“Get your mind out of the gutter, Adams. I’m going to work six hours a day cleaning homes and offices and I’ll spend the rest of the time doing research for my articles. Oh, and before I forget, I gave your name as a reference.”
“You’re going to go back and tell whoever hired you that you’re terribly sorry, but you won’t be able to work there, after all,” Nolan said, and the hard set of his mouth told her he brooked no argument.
Maryanne was saved from having to say she had no intention of quitting, because the waitress, bless her heart, appeared with their orders at precisely that moment.
“Now what about an apartment?” Maryanne asked. After his comment about living in a safe neighborhood, she was more than willing to let him locate one for her. “Have you had a chance to check into that for me?”
“I hope you didn’t give your notice at The Seattle.”
Swallowing a bite of her sandwich, Maryanne nodded eagerly. “First thing this morning. I told them I’d be out by the fifteenth, which, in case you were unaware of it, happens to be early next week.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“I can’t afford the place! And I won’t be able to eat in restaurants everyday or take cabs or buy things whenever I want them.” She smiled proudly as she said it. Money had never been a problem in her life—it had sometimes been an issue, but never a problem. She felt invigorated just thinking about her new status.
“Will you stop grinning at me like that?” Nolan burst out.
“Sorry, it’s sort of a novelty to say I can’t afford something, that’s all,” she explained. “It actually feels kind of good.”
“In a couple of weeks it’s going to feel like hell.” Nolan’s face spelled out apprehension and gloom.
“Then I’ll learn that for myself.” She noticed he hadn’t touched his meal. “Go ahead and eat your chili before it gets cold.”
“I’ve lost my appetite.” He immediately contradicted himself by grabbing a small bottle of hot sauce and dousing the chili with several hard shakes.
“Now did you or did you not find me a furnished studio apartment to look at this afternoon?” Maryanne pressed.
“I found one. It’s nothing like you’re used to, so be prepared. I’ll take you there once we’re finished lunch.”
“Tell me about it,” Maryanne said eagerly.
“There’s one main room, small kitchen, smaller bathroom, tiny closet, no dishwasher.” He paused as if he expected her to jump to her feet and tell him the whole thing was off.
“Go on,” she said, reaching for her soda.
“The floors are pretty worn but they’re hardwood.”
“That’ll be nice.” She didn’t know if she’d ever lived in a place that didn’t have carpeting, but she’d adjust.
“The furniture’s solid enough. It’s old and weighs a ton, but I don’t know how comfortable it is.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’ll be working just about every day, so I can’t see that there’ll be a problem,” Maryanne returned absently. As soon as she’d spoken, she realized her mistake.
Nolan stabbed his spoon into the chili. “You seem to have forgotten you’re resuming your job hunt. You won’t be working for Rent-A-Maid, and that’s final.”
“You sound like a parent again. I’m old enough to know what I can and can’t do, and I’m going to take that job whether you like it or not, and that’s final.”
His eyes narrowed. “We’ll see.”
“Yes, we will,” she retorted. Nolan might be an astute journalist, but there were several things he had yet to learn about her, and one of them was her stubborn streak. The thought produced a small smile as she realized she was thinking of him in a way that suggested a long-term friendship. He was right when he said they stood on opposite sides of the fence on most issues. He was also right when he claimed they had no business being friends. Nevertheless, Nolan Adams was the most intriguing man she’d ever met.
Once they’d finished their meal, Nolan reached for the bill, but Maryanne insisted on splitting it. He clearly wasn’t pleased about that but let it pass. Apparently he wasn’t going to argue with her, which suited Maryanne just fine. He escorted her to his car, parked outside the diner, and Maryanne slid inside, absurdly pleased that he’d cleaned up the front seat for her.
Nolan hesitated when he joined her, his hands on the steering wheel. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
“I was afraid you were going to say that.” His mouth twisted. “I can’t believe I’m aiding and abetting this nonsense.”
“You’re my friend, and I’m grateful.”
Without another word, he started the engine.
“Where’s the apartment?” Maryanne asked as the car progressed up the steep Seattle hills. “I mean, what neighborhood?”
“Oh, how nice. Isn’t that the same part of town you live in?” It wasn’t all that far from The Seattle, either, which meant she’d still have the same telephone exchange. Maybe she could even keep her current number.
“Yes,” he muttered. He didn’t seem to be in the mood for conversation and kept his attention on his driving, instead. He pulled into a parking lot behind an eight-storey post-World War II brick building. “The apartment’s on the fourth floor.”
“That’ll be fine.” She climbed out of the car and stared at the old structure. The Dumpster was backed against the wall and full to overflowing. Maryanne had to step around it before entering by a side door. Apparently there was no elevator, and by the time they reached the fourth floor she was so winded she couldn’t have found the breath to complain, anyway.
“The manager gave me the key,” Nolan explained as he paused in the hallway and unlocked the second door on the right. Nolan wasn’t even breathing hard, while Maryanne was leaning against the wall, dragging deep breaths into her oxygen-starved lungs.
Nolan opened the door and waved her in. “As I said, it’s not much.”
Maryanne walked inside and was struck by the sparseness of the furnishings. One overstuffed sofa and one end table with a lamp on a dull stained-wood floor. She blinked, squared her shoulders and forced a smile to her lips. “It’s perfect.”
“You honestly think you can live here after The Seattle?” He sounded incredulous.
“Yes, I do,” she said with a determination that would’ve made generations of Simpsons proud. “How far away is your place?”
Nolan walked over to the window, his back to her. He exhaled sharply before he announced, “I live in the apartment next door.”
“I don’t need a baby-sitter,” Maryanne protested. She had some trouble maintaining the conviction in her voice. In truth, she was pleased to learn that Nolan’s apartment was next door, and her heart did a little jig all its own.
Nolan turned away from the window. His mouth was set in a thin straight line, as if he was going against his better judgment in arranging this. “That night at the radio station,” he mumbled softly. “I knew it then.”
Slowly, he shook his head, apparently lost in his musings. “I took one look at you and deep down inside I heard a small voice cry out, ‘Here comes trouble.’”
Despite his fierce expression, Maryanne laughed.
“Like a fool I ignored it, although Lord only knows how I could have.”
“You’re not blaming me for all this, are you?” Maryanne asked, placing her hands on her hips, prepared to do battle. “In case you’ve forgotten, you’re the one who invited yourself to dinner that night. Then you got me all mellow with wine—”
“You were the one who brought out the bottle. You can’t blame me for that.” He was muttering again and buried his hands deep in the pockets of his raincoat.
“I was only being a good hostess.”
“All right, all right, I get the picture,” he said through clenched teeth, shaking his head again. “I was the one stupid enough to write that column afterward. I’d give a week’s pay to take it all back. No, make that a month’s pay. This is the last time,” he vowed, “that I’m ever going to set the record straight. Any record.” He jerked his hand from his pocket and stared at it.
Maryanne crossed to the large overstuffed sofa covered with faded chintz fabric and ran her hand along the armrest. It was nearly threadbare in places and nothing like the supple white leather of her sofa at The Seattle. “I wish you’d stop worrying about me. I’m not as fragile as I look.”
Nolan snickered softly. “A dust ball could bowl you over.”
A ready argument sprang to her lips, but she quickly swallowed it. “I’ll take the apartment, but I want it understood, right now, that you have no responsibilities toward me. I’m a big girl and I’ll manage perfectly well on my own. I have in the past and I’ll continue to do so in the future.”
Nolan didn’t respond. Instead he grumbled something she couldn’t hear. He seemed to be doing a lot of that since he’d met her. Maybe it was a long-established habit, but somehow she doubted it.
Nolan drove her back to The Seattle, and the whole way there Maryanne could hardly contain a feeling of delight. For the first time, she was taking control of her own life. Nolan, however, was obviously experiencing no such enthusiasm.
“Do I need to sign anything for the apartment? What about a deposit?”
“You can do that later. You realize this studio apartment is the smallest one in the entire building? My own apartment is three times that size.”
“Would you stop worrying?” Maryanne told him. A growing sense of purpose filled her, and a keen exhilaration unlike anything she’d ever felt.
Nolan pulled into the circular driveway at her building. “Do you want to come up for a few minutes?” she asked.
His dark eyes widened as if she’d casually suggested they play a round of Russian roulette. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
He held up both hands. “No way. Before long, you’ll be serving wine and we’ll be talking like old friends. Then I’ll go home thinking about you, and before I know how it happened—” He stopped abruptly. “No, thanks.”
“Goodbye, then,” she said, disappointed. “I’ll see you later.”
“Right. Later.” But the way he said it suggested that if he didn’t stumble upon her for a decade or two it would be fine with him.
Maryanne climbed out of his car and was about to close the door when she hesitated. “Nolan?”
“Now what?” he barked.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Predictably, he started mumbling and drove off the instant she closed the door. In spite of his sour mood, Maryanne found herself smiling.