At six-thirty the morning after our joyride, Stone met me in the lobby of the Four Seasons wearing a baseball cap, and we snuck out the back entrance to his waiting SUV. I hadn’t considered that he couldn’t go anywhere anonymously when I arranged a place to meet up, but he was a good sport about it. We made it out unnoticed.
“Where are we off to at this early hour?” he asked once we were settled in the back seat. I gave the driver the Warren Street address of Muriella’s apartment, but if Stone recognized it, he didn’t say anything.
“You’ll see,” I said. “Any bold ideas on how to fix my problem?”
“That’s why I’m really here?” he said gravely, pretending to be wounded by putting a hand over his heart.
“In about twenty-five minutes you’ll find out why you’re here,” I corrected, and he grinned. Stone had a killer smile and was handsome as hell. He was built like a cowboy, and damn if he didn’t look good in a pair of jeans. The ones he had on that morning fit him like a glove. I was going to be mopping up Muriella’s drool.
Stone was a salt-of-the-earth kinda guy, didn’t disrespect women. “I got nothing, Vivian.” He sounded genuinely regretful. “If we could figure out what triggered this, then I think we’d have a better shot at getting you back where you belong.”
“That may be impossible,” I said, feeling defeated. “And just in case, you might want to watch your mouth. Cursing doesn’t bother me, but it’s rude to do in front of a lady,” I warned as we pulled up to the apartment building.
Light dawned in his eyes when the car came to a stop. “My mama raised a gentleman,” he informed me before climbing out and offering me a hand.
“Thank you, sir,” I said on the sidewalk beside him. If I couldn’t fix my own relationship, I hoped I could at least prod along one that needed a little shove. When I’d arranged this breakfast, I’d kept both of them in the dark. The element of surprise could be more fun, or it could royally suck.
Arms linked, we walked toward the building. Paul stepped in front of the door, shifting from one foot to the other nervously. “I’m sorry, Miss Vivian, but I’m not allowed to let you inside.”
“I’m here to see Muriella, not Mr. Elliott.”
He looked apologetic, like he hated having to do this. He should. The three of us had always treated him like a person, not a servant. “I have strict orders.”
“We both know he’s not here. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and you can’t keep me from Muriella,” I said firmly but not unkindly. Muriella had texted to tell me he was gone for real this time.
Paul looked uncertain, and I cursed Daniel for dragging yet another person into our drama. “I could be fired, Miss Vivian.”
“I won’t let that happen,” I promised.
He considered for a moment and then opened the door. “Go on in, but please keep it low-key.”
I patted his arm as we walked inside. “Thank you, Paul.”
“You know I’ve got a soft spot for you, Miss Vivian.”
I smiled at him, and Stone shook Paul’s hand before we made our way to the elevators. Every time I stepped into this building, it was odd being back in a place where I’d lived for so many years. In a way, I felt like a stranger, but mostly, it only intensified my longing for home.
“M ,” I called as I opened the front door.
“In the kitchen,” she yelled back.
Stone followed me from the foyer to the kitchen, which was the showpiece of this apartment.
I hugged her from behind. “Something smells good. I’m starving.”
She grinned without taking her eyes off the bacon she was frying. “That’s a big surprise.”
I swatted her playfully, and she laughed as I moved to the Sub-Zero refrigerator. “What would you like to drink, Stone?” The tongs Muriella held clattered on the counter before she whipped around in surprise.
“Hello, Muriella. I swear you get more beautiful every time I see you,” he greeted.
Her cheeks turned a deep pink. Stone never tried to hide his interest in her, but he kept it subtle for the most part.
She appeared frozen in place, and I stifled a smile. “Aren’t you going to say hello to your guest?” She shot me a dirty look as the fridge door shut behind me.
“This is a surprise.” Another look in my direction. “It’s been a long time, Stone.” She sounded miffed. “Seems like you’ve been busy. ”
I wanted to shout with glee that she was finally showing some sort of emotion toward him.
“Wasn’t sure anybody cared if I came to the city or not. I ran into Vivian last night, and she reminded me someone does.” He elbowed me in the ribs.
“Did you forget how to pick up a phone?”
Whoa . Muriella’s claws were out. She wasn’t one to put up with any bullshit, but this was a rare side of her.
He looked pleased as punch by her obvious irritation that he was only here because I’d run into him. “I would have last night, actually, but Vivian kept me out late. You’re stuck with me for a while, though. I’m here for the next couple of months on a shoot.” She looked like she wanted to pass out, and Stone’s grin widened. “Well, damn. You don’t have to look so excited, Muriella.”
“I need to check on the omelet.” One of her commercial ovens became the most interesting thing she’d ever seen as she poked about inside of it for longer than necessary before taking out the skillet.
I gave him a crooked grin and held out my hand for a discreet low five. “Want some milk?” I asked, getting back to serving up beverages.
There were only two places set on the island, and once I poured everyone a generous glass, I got out another placemat. When Daniel, Muriella, and I ate here, which was most nights, we sat so we could all see each other. I set it up that way and quickly took the lone barstool so M would be forced to sit next to Stone. The glare I got for that was vicious.
She served us omelets and bacon, and Stone said grace before the meal. They were perfect for each other.
“The Heart Ball is Wednesday,” she said, lifting her gaze to mine. It was the event of the year. Always held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was a fundraiser to help children with aortic complications. The ball pulled in tens of millions of dollars every year. Daniel was a big contributor because his mother had suffered from heart disease, though he did it anonymously. “I think the two of you should go together,” Muriella finished. “We need to make Daniel jealous. Give him a dose of his own medicine. Seeing you with another man…it would get to him.”
“Is there something you know that you’re not telling?” I asked accusingly.
“He’s not confiding in me, but I know him. There’s something not right about this whole situation. He loves you more than anything, and maybe if he thinks you’re moving on, he’ll come to his senses.” This was Daniel we were talking about. How many times had he reminded me he didn’t do jealous? “It upset you when he did it. I don’t think his reaction will be any different.”
“I’ll do it on one condition,” Stone said. Muriella and I looked at him quizzically. His hot gaze focused solely on M. “You go out on three dates with me.”
She sucked in a breath. “What? No. I-I can’t.” Her rejection was swift, but Stone recovered quickly.
“Sorry I can’t help you out this time, Vivian.”
Damn, he was good. Stone actually had me believing he meant that.
Muriella looked at him, at me, then back at him. “You really won’t go if I say no?”
“Afraid not, darlin’.”
She swallowed hard when he pulled out the big gun—that sexy Texas drawl. No woman was immune to that. “I’ll do it,” she said softly, cheeks flaming. I resisted the urge to pump my fist in the air. Clearly she was uncomfortable, but nonetheless willing to go to great lengths to make sure Daniel and I were happy. Okay, so there were worse things in life than going on three dates with Stone Jacobs, but the point was not lost on me.
Stone didn’t bother to hide his excitement, his smile brighter than the sun. “We’ll go on our first one tonight. We’ve already wasted enough time.” My heart jumped in hope for M at his words. She was affected, though she’d never admit it.
“No date until you go through with your end of the bargain,” she said firmly, spine straight. That’s my girl.
“Fair enough,” Stone said, some of the wind going out of his sails. “Thursday, then. I’ll pick you up for breakfast.”
“Fine,” she said, exasperated. She gave me a you-owe-me look, and I grinned.
“That’s a pretty damn smart idea you’ve concocted, Muriella,” Stone said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “If I saw the woman I loved with another man, that would get my ass in gear. But neither of you can get mad at me when he throws a punch and I have to defend myself.”
“I’ll take a big purse so I can carry boxing gloves with me,” I snickered.
We all laughed. Secretly, I hoped Daniel would have some sort of visceral reaction to seeing me with Stone. But it wasn’t likely. Daniel didn’t do jealous.
“I can’t believe I’m letting you two get me involved in this, but it’s for his own good. Daniel can be the most obstinate son of a bitch.”
“Stone,” Muriella chided, and he looked at her, oblivious.
“My apologies, Muriella.”
She nodded, placated. “I’m used to it with that one.” Her eyes cut over to me like a mother to an errant child, and I stuck my tongue out at her. “I’ve got the tickets to the ball in my office. I’ll confirm your names,” she said.
“You’re coming with us,” I insisted.
“No. It’s best if the two of you go without me. But you’re going to have to make it convincing if you want Daniel to believe you’re with each other.”
“Do you think it will work?” I asked, doubt suddenly filling me. If it doesn’t, will that mean it’s really over?
“We have to try,” she said. “Let’s get going so we’re not late to mass.”
The three of us stood, and Stone excused himself to the bathroom. As soon as he was out of earshot, I said, “Are you okay with this?”
She looked away. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Her response was defensive. Whether she admitted it or not, she had feelings for Stone I didn’t want to step on. The one thing I would not do was hurt Muriella to get Daniel back. “I’m not doing it. We’ll figure out another way—”
“Hush.” She put her index finger over my lips. “It’s not a real date. And it was my idea. I’d rather you be with him for the night than someone else.”
“M…” Sometimes I just didn’t think. “Stone doesn’t want anyone else but you.”
“Even if he did, I have no right to be upset.” But she would be. I could see it on that gorgeous face.
“What about the dates you agreed to?”
She pursed her lips. “I said I’d go.”
Stone reappeared. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” we answered simultaneously.
He arched a disbelieving brow but let it go as we left for church.