nadia.” She sends Fiori a dark look. “Nadia Fiori.” My brows shoot up. So Mr. Money-bags does have kids—ones he is too selfish to care for. I disapprove greatly, and he sinks lower on my list, to three degrees less-than-human now.
“Nadia, my name is Dani. I’m a nurse. I won’t look at your brother without your permission, but I think it’s a good idea to get him checked out.” Her eyes narrow slightly. Pursing her lips, she assesses me with eyes way too old for a child. My heart aches. Poor girl. Fiori shakes his head. He looks at his cell, and I hear a mumbled hiss.
“Why are you asking her? She’s just a child.” He sounds exasperated and impatient. Both Nadia and I shoot daggers at him, and he shuts up, shoving his hands in his perfectly pressed pants pockets.
We go into Fiori’s apartment, and both Nadia and I find common ground again. We stare at the expensive, gorgeously decorated space like it’s both a waste of money and a dream. My sister’s entire tuition, right through to med school, could be paid by the sale of the contents. Nadia licks her dry lips, and I think she may be thinking of all the underprivileged kids in the world—or maybe just the two in this apartment.
Fiori tosses his keys carelessly with a jingle into an antique hand-painted decorative bowl probably worth more than I make in a month—maybe two. I grimace and lean down to Nadia’s ear.
“He’s either got a well-paid decorator or is gay because no hetero man should have taste like this.” She laughs at my comment. Fiori doesn’t; he looks like he might like to strangle me. I smile toothily at him, though, because again, he needs me so he has to put up with my snarky remarks. I like having the upper hand for once. Suck it, Shiny-shoes.
I ask Charlie a bunch of questions—most of which Nadia answers for him, and I feel his tummy gently, keeping Nadia well informed as to everything I’m doing so she feels like she has some control. Mr. Fiori paces like a caged lion now that he has bagged his shoes and donned new ones. I note that they look the same as the others. Who needs two pairs of the same shoes? I shake my head.
“He does have the sniffles, but no fever. I think that the vomiting was just nerves,” I say to Nadia and she nods solemnly.
“Makes sense,” she answers. “He’s been through a lot today.”
I press my lips at her mature observation. I glare at Fiori. Yes, I bet he has.
“Mind if I go talk to More-Money-Than-Sense, over there for a minute?” I ask, jabbing my thumb over my shoulder at Fiori. Nadia nods and pulls her brother into her arms. He tucks into her like he would a mother, and I feel weighed down by the sadness of it. I wonder who holds Nadia supportively when she needs it, but I know the answer. No one. A dull ache makes itself known behind my eyes.
“Thanks,” she mumbles and rests her chin on his soft mop of blond curls. I can almost see her future and damn it if it isn’t startlingly familiar.