“I cashed it this afternoon.” She used to spend more each week at the dry cleaners than she’d received in her first paycheck from Rent-A-Maid. The entire amount had gone for food and transportation, and there were only a few dollars left. Her budget was tight, but she’d make it. She’d have to.
Nolan paused in front of her door and waited while she scrabbled through her bag, searching for the key. “I hear you typing at night,” she said. “Are you working on anything special?”
She eyed him curiously. “How fast do you type? Eighty words a minute? A hundred? And for heaven’s sake, why don’t you use a computer like everyone else?”
“Sixty words a minute on a good day. And for your information, I happen to like my electric. It may be old, but it does the job.”
She finally retrieved her key, conscious of his gaze on her hands.
Suddenly he grasped her fingers. “All right,” he demanded. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing’s happened to me,” Maryanne insisted hotly, pulling her hand free of Nolan’s.
“Look at your nails,” he said. “There isn’t one that’s not broken.”
“You make it sound like I should be dragged before a firing squad at dawn. So I chipped a few nails this week. I’ll survive.” Although she was making light of it, each broken fingernail was like a small loss. She took pride in her perfect nails, or at least she once had.
His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized her. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I didn’t realize you’d appointed yourself my father confessor.”
Anger flashed in his dark eyes as he took the key from her unresisting fingers. He opened the door and, with one hand at her shoulder, urged her inside. “We need to talk.”
“No, we don’t.” Maryanne marched into the apartment, plunked her bag of groceries on the kitchen counter and spun around to confront her neighbor. “Listen here, buster, you’ve made it perfectly clear that you don’t want anything to do with me. That’s your choice, and I’m certainly not going to bore you with the sorry details of my life.”
He ignored her words and started pacing the small living area, pausing in front of the window. His presence filled the apartment, making it seem smaller than usual. He pivoted sharply, pointing an accusatory finger in her direction. “These broken nails came from swinging a dust mop around, didn’t they? What the hell are you doing?”
Maryanne didn’t answer him right away. She was angry, and his sudden concern for her welfare made her even angrier. “I told you before, I don’t need a guardian.”
“Against my advice, you took that stupid job. Anyone with half a brain would know it wasn’t going to—”
“Will you stop acting like you’re responsible for me?” Maryanne snapped.
“I can’t help it. I am responsible for you. You wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t written that damn column. I don’t want to intrude on your life any more than you want me to, but let’s face it, there’s no one else to look out for you. Sooner or later someone’s going to take advantage of you.”
That did it. Maryanne stalked over to him and jabbed her index finger into his chest with enough force to bend what remained of her nail. “In case you need reminding, I’m my own woman. I make my own decisions. I’ll work any place I damn well please. Furthermore, I can take care of myself.” She whirled around and opened her front door. “Now kindly leave!”
“No?” she repeated.
“No,” he said again, returning to the window. He crossed his arms over his chest and sighed impatiently. “You haven’t eaten, have you? I can tell, because you get testy when you’re hungry.”
“If you’d leave my apartment the way I asked, that wouldn’t be a problem.”
“How about having dinner with me?”
The invitation took Maryanne by surprise. Her first impulse was to throw it back in his face. After an entire week of pretending she didn’t exist, he had a lot of nerve even asking.
“Well?” he prompted.
“Where?” As if that made a difference. Maryanne was famished, and the thought of sharing her meal with Nolan was more tempting than she wanted to admit, even to herself.
“Are you going to order chili?”
“Are you going to ask them to remove the non-existent bean sprouts from your sandwich?”
Maryanne hesitated. She felt confused by all her contradictory emotions. She was strongly attracted to Nolan and every time they were together she caught herself hoping they could become friends—more than friends. But, equally often, he infuriated her or left her feeling depressed. He made the most outlandish remarks to her. He seemed to have appointed himself her guardian. When he wasn’t issuing decrees, he neglected her as if she were nothing more than a nuisance. And to provide a finishing touch, she was lying to her parents because of him! Well, maybe that wasn’t quite fair, but…
“I’ll throw in dessert,” he coaxed with a smile.
That smile was her Waterloo, yet she still struggled. “A la mode?”
His grin widened. “You drive a hard bargain.”
Maryanne’s eyes met his and although Nolan could make her angrier than anyone she’d ever known, a smile trembled on her own lips.
They agreed to meet a half-hour later. That gave Maryanne time to unpack her groceries, change clothes and freshen her make-up. She found herself humming as she applied lip gloss, wondering if she was reading too much into this impromptu dinner date.
When Nolan came to her door to pick her up, Maryanne noted that he’d changed into jeans and a fisherman’s sweater. It was the first time she’d seen him without the raincoat, other than the day he’d played basketball with the neighborhood boys. He looked good. All right, she admitted grudgingly, he looked fantastic.
“You dressed up,” she said before she could stop herself, grateful she’d understated her attraction to him.
“So did you. You look nice.”
“Before I forget to tell you, word has it the elevator’s going to be fixed Monday morning.”
“Really? That’s the best news I’ve heard all week.” Goodness, could she take all these glad tidings at once? First Nolan had actually invited her out on a date, and now she wouldn’t have to hike up four flights of stairs every afternoon. Life was indeed treating her well.
They were several blocks from the apartment building before Maryanne realized Nolan was driving in the opposite direction of the diner. She said as much.
“Do you like Chinese food?” he asked.
“I love it.”
“The diner’s short-staffed—one of the waitresses quit. I thought Chinese food might be interesting, and I promise we won’t have to wait for a table.”
It sounded heavenly to Maryanne. She didn’t know how significant Nolan’s decision to take her to a different restaurant might be. Perhaps it was foolish, but Maryanne hoped it meant she was becoming special to him. As if he could read her mind, Nolan was unusually quiet on the drive into Seattle’s International District.
So much for romance. Maryanne could almost hear his thoughts. If she were a betting woman, she’d place odds on the way their dinner conversation would go. First Nolan would try to find out exactly what tasks had been assigned to her by Rent-A-Maid. Then he’d try to convince her to quit.
Only she wasn’t going to let him. She was her own woman, and she’d said it often enough to convince herself. If this newsman thought he could sway her with a fancy dinner and a few well-spoken words, then he was about to learn a valuable lesson.
The restaurant proved to be a Chinese version of the greasy spoon where Nolan ate regularly. The minute they walked into the small room, Maryanne was greeted by a wide variety of tantalizing scents. Pungent spices and oils wafted through the air, and the smells were so appealing it was all she could do not to follow them into the kitchen. She knew before sampling a single bite that the food would be some of the best Asian cuisine she’d ever tasted.
An elderly Chinese gentleman greeted Nolan as if he were a long-lost relative. The two shared a brief exchange in Chinese before the man escorted them to a table. He shouted into the kitchen, and a brightly painted ceramic pot of tea was quickly delivered to their table.
Nolan and Maryanne were never given menus. Almost from the moment they were seated, food began appearing on their table. An appetizer plate came first, with several items Maryanne couldn’t readily identify. But she was too hungry to care. Everything was delicious and she happily devoured one after another.
“You seem well acquainted with the waiter,” Maryanne commented, once the appetizer plate was empty. She barely had time to catch her breath before a bowl of thick spicy soup was brought to them by the same elderly gentleman. He paused and smiled proudly at Nolan, then glanced at Maryanne, before nodding in a profound way.
“Wong Su’s the owner. I went to school with his son.”
“Is that where you picked up Chinese?”
“Yes. I only know a few words, just enough to get the gist of what he’s saying,” he answered brusquely, reaching for his spoon.
“What was it he said when we first came in? I noticed you seemed quick to disagree with him.”
Nolan dipped his spoon into the soup, ignoring her question.
“He said you’re too thin.”
Maryanne shook her head, immediately aware that he was lying. “If he really thought that, you’d have agreed with him.”
“All right, all right,” Nolan muttered, looking severely displeased. “I should’ve known better than to bring a woman to Wong Su’s place. He assumed there was something romantic between us. He said you’d give me many fine sons.”
Nolan reacted instantly to her words. He dropped his spoon beside the bowl with a clatter, planted his elbows on the table and glared at her heatedly. “Now don’t go all sentimental on me. There’s nothing between us and there never will be.”
Maryanne promptly saluted. “Aye, aye, Captain,” she mocked.
“Good. Well, now that’s settled, tell me about your week.”
“Tell me about yours,” she countered, unwilling to change the subject to herself quite so easily. “You seemed a whole lot busier than I was.”
“I went to work, came home…”
“…worked some more,” she finished for him. Another plate, heaped high with sizzling hot chicken and crisp vegetables, was brought by Wong Su, who offered Maryanne a grin.
Nolan frowned at his friend and said something in Chinese that caused the older man to laugh outright. When Nolan returned his attention to Maryanne, he was scowling again. “For heaven’s sake, don’t encourage him.”
“What did I do?” To the best of her knowledge she was innocent of any wrongdoing.