Elta Cool Touch
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In a faded red robe, the sash tied snuggly over his ample mid-section he guided Nikki to a chair, and sat her down at the kitchen table. She looked exactly as shed looked rolling out of bed barefoot, in her favorite jeans with the knees worn thin, and an ancient white tee shirt. Slumped back in the chair, she stared into an empty coffee cup, waiting while Matthew filled it. As Nikki sweetened the coffee, her eyes searched the table. Cream? she asked. Matthew lifted a section of newspaper and a pitcher of cream appeared. You slept through breakfast, he said, pouring cream into her cup. I was up all night developing film. Got some great shots though, she said, still a little drowsy. Id love some toast if you have it. Im starving. One day it might be nice to be invited down to your house. She managed a smile. What? Youd like to cook in my kitchen for a change? Ah! Matthew laughed. Your mind is stirring. My job is done. He put a plate of toast in front of her. You need someone to take care of you. I have someone, Matthew. And youre the best mom a woman could have. Thank you, but you know thats not what I meant. Here we go again, she said with a mouth full of toast. Im having a little trouble this morning. Please be kind. What time did you get in last night? Didnt check the time, she admitted. If you think its safe out there, its not. Read the papers. Do you have the paper? Its on the table in front of you. She pulled the paper over, skimming the headlines. I think something happened last night. I saw a helicopter with searchlights looking for somebody. Did you read anything about it? What time was that? Three oclock. In the morning? he asked, shocked. Thats my whole point! You live alone. You keep ungodly hours
Could we have this conversation on another day? I cant eat with a nervous stomach. Pushing the paper away, she pulled a tattered theatre program out of a pile in front of her and changed the subject. You never told me you played King Lear. Well, there were so many roles over the years. What was your favorite? Tartuffe, he said, after a moment of thought. It was 1989. I played it like Bob Hope. Hysterical. I saved the show. Before I walked on, the audience was leaving in droves. To look at the two of them it seemed an unlikely friendship. But somehow it worked, and it was an unusual day when they did not spend time together. Will I ever get to see you act? Ive been out of it too long, Nikki. Id have to start over, Im old for that. Youre not so old. Im fifty-eight, and thats pretty old to hustle a job in Hollywood. Fifty-eight? That is old. How lovely, he said, raising his eyebrow at her. Well talk about this again in twenty years. You wont think its so old then, believe me. Sure I will. Im thirty-two and I already feel like thats old, she told him, touching the napkin to her lips. Thank you for breakfast. You are most welcome, he said, smiling. Where are you off to today? Im going to stop by the studio and see whats going on. She stood up, looking down at her clothes. Do these clothes look okay? Ive worn the jeans a lot lately. Let me take a look. Can the jeans stand on their own two feet? What? When you take them off, can the jeans stand alone? Thats the rule for me. Until then, I just keep wearing them. Nikki looked into his face for a moment, raising her eyebrow back at him. Your fashion savvy staggers the mind. And theres more where that came from. Matthew began to clear the table. Its going to be windy today. You might want to take a jacket.
It was the middle of October and the sun felt warm on Nikkis back, a dry breeze keeping her cool. With a huge shoulder bag slung over one arm and a camera strapped around her neck, she was working her way through the crowd aware of someones cigarette smoke settling on her. Turning onto a side street, Nikki left the crowd behind, and headed straight for a photography studio in the middle of the block. She tried the door, but it was locked. Crossing over to the other side of the street, Nikki stepped into a graphics house. Hey, there, she said, walking past the young man at the front desk. Morning, Nikki, he said, glancing up with a confident smile. Im still counting the minutes. Nikki stopped, and turned back to him. How old are you, Derek? Age is in the mind, beautiful. Leaning forward, she rested her arms on the counter. I bet youre not old enough to drink legally. Come on, Texas, dont break my heart. She angled her head, gazing down on him. What did you call me? Texas? he said uncertainly. Dont call me that again. Jeff calls you that and you laugh, he protested. Well, were obviously going to have to have a talk about that now. Dont get me in trouble, Nikki Youre not in trouble. Relax. Shouldering her bag, she started toward the back of the shop. He couldnt resist. So when are we going out? Nikki laughed. Youre very cute. Cute is good, he said. Its a place to start. Start by finding someone your own age, Derek! Stopping in front of a closed door, she knocked once and walked inside the room.
Hi, stranger, she said. The woman at the copy machine turned around with a smile. I was hoping Id see you one of these days. A brunette in her mid-thirties, Lisa stood five feet ten inches tall, with a pretty face and a robust body. So, whats up? The studios closed, Nikki told her. Have any idea where Jeff is? Yeah, he flew to San Francisco last night. Why? He just decided to go? Hes got a fashion shoot, honey. No! There was outrage in Nikkis voice. He was supposed to call me. He did. Several times, Lisa explained, patiently. You can be hard to reach. Damn. Whens he coming back? Hell be home tonight. I cannot believe this. Nikki sighed. Were they paying for an assistant? He didnt say. But you know what? You need to get a cell phone. Then people can reach me every second of the day. Ill have no privacy. Thats true. But if youre ever in trouble, you can call somebody and get help. Its not safe out there. I dont know, Lisa. Ill think about it. Better think fast, she said. A man and woman were shot to death last night, sitting in their car at a stoplight a block away from you. What time was that? Theyre saying 2:30. My god, I was there, Nikki said, startled. With a helicopter circling over me and cops all over the place! What in the world were you doing? Lisa asked. Putting up the FLESH RED posters. What do you think I was doing? They looked at each other. Thats kind of scary, Lisa said slowly. Yeah Maybe next time, you should call me before you go out. Maybe I will.
It was dusk as they ventured out for their walk. The palm trees had gotten a good cleaning by the winds. Massive fronds littered the ground, making driving difficult. They walked past Nikkis car, finding it covered with leaves and debris, but not damaged. The twilight seemed especially crisp then, and though the winds wreckage was all around them, the air itself felt cleaner. As they walked down the sidewalk together, Matthew brought them back to their earlier conversation. Jake St. James, he said. Thats some name. Jake Tucker, she corrected. St. James is my maiden name. I kept it. A modern woman can keep her own name now, you know. The cowboy didnt have a problem with that? he asked. The cowboy was an interesting man a very complicated individual. Maybe that was the attraction. He was a law-abiding gentleman, with a lawless spirit that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. For a long time I wasnt sure that Id ever get over him. Im sure his looks didnt hurt. What can I say? Im a visual person. With her hand on the camera hanging around her neck, she turned to look at him. Thats why Ive always got my camera with me. Moments are ephemeral. You catch them, or theyre gone.
A gust of wind swept through the street, lifting the hair away from Nikkis face. Do you feel that? The wind? he asked. Its just a breeze really. Nikkis head was tilted back, her senses attuned to the air around her. No. Its something else. She looked at him. You know how they describe the center of the storm that period of calm? You mean the eye? I think thats what Im feeling. This is the calm before it hits again. The storm isnt over. She turned around, and there it was again. Matthew, are you sure you dont feel anything? Im sure. Well She shook her head Maybe the storms in me. I guess time will tell. Lets go home, he said. Hold on a minute. Nikki moved him toward the streetlight, angling his body so the light hit his face. Humor me, she said, and smiled. Do you mind? Intensely focused, she pulled the camera to her eye, and took several shots. Thanks, Matthew. I dont have any pictures of you. Nikki turned away from him, but her words continued. I had so few photographs of Jake, I couldnt believe it. What was I thinking? She threw her hands up. I wasnt thinking. That was the problem. Everything lasts forever, right? Nikki watched banks of clouds pass swiftly over the moon. In the first year afterwards, I was relentless, punishing myself for having so little of him to hold onto. Pursuing thoughts with her heart pounding, the words tumbled over each other. You just never know do you? You worry. You plan. Strategize. Give in, and fall in love. Then your future dies on a highway in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, going a hundred miles an hour in the dead of night, listening to Paula Cole singing Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? on a CD you gave him for his birthday. Nikki stopped, no breath left in her body.
There was something about that look that left her weak in the knees. Without intending to, Nikki found herself smiling. She was feeling positively reckless today. With great clarity of thought, she brought the camera to her eye and began taking pictures. It was so unexpected he didnt react immediately. When she saw his face changing through the lens, a frown settling between his brows, she knew her time was up. Damn. Taking one last shot, she turned and ran. * * *
Reaching out for a line that stretched the length of her bathroom, Nikki clipped the photographs up to dry. She had worked straight through dinner, barely noticing the hunger, as she stepped back to look at a face so photogenic it was almost obscene. She had never photographed anyone like him. Even his clothes were beautiful. He wore a classic gentlemans suit made of fine grey wool, with a black silk shirt and no tie. His shoes were probably handmade. Who was this guy? She slid down the wall to the floor, and leaned back. Whatever could he be thinking behind those dark watchful eyes? Nikki didnt know whether to laugh or cry. Here she was, looking at the best work she had done in her life, and there was one thought continuously running through her head how would she find him again? It was going to be a problem. Nikki sat for a minute in silence. Then, pulling the phone to her, she pressed the first button on speed dial. Stretched out on the cool tile floor, she waited through the answering machines instructions until she heard it beep. I hear youre in San Francisco having fun without me just little you and all of those poor, pathetically unattractive models. Nikki smiled, imagining him listening to the message later. You lead a tough life, Jeff. But if you get in tonight at a decent hour, could you give me a call? I have some questions regarding privacy laws that Im hoping you can answer. Changing positions, Nikkis tee shirt rose up and her bare skin suddenly touched the cold tiles. Im awake now! She laughed into the phone. Give me a call. * * *
When the soft tap-tap on the door went unanswered, it was quickly followed by a knock. Nikki just rolled over in bed. But hearing a second knock, she pushed herself into a sitting position. It was morning. The last thing she remembered was dozing off on the bathroom floor, waiting for the phone to ring. Registering the third knock, Nikki got out of bed and walked over to answer the door. A very attractive blonde man stood in her doorway. My, my, he said with a grin, Arent we a beauty first thing in the morning. Nikki covered her face with her hands and groaned. Oh my god, Jeff, how did you get in the front door? Matthew buzzed me in. I told him I wanted to surprise you. He looked down at her and his heart lifted. What are smiling at? she asked. You. I like your jammies. Do they have anything like that in my size? Youre making fun of me. Never, he assured her. Nikki was wearing her red, cowboys-on-horseback, pajama bottoms with a wellworn, white tee shirt. They were her favorite nightwear, and had been washed and worn so often they were falling apart. Go away, she said. I just got here. Arent you going to invite me in? I dont think so. What time is it anyway? Its ten thirty. Already? she asked, looking at him, surprised. Jeff came in, closing the door behind him. He was handsome in a clean-cut, wholesome way. But when Jeff smiled there was a hint of mischief that gave him character, and earned him another look or two from the bad girls. Always fun to be with, he would say just about anything to get a rise out of Nikki. He just loved to see her feisty. Today he was dressed in his usual low-maintenance style. In deference to the cooler nights, he had changed from sandals to boots, but the jeans were worn year-round,
They watched him walk back into the kitchen. I like the way he walks, Lisa said, her head tilting to the left, for a better view. He has a certain confidence, doesnt he? Nikki asked. Yes, he does. Are you interested in him? Lisa pulled her attention back. Im interested. I think hes interested in you. Really.? Oh, yeah, I think he was snoozing before you showed up. Lisa leaned forward with her elbows on the table. Would it embarrass you if I slipped him my phone number? I think you should do it, Nikki told her, taking a sip of wine. Heres my question for you on a totally different subject. Jeff said hes got a friend at an art gallery. Have any idea who it is? Sarah? I dont know. He just said he had a friend who manages a gallery. That would be Sarah. What do you know about her? Her name is Sarah Thompson, and shes an attractive woman slightly older than my brother, who would like to gobble him up for breakfast. She smiled at her own joke. How did this conversation come up? Jeff wants me to meet her. He thinks she might be interested in my work. Lisa sat back in her chair, looking at Nikki more carefully. He must have a lot of confidence in you. Its extremely difficult to get an introduction to that woman. So its a good thing? Are you kidding? Sarah knows everybody you need to know. Shes smart, with great instincts and Jeffs never sent anyone to her before. Shell want to meet you. Taking a sip of wine, Lisa glanced around the room. But theres more to this conversation. And we should find a quieter spot. Lets go to my place, Nikki said.
The man waited in the dark, restless with impatience. He had to get off the street soon. It was too quiet. Somebody was sure to notice him. He pulled a fresh smoke from his pack, and used the butt of the old cigarette to light it. The man didnt want to draw attention by lighting a match. He had seen the women walk into the apartment building together. A few minutes later, lights flashed on in the window he was watching. It had to be one of the women, but which one? The only thing to do now was watch and wait. See who came out, and who stayed behind. Then he would know.
Sarahs first success story was her second husband a photographer, as a matter of fact. He had talent, but couldnt seem to turn photography into a career. And that failure was making him a petty, self-destructive guy. Lisa was finishing her story about Sarah Thompson. So in an effort to save the marriage, she staged her first major event, and it was a huge success. The two friends were comfortably slouched back into the cushions of Nikkis big armchairs, their bare legs and feet stretched out on the bed in front of them. Suddenly the husband didnt need her anymore. She had made the man a star, and everybody wanted him. Lisa took a breath, and blew it out. Can you imagine? Shed opened up the world for him and he moved on, without her. Nice fellow, Nikki mumbled, with her chin resting in the palm of her hand. There were a few difficult years. Its hard to recover from betrayal. But eventually the sadness was replaced by anger. And anger was a healthier state, because it gave her purpose. Apparently, revenge can be very satisfying. In the end, it changed the course of her life. Lisa pulled her legs up under her, leaning forward.
She decided that the best way to even the playing field was to find a few more photographers people with more talent, better looks, and edgier work. Hell hath no fury Lisa sank back, a smile on her face. Ever heard of David Cruz? It sounds vaguely familiar. There you go. She won. He had his fifteen minutes of fame, but no more. In the first year, Sarah had found three other photographers worthy of attention. Each of their careers took off with her help. It became obvious that her success with David was no fluke. Sarah had the gift. She was the shining light. When you have the touch, everyone wants to be close to you. She obviously got her revenge, Nikki said, Why is she still doing this? Shes a very interesting woman who thinks of herself as a patron of the arts. She finds new talent, sets the stage for them then invites the right people and brings them out. Id really love to make fun of her, but she has an uncanny knack. Sarah has launched a lot of careers. She cant be making that much money, can she? The woman doesnt need money, but she does enjoy the attention. She is becoming very influential, Lisa said. Its a heady kind of power. And this is the woman Im going to meet? Nikki asked. Are you worried? Im not sure its such a good idea. Shes going to intimidate the hell out of me. Why? Youre smart, and socially well-behaved. Youve got the talent. Show her something that she likes, and let her open up the world for you. I dont necessarily need a whole world. You dont know that yet, just stay with me. Sarahs last show was a rather shocking group of nudes beautiful young women doing very provocative, scandalous things. The showing was by invitation only, and people were dying to get on that list. Apparently, everyone who had seen the photographs was talking about them. Anyone who had not been invited was desperate to be included in the group, and thats power, honey. Its a lot of pressure.
Sarah thrives on pressure, Lisa said. Shes a smart woman. And while theres always a chance that she could fall on her face, so far her taste is holding strong. And it isnt just photographers. Its fashion designers, painters, musicians, and I dont know what else. She has the studio space in town, and theres a huge house in Pasadena. Ive never been to Pasadena. This could be your chance. Sarah hosts dinners that last long into the night, with some of the brightest people around. You never know who youll meet, Lisa said, as she shook her head in wonder. Jeff has been there a few times and says the house is huge. Its easy to lose your way. Maybe thats why she likes to have people around. * * *
Lisa had left an hour ago, leaving Nikki with a lot to think about. It was after eleven now, and she was a long way from sleep. She stood at the window watching the street, waiting for the red Jag to bring her man back. The plan had been to post the LIVID VIOLET shots tonight, but Nikki was afraid shed miss him if she left. What if she was missing him by staying? Maybe she just needed to get out and do something, even if it was the wrong something. Slipping into a jacket, she grabbed her camera and flew out the door, taking the steps two at a time. She felt more awake now as she got behind the wheel of her car. Pulling away from the curb, Nikki headed out to see how good her instincts were. * * *
She cruised down Melrose, from the Hollywood Freeway to Doheny. A drive she enjoyed, seeing the social layers of the city unfold before her in one stretch of roadway. In the first blocks, the signs were in Spanish, with older, very worn-down apartments and hotels housing families that were mainly Latino. There were no yards here for the children, only a sidewalk separating the buildings from the street. A few blocks down, the signs changed to Thai. And neighborhood restaurants joined the markets and small businesses in another family pocket they called Thai Town.
Nikki never minded the traffic once she passed La Brea. Because it was the part of Melrose that attracted the tourists and locals, especially groups of teenagers on the weekends. This was the place to find tattoo and piercing parlors alongside hip young clothing boutiques. You could buy a hookah at the smoke shop and then drop in next door for an espresso. There were Goth shops next to Vintage stores, interspersed with restaurants and sidewalk cafes. While parking was extremely difficult, there always seemed to be a row of Harleys parked outside Johnny Rockets. And tonight, further down the street, there had been a striking line of brightly colored Kawasaki racing bikes. But Nikki had not seen the red Jaguar. Further west, Melrose changed again, each new block becoming more expensive than the one before it. Her favorite places were the antique shops and designer boutiques, which were all too pricey for her budget, but lovely to browse through. Those shops were closed now and their streets quiet. It was after midnight, and she had driven Melrose to its end at Doheny. This was the high end of the social strata. It was Beverly Hills. The place where the haves had. Nikki had followed her instincts, and come up with nothing. She turned around and started back home, dead tired, and strangely distressed. It had all been wasted time. In a moment of panic, she wondered if he was gone out of her life before he was even in it. How would she ever find him again? She didnt know his name or anything about him. She had been watching for the Jag, assuming it was his. But it could have belonged to the other man. There were times when you just couldnt win for losing. Switching on the radio, she moved through three stations before finding the song that she wanted. It was Don Henleys Boys of Summer. She turned it up loud, hearing a plaintiveness that touched her heart tonight. That song got her home. Maybe luck hadnt deserted her altogether. The parking place she had left in front of her building was still there, waiting for her. * * *
But his focus had moved to the large bag on the ground at Nikkis feet. Picking it up by the straps, he glanced inside seeing a very professional-looking camera, with a telephoto lens, and too many rolls of film. Nikkis face was hot with embarrassment. If you werent hired, why were you doing it? he asked. I never said I took them. I said I wasnt hired to take them. The man gave her a long look. My mistake, he said, handing the bag back. If you didnt take them Then he started to walk away. Sorry I bothered you. She was losing him. I never said I didnt take them, Nikki announced loudly. He turned around, and strolled back to her. Okay, he said, putting his hands in his trouser pockets. Is there something you want to tell me? Nothing incriminating, she said, looking into those dark eyes. Then she smiled. He was not entirely immune. You know, he said. Its difficult to begin a friendship with someone when they arent being honest with you. Is that what were doing? she asked. Beginning a friendship? I think that remains to be seen. Neither moved, but each was very aware of the other. Whats your name? he asked finally, in a different tone entirely. She had a moment of panic, which he read immediately. I think it would be okay, he said, If you give me your first name. He was standing perfectly still, waiting. Nikki, she said, lifting the bag back to the safety of her own shoulder. Thats your real name? Uh huh, she answered. Thinking she might be in over her head here. Well, Nikki The man took a breath. There was a conversation to finish.
In the future, it would probably be best to ask someone before you take their picture. He looked away. Im sure you didnt mean any harm. And then his eyes came back to her. But Im going to need those photographs. HER photographs? Yeah, that was going to happen. Okay. Give me your address, she said, and Ill send them to you. Give me your address, and Ill stop by and pick them up. She laughed, delighted. Give me your phone number. Ill call with my address. He smiled, watching her face as she laughed. Maybe Ill see you around. Then he started walking away, as though it wasnt important to him anymore. Wait! she said. I dont know your name. When he turned to look at her, they suddenly made intense eye contact. It was so surprising that they each took a step back. No more pictures, the man told her. And he was gone before she could speak. Nikki stood there, too amazed to move. She felt a fire spark in the center of her chest. Shed spent all of last night looking for him, and he had found her this morning! How could he have found her? How would he have known where to look for her? She picked up a handful of fuchsia bougainvillea blossoms, and dropped them into her bag something tangible to hold onto. Nikki could feel the glow spreading through her entire being. It was still cold on the street, but warmth flowed through her. The coffee shop was twenty feet away, but she wasnt moving. The truth was that Nikki had lost interest in the white chocolate mocha. There were butterflies playing pingpong inside her stomach. She loved the world right now, and would probably hug everybody. Maybe shed just go home.
In the six hours since the phone call with Jeff, Nikki had gone through several stages the first one coming as close to a religious experience as she could imagine. Everything she wanted from the world was on her own lap. Who would have thought that total satisfaction would be so small? Then she imagined all the things she would accomplish in the next few days. The mountains she would move to prepare for her meeting with Sarah. She even started a list to help organize her thoughts. There were boxes of slides shed saved over the last few years. So many images she loved, all treasures, right at her fingertips. But as Nikki sorted through everything, she began to have the usual problems she had with her older work. It seemed dated now, and would have been embarrassing to show. Nothing to worry about though, right? Quality was what mattered at this point, not quantity. Even Jeff had said that her recent work was impressive. Nikki told herself that all she had to do today was start. It didnt matter what she did, the idea was simply to begin. And thats when the panic attack hit. Who was she kidding? The first day was almost over. Shed never make it! There was no air in the room, she could barely breathe Where was the air? Remembering her mothers words, she grabbed a small paper bag and stretched out on the hardwood floor, propping her feet up on the bed. Cupping the opening of the bag over her mouth and nose, Nikki forced her breathing to slow down, in an attempt to increase the carbon dioxide going into her blood. She imagined her mothers cool hands on her forehead, her voice soft, reminding her to breathe slow and steady. Slow and steady. Slowand steady. The telephone rang. Nikki rolled over on the floor and reached out for the receiver. Hello? His names Tony DAngelo. Richard said his table is reserved for 9:00 tonight. Nikki lay back on the floor. Suddenly, she had all the air in the world.
Nikki, are you there? Im here, Lisa. Have I told you lately how wonderful you are? Probably, but its always nice to remind me. Can we talk later? I let Derek leave for the day, and Ive got another line ringing. Sure. Well talk later. Thank you so much. Youre welcome, sweetie pie. Have fun. Nikki replaced the receiver and stared at the ceiling. Tony DAngelo. Her eyes closed. Tony The paper bag fell from her hand. * * *
Tony was sitting at his usual window table drinking red wine, waiting for his meal. She watched him from the darkness of the sidewalk, letting people pass between them as they moved along the avenue. She had seen Richard stop at the table a couple of times to refill Tonys wine glass, always hanging around to chat. It was obvious the two got along well. Nikki found herself enjoying the time, and wondering if her interest in the man was purely professional. There was just something about him. Deciding to make her move, she stepped up to the window and turned slightly, leaning against the wall with her profile to him. It was hard to look casual propped against a wall. She hoped this was going to work. Finally, she heard a tapping on the glass. Nikki turned to the window, pretending surprise. She was pretty sure he wasnt buying it, but he was smiling. He was also looking her over. There was no camera hanging around her neck, and none in her hands that he could see. But the face beckoned. Tony turned around to talk to someone in the restaurant. Nikkis gaze was on him, as he put his hand up, signaling her to wait. Nikki! Richard was loping down the sidewalk toward her, looking pleased. Hes the one, right? Hes the one, she said, trying to keep the recognition off her face, when Richard joined her outside the window.
Tony turned back to Nikki. So, which way are we headed? She pointed up the block to the left. Heading your way, I believe. They walked quietly to the end of the block. As they crossed the street, Nikki reached into her purse and removed a large manila envelope. She stopped under a streetlight. I have something for you, she said, holding the envelope out to him. This is for me? Tony asked, his defenses going up immediately. He wasnt sure what she was doing. Id really like you to open it now, while Im here. She watched the dark hair falling into his face, as Tony bent his head and concentrated on the clasp of the envelope. His eyes lifted in surprise when he pulled the photographs out into the light. These are the pictures you took. There were five 8x10 prints on thick, high-quality paper stock. Borderless with an elegant matte finish, each shot was perfect in its own way. Taken at the window of the Ristorante Nuti, and printed in black and white, they were reminiscent of another era. Evoking the glamour of Hollywood from the late twenties through the forties, each photograph had been labored over and exhaustively retouched until Nikki felt it was perfect. The result made all the work worthwhile. The prints were dark and stirring. His bold confidence was there, the heat in his eyes, even the strength and elegance of his bones it was all there. Nikki was intensely proud of each shot. But more than anything, she wanted Tony to like them. The photographs were a singular tribute to him, and the gesture so overwhelming that he was speechless. He studied each print; then went through the stack a second time. Buying himself time to think, Tony carefully returned the prints to the envelope. Youre very good, Nikki. Thank you. Youve got some serious talent, he said, looking at her in a totally different way. I had no idea you did this kind of work. Sometimes I surprise myself. They had entered a residential area. It was darker here, and secluded.
Youre doing pretty well in the business? he asked, clearly distracted now. Im doing better lately, she answered, seeing the familiar frown settling between his brows. Tony stopped. His car was parked at the curb. Are any of these in circulation? No, she answered. What about the negatives? Not going anywhere, she told him firmly. They stay with me. Got many photographs lying around the house? he asked, trying for a smile. It seemed to be a question of trust, so Nikki told him what he needed to hear. Youre holding all of the prints in your hand, right now. He was watching her carefully. Okay, Nikki. Im going to take your word. Tony took a breath, eyes checking his surroundings. I dont like having my picture taken. Its odd. A phobia, I guess. But Ive learned to live with it. He looked away. Hard to understand, I know. Actually, I do understand, she said. You have a phobia? he asked, with interest. In my family, we call it an eccentricity. And its used as a compliment. Then she smiled, saying, Mine are too numerous to name. There was a garden nearby, and roses perfumed the air. Could I buy these from you? he asked. Caught off-guard, Nikki was very still, considering the offer. Take them, she told him, quietly. Theyre my gift. You dont pay for a gift. Her sincerity threw him. Youve humbled me, he said. I dont let people photograph me. Im rude to you because you do, and then you give me these. He shook his head. Believe me, Ive never looked so good. Have you looked at yourself lately? she asked. Tony laughed. Not if I can help it. There was a wave of emotion running between them. Not an unpleasant experience at all. My car is here, he said. Where are you parked? Should we drive? She glanced up the street. Im not that far away. I can walk it.
The room was lit entirely by candles now, but the light was only for them. Nikki had a steaming cappuccino in front of her, and Tony was sipping an espresso. Their faces glowed with the privilege. The restaurant had already closed for the night. They had the place all to themselves. Im curious to know how one goes from being a bodyguard, and a day-trader, to the partner in a restaurant venture, she said. Two restaurants, actually, he said, with surprising modesty. Two restaurants, she repeated, correcting herself as she teased him, I didnt mean to short you on your accomplishments. But I still want to know how you did it.
Wasnt planned, he said. It just happened. Care to explain that? Maybe another time, he said, smiling. Nikki was still trying to grasp the concept. And youre one of the owners? I am. And tonight, he said, seeing her in the candlelight, Im thinking its been an excellent investment. He glanced around the elegant little restaurant. I dont make a habit of doing this sort of thing, he said. I just couldnt let you go so soon. And I found that I wasnt above using a little influence. Well, Im extremely flattered that you used the influence for me. Tonys head lifted in surprise. What? she asked. Do you know what I just realized? He looked slightly startled. I havent introduced myself. He laughed suddenly, reaching his hand across the table. Im Tony DAngelo. Nikki took his hand, pumping it a couple of times, very entertained. Nikki St. James. Im happy to meet you. This relationship seems to have started in the middle and then gone back to the beginning. Thats a new experience, he said. I hope you wont hold it against me. After a night like this, are you kidding? Youve impressed the hell out of me. He seemed to take a harder look at her. I hope my language wasnt offensive, she said. I think you must be kidding now, he said with a laugh, Not even close. Theres something about a classy woman throwing a little language into her conversation that knocks the socks off me. He put his hands out on the table, palms up. When she slipped her hands into them, Tony closed his fingers, holding onto her. Whats it like being a bodyguard? she asked. It wasnt something Id planned to do as a career, he explained. I took it on because someone I cared about needed protection. He asked me to do the job. And you protected him. He nodded, looking over at her. Youre hands are cold, he said.
I know. Theyre always cold. Tony kept hold of her while he talked. I would have done the job for free, because I owed him a lot. But he insisted I be paid. And I was paid, he said, Extremely well. At that time it made a huge difference in my life, and directly set me on the path to everything else that followed. Day trading? she asked. Oh, yeah, he said, During the bubble. Made money for myself and my friends, he explained. Couldnt miss at the time, you know. Millions made overnight, seemingly; then lost just as fast. The only thing that saved me from the same fate was growing up poor. I had never learned greed. He turned her hands over, looking down at them. Elegant fingers, he said, holding her palms where he could see them in the light. Looks like youre going to live a long time. You can see that? I can. Holding her right palm up, Tony ran a finger down her lifeline. See this line? It runs all the way down your palm. He turned her hand over. And there it is again. It goes on forever. He was relaxed, enjoying her company. If you believe that sort of thing He left it hanging. Do you? she asked. Sure, he told her, Why not? What does your lifeline tell you? Mines a little more complex, he said, seeming to find humor in it. I get to wait and see. Nikki had an overpowering urge to kiss him. Sorry, Richard said, startling them. I have an important message from Sam. Tony took the folded slip of paper from him. Holding it on his lap, he took a moment to read it privately. Thanks, Richard. Tell him Im on my way. He looked at Nikki. Im sorry. Entrepreneur stuff, huh?
Indeed, he said, with a sigh. Looks like Ill be out of town for a few days. I cant believe the timing. Its okay. I wouldnt leave if I had a choice. Im fine, really, she said. I had a great time tonight. And Ill be back on Sunday. He was looking into her eyes steadily. Were going to do this again, right? Alright, Nikki said. Id like that. If anything changes, Ill give you a call, Tony said, pushing his cup back as he stood up. Please stay and finish your cappuccino. Theres no hurry. Richard will put you in a cab when youre ready to go. Richard was at the table waiting for him, holding a briefcase in his hands. Take care of her for me, Tony said. My pleasure, Richard assured him. Tony turned to Nikki, with his eyes shining. Answer your phone Sunday! I will. * * *
When Richard returned, he was in good spirits, holding a cup of coffee. Pulling a chair out, he joined her at the table. Okay, he said. What did you think of him? Seems pretty wonderful, she said. How well do you know him? Hes been a good customer for three years. Comes in several times a weekhes a decent guy, generous with his tips, and always polite. This is his table? she asked, her face glowing in the candlelight. It is, he said. If I ask you personal questions about him, are you going to tell him I asked? No, he said. We dont have that kind of relationship. In the first place, he wouldnt ask me. Whats the second place? Im not sure Ive got that much information to share. Hes very private.
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